Foster parents and caregivers let me first start off with saying, Thank you.
Thank you for opening up your homes and hearts to the youth you agree to take into your household. I can only imagine that it is not easy to bring children and adolescents into your home that you may know little about. It may be a scary and nerve racking experience, many of you not having information about the foster youth who you are welcoming into your homes, but this scary experience that you may be feeling, is also what many foster youth are also experiencing. For some foster children or adolescents, living in a stranger’s home is an overwhelmingly new experience and for others, this has been their way of life – another month-another home. Foster children and adolescents are typically experiencing an array of emotions, scared, angry, sad, hurt, anxious, powerless, hopeless, and the list goes on and on, and these emotions can be felt all at once. Here they are, not living at home with their families, pets, siblings, and familiar surroundings, and now, they get to live in someone else’s house, many of the youth, missing aspects of their lives they had just been forced away from.
From 2011 through 2015, I had worked in Sacramento, California as a Social Worker at a local shelter. The children and adolescents, who I had worked with, resided in the shelter in dorms. Some of the youth I had worked with, had been removed from their homes by Child Protective Services just hours before coming into care; other youth were dependents already and they were removed from their previous placement, for various reasons – guardianship rights were given up, seven day notice expired, youth was a runaway, just wasn’t a good match between foster youth and foster parent, etc.
Regardless of where the foster children and youth came from in terms of placement or the trauma they had experienced which brought them into foster care or unfortunately while they were in foster care, I tended to see the same incredible quality within them – they were all resilient and my witness of their resiliency created a level of passion within my heart that I had never experienced before, as the honor and privilege of working with foster youth, continued to grow over the years and has contributed to my writing this article. One of the aspects of my position as their Social Worker was to help introduce the foster youth who were living at the shelter to the potential foster parent, supporting the youth(s) throughout the placement process and advocating where I could, if it did not seem like a good match. I have created a list of guidelines that I have witnessed as being some of the most effective manners to help transition a foster child or teenager into your home help decrease the level of their anxiety or fear, and to help contribute to a successful placement.
Every home is quite different which I believe is something many of us don’t think about until we have moved around many times or are no longer living in what we consider our home. Some homes are apartments, townhomes, one story houses, or two story houses, etc.
Houses are literally set up differently – furniture is arranged in different areas, some homes have a family room and living room, and others have it all included as one; the location of the bedrooms and bathrooms are in different areas depending upon the house layout, and so on. Every home has different rules and expectations. Your rules and expectations may not be vastly different than the previous placement a youth was residing in, but they are still different. It is important when a youth enters your home for the first time, assist them in feeling a little more comfortable by giving them the grand tour, showing them around the house – make sure to show them key areas like where the bathrooms are located, point out which bed and dresser belongs to them if they are sharing a room with someone, etc.
It would also be a good idea to also give the youth some ideas about how your home is run such as what way does the toilet paper roll face; can they put their wet towel on any towel rack or do they have one specific for them; can they put the dishes in the sink after eating or should they be washed right away. These expectations and culture of your home makes your home unique, and when you walk into a home for the first time, you have no idea what to expect or to know what is important to the caregivers which can add to the anxiety they may already being feeling.
Talking with the youth about the routines of your home is also a great way to help the youth feel a little more at ease living in this new unfamiliar territory.
Some routines which are important to address, include the daily routines and schedule, such as what time are the kids expected to wakes up by on a school day; whether they need to wake up at the same time on the weekends as they do school days or can he or she sleep in until they naturally wake up?; does everyone in the home eat dinner together and if so, what time does that occur?; can he or she go into the kitchen and make something to eat or snack on whenever they are hungry or do you have some guidelines around that? Do beds need to be made before going to school or is it okay to complete the daily chores when they get home? What are their chores? If this is the first time a youth is completing a chore in your home, it would be helpful to show them how the chore is to be completed, since some foster parents prefer chores to be completed in a certain way and by showing the children and adolescents how the chore is to be completed, helps demonstrate your expectations for them to follow. Youth also may not have been taught in the past how to complete certain chores, so expecting them to do it in your home or assuming they know how to make their bed, without guiding them first, may contribute to creating some unnecessary tension or misunderstandings.
As mentioned earlier, every home and foster placement is different, so walking the foster youth in your home, through your guidelines and expectations can help the youth begin to understand where your boundaries are and what is expected of them, while living in your home. It would also be a great idea to write down and post the most important rules or expectations you have in your home, in at least one, possibly two locations of your home, so the youth can easily be reminded of them since they are posted.
