Welcoming a Foster Child: Language, Ownership and Respect Prove Key

The recent study, “Foster Parent Strategies to Support the Functional Adaptation of Foster Youth” aims to shed light on practices that foster families have implemented to help a foster child successfully transition into a new home.

Authors Annette Semanchin Jones, Barbara Rittner and Melissa Affronti explain that while foster parents have a variety of resources to prepare them for the first steps of bringing a child into their care, little has been published about behaviors foster parents implement to best help a child in transition. They sought to determine “how foster parents and children developed committed relationships from the foster parents’ perspective.”

For the foundation of this study, researchers conducted focus groups and in-depth interviews with 35 certified, experienced foster parents. Themes they noted came from a discussion of the success stories of children coming into their homes. They identified the following seven trends:

  • Settling In: To help a child settle in, foster parents referenced taking the time to help the child settle into the home. This included doing things like helping the child personalize their room, and taking them to the grocery store to buy their favorite foods. Many enlisted the help of other children in the house to connect with a new foster child and help them feel more comfortable with their relationship with the parents. The interviewees also discussed the ways in which they might be tested by the foster child, to see how far a parent can be pushed and still be there for them. Parents set the new relationship up for success by using language from the beginning that this is “our house,” not “my house,” to emphasize security and belonging for the child.
  • Claiming language from the foster child: A common thread in the interviews was the language a child uses, and the ways in which it reveals their comfort level in the placement. For example, one parent noticed when their child switched from using the phrase going to “the house” to “going home” and felt that this represented positive growth of their relationship. Interviewees also believed that it was important to take the child’s lead and not push them to use language that was not their own, such as making them call a foster parent “mom” or “dad” before they’re ready (or at all).
  • Claiming language by the foster parent: This is also crucial, with interviewees stressing that it is important to call them your child, and not foster child. One woman shared that she always made sure to have pictures of her foster children fully integrated into her home alongside pictures of her biological family. When visitors would ask which ones were “hers,” she would say that all of them were her children.
  • Establishing routines: Routines were identified as a critical component to helping a child adapt to their new environment. This discussion ranged from the need to implement consistent bed times and meal times to expectations such as doing chores around the house.
  • School and neighborhood adjustment: Helping a child adjust to a new school and neighborhood environment was one of the bigger challenges many families discussed and they emphasized the need to “actively fight” for the services for a child, like support from school leadership and individual education programs. These foster parents worked to help the child maintain relationships from before they were placed in foster care, including driving them to see old friends and siblings in many cases.
  • Relationship with the child’s birth family: Interviewees highlighted how important it was to remember that a child’s relationship with their birth family is very complex, and will bring out equally complex emotions that can include acting out. In light of that, foster parents should try to parent in a way that “honors the birth family,” and also shows the child that it’s okay to love their birth family and their foster family.
  • Frustration with the child welfare system: While this wasn’t a practice particular to helping a child adapt, it is something that interviewees discussed the need to be prepared for. Researchers note that “several foster parents were stymied by the unpredictability of the family court system.” Many felt that in the future, the ability to learn information such as prior school details, health or mental health problems that their children have faced in the past before being placed in their care would help them support their foster children adapt into a new environment more easily.

Exploring the trends that emerged in these focus groups and interviews highlights certain practices that foster parents can implement to help children feel comfortable and safe in a new environment, and set them up for more long-term success in their foster home. Researchers feel that a next step to grow the knowledge base around best practices of foster parents could be to scale this study and explore the issue from a broader base of foster families.

To read the study in full, click here.

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Elizabeth Green
About Elizabeth Green 43 Articles
Elizabeth Green is the community outreach and education manager for Fostering Media Connections, and a general assignment reporter for The Chronicle of Social Change.