The name of the foster parent has been changed to respect privacy and confidentiality.
Becoming a foster parent is an incredible journey – not just for yourself but your entire family, especially your "bio children". Thinking about how to transition a new person into everyday life at your home can feel exciting and overwhelming all at the same time.
While every family is unique, staff and foster parent members of the Calgary and District Foster Parent Association (CFPA) are a huge support in preparing your loved ones for a new addition. With valuable lived experience, CFPA member Sarah is a foster parent who has transitioned multiple foster kids into her family. She knows the challenges and rewards of fostering as well as the importance of experienced members of the community - and that's why she's shared some of her family's tips with us! Read on to learn about how you can prepare your home for a successful transition into fostering.
1. Ensure Your Bio Children are part of Deciding to Foster
"We have a home to share and provide a safe, loving environment. Our family has a heart for vulnerable kids," says Sarah when describing early discussions with her family about the decision to foster. One of the biggest fears that Sarah had when first fostering was how it would affect her biological children. She recalls wondering: "Would they end up resenting the fact that we fostered, or would it be a positive experience?".
Sarah describes this first step as an essential one to a smooth transition: "Whenever possible, we include our children in the decision to say yes to bringing another child into the home".
It is fair to say that every child in care is experiencing incredible change, instability, and uncertainty bringing complex emotional and sometimes medical needs. Bringing a foster child into a new home will no doubt result in changes to the family dynamic which can be stressful and in some cases, the adjustment period can border on chaotic.
Make sure your bio children don't feel like a lesser priority or feel resentment when they have to share their parent's attention, the physical spaces in the home, or things like toys and clothes. Help them understand their role within the foster journey and consider their feelings and openness to change - make sure you don't turn their entire world upside-down. Something seemingly inconsequential, like losing their usual place at the dinner table, could lead to resentment.
Talk about their personal role in the fostering journey. What will change, how they can contribute and share, acknowledge their sacrifices and make sure to take time each week to give them some individual attention and care.
2. Openly Communicate
Sarah suggests explaining fostering to your children in "an age-appropriate way". Talk openly about any issues that may come up with a new foster child, such as behavioural or medical ones and explain how they will be managed as a family.
Describing the realities of fostering – including why they may see certain behaviours - and how situations may be handled – helps children better adapt to a new foster sibling. One of the first things Sarah outlines to her children is: "All children coming into care come from a place of trauma (being placed in foster care is traumatic, never mind the circumstances that brought them to you)".
She also explains that all children – both the biological child and foster child will be treated equally: "I think that a family has to decide from the beginning that siding with your biological child is just not an option. We tend to have the mindset that if a child is in our home, then they are our child, and everyone is equal. While we recognize that we are not replacing their biological family, we are stepping into that parenting role for a time".
3. Arm your Children with Decision-Making Tasks
The techniques you use to incorporate your new foster child into your family will impact how involved and valued both your foster child and biological children feel. Sarah says that no matter what the age, she often found that biological children are the best at making a foster child feel at ease and they seem to be natural at it.
She suggests arming biological kids with decision-making tasks around the home – by first helping to set up the house or the foster child's room before they arrive, and then taking the lead in showing the foster child around the home once they move in.
It's also equally as important to bring your foster child into the family routines. Assign them chores just like the other kids. And, make sure to have fun when assigning tasks! "Have a movie night and let the child choose the movie or have a family games night complete with making your own individual pizzas and have everyone help prep the toppings". It's bonding moments such as these that help foster children know they have a place and are valued in their new home.
4. Transitioning After A Foster Child Is Returned to Their Biological Family
Every family deals with transitions differently but Sarah says it is key to start discussing this event with your children before the foster child is reunited. She suggests trying to make it positive and special by having a goodbye party. Once the child has left, have a plan to do something fun and different that helps your core family regroup.
After a particularly difficult transition, Sarah took her biological kids to Disneyland. Other times she has planned a day trip somewhere and had the children decide where to go. The most important thing is to check in with your biological children often to see how they're processing things emotionally and allow them to take the time to grieve. Sarah described the grieving process as different for each foster family: "Take the time to grieve. For some families, that time is short, and they like to jump back into fostering right away. Other families like ours, need time to adjust and refocus; we usually take about three months off between foster placements and check in with our children to see if they are ready to have another foster sibling before saying yes to another child".
5. Stay Positive and Check in with your Foster Parent Mentors
Sarah can't speak enough about the role of a foster mentor to help both your family and your foster child transition. When she first decided to foster, she was thrilled to learn that CFPA offers to work with a foster parent to provide mentorship to new families. This mentor can be helpful with anything from learning to understand your biological child's perspective (such as whether there is resentment or jealousy towards a foster child) navigating the foster care system and how to prepare for saying goodbye to a foster child when they leave. Throughout it all – a foster mentor can be the person who reminds you that "nothing worth doing is ever easy".
Through the experience of fostering, Sarah says she has watched her biological children become even more caring and compassionate – both as a core family, with their friends, and with their foster siblings. When anyone asks her about whether or not fostering is worth it - her answer is always – "absolutely!".
Incorporating a foster child into your family can be a challenge but is also incredibly rewarding. Working together as a family, you can make sure that all transitions are a positive experience for everyone. For more fostering support and resources check out our website at caring4kids.ca. Want to stay up to date with foster parenting in Calgary and the surrounding area? Follow-us on Facebook and Twitter.