When they are moving from foster placement to foster placement, it may be difficult to remember the rules and expectations of your home and not accidentally mix them up with the ones that were discussed in homes they had lived in prior.
Getting back to speaking of boundaries, many of you know, children and adolescents are great at testing them. Some foster youth may test them, unconsciously seeing if the consequences of their behavior will be the same as they had previously experienced with their family or in the previous placement they lived in.
Some youth test boundaries to see if they bend or if they are a fine line which you will follow through with. This time can be an incredibly tough time for them; many foster youth feel powerless, out of control, and alone, because they feel they do not have any control in the decisions that are being made about their lives – where they live, who they live with, when and which family members they can see, level of visitation supervision, what school they may attend, etc. Please keep all of this in mind when the youth are testing your boundaries. Children and adolescents testing boundaries is also part of their development – they are trying to figure out where they exist in this world and do you really care about them and if your actions correspond with your words.
They are hurting and have been through more than many of us can fathom or relate to, experiencing traumas that will always stay with them. Compassion, empathy, and validation goes a long way with… most people, but especially foster children and adolescents. Some youth will want to be left alone initially and some may want to spend time with others in the home. Meet them where they are at with their process, because we all process situations differently.
Avoid saying “I know what you are going through” – even if you had a similar experience as they did, it does not mean you are feeling or went through the same things as they are. Compassion, empathy, and validation goes beyond the words we use, but is demonstrated with our actions as well. Follow through is huge. Following through on what you say you are going to do is important for so many reasons as it helps have a better understanding of your boundaries, and can assist with decreasing power struggles since the youth know that you will follow through with what you said. If you tell the youth he or she can have a friend over Friday night and Friday night comes around and you tell the youth that they cannot have the friend over because their room isn’t clean, there is a good chance this will create a situation between you and the youth, unless that was something you clearly defined when you told them they could have the friend over.
Throwing in consequences or assuming the youth knows the cleanliness of their room is tied to their friend coming over is not helpful in building the trusting relationship between you and the foster youth. If you say that you are going to go to sign them up for dance classes or take them out to the movies, please follow through because then, you are one less person in their life that is contributing to letting them down; one less person making empty promises, and demonstrating through their behavior that they are not important.
As we all know, trust takes time to be built, especially with foster youth who have many reasons not to trust because they have been hurt by the people closest to them, who they trusted to keep them safe and take care of them. In order to begin the process of building a trusting relationship, in addition to follow through, check in with the youth about what they have and what they need. There are many youth who, if they were just removed from their family home, do not have many clothes, do not have school supplies, do not have hygiene products, etc.
If the child or teenager just changed placements, their personal belongings may be stuck in limbo somewhere, without them knowing if they will ever get them back. Talking with the youth about what they have, what they need, and assisting in getting these items can go a long way with beginning to create a trusting relationship.
I understand that this may be financially difficult to do, especially when they are just coming into your home, but from my experience, as a Social Worker, it can be one of the most important ways of beginning to build a positive relationship and also demonstrate your follow-through abilities. If nothing else, at the end of the day, they know they have their personal belongings and you never know what items, as small as they may be to us, mean so much to them and are incredibly important for them to have.
Having a variety of clothes to choose from, school supplies to adequately be prepared to go back to school, familiar hygiene products helps give them a sense of normalcy during the turmoil and can help them to feel like a kid again, giving them one less thing to have to focus on or worry about. Having these items also assists them in presenting in a way which doesn’t remind them every second that they are a foster kid and don’t have a home. Going to school, wearing the same clothes every other day can only add to the ridicule by peers or concerns by the teachers and the youth do not need that added stress with everything else that is going on in their lives.
One final thought with helping foster youth transition into your home – don’t forget about yourself as well. Taking care of yourself and making sure you are not neglecting yourself is important, as we cannot adequately take care of someone else if we are also not taken care of. Be mindful of your thoughts, feelings, and tensions. If you had a struggle of a day, noticing how you are feeling can help prevent you from reacting in a situation. Maybe take a five minute break in your bedroom to take space from a frustrating situation. Practice stress management and relaxation techniques such as belly breathing exercises, guided imagery meditations, drinking hot tea, taking a hot shower, etc. Reach out to your support people and talk with them, whether that is a family member, a friend, or your agency social worker. Taking care of others is difficult and can take a toll on you, without you even knowing it. Be aware of where you are at so you can best help the foster youth.