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You receive a call from the child protection specialist asking to place a child in need of foster care with your family today. You are probably experiencing a range of emotions – excited, nervous, and a little scared, all of which are completely normal. For weeks and months leading up to this day you have been preparing for a child in need of foster care to join your family (See: Preparing for a Child in Foster Care). Today is the day! This document provides guidance, tips, and suggestions about how to navigate the first 24 hours, the first week, and the first six weeks of having a child in foster care join your family.
The First 24 Hours
From the moment a child in foster care steps into your home, that child’s life has changed. Before today, the child’s life was familiar – a familiar environment, familiar smells, and familiar people. Now, everything is new and different. Nothing is the same. They are in a new place with different people. This is a scary and unsettling time. A child’s reaction to this huge change can vary with a range of emotions including confusion, anger, fear, and sadness.
Consider what this time must feel like for the child. Put yourself in their shoes and try to see the situation from the child’s perspective. Ask yourself, “How can I make the first 24 hours feel safe, supportive, and nurturing for this child?”
- Start at the beginning. Think about your very first actions by putting yourself in the child’s shoes and thinking about how you would feel. This is a new environment with new people, and you are expected to stay in that new environment with those new people for an undetermined amount of time in which you have no control in determining. Consider how you would want to be approached in this situation. Consider how you now can make this situation less scary and more welcoming for your child in foster care.
- Introduce yourself and the other family members living in your home including pets.1
- Don’t expect the child to remember everyone’s names. Their brain may be in fight or flight mode and unable to transfer information into their long-term memory effectively.
- Give a short tour of your home and show them their personal space and other important spaces like the bathroom and kitchen.1 During the tour, point out items that they might want to play with such as toys or where there are books to read.
Offer a child friendly meal or snack.1 Consider comfort foods that are kid friendly such as chicken nuggets, pizza, or a cookie.
Review the Foster Parent Code of Ethics (https://nfpaonline.org/Ethics) as a gentle reminder of your role as a foster parent.
- Establish expectations that are age appropriate. The child needs a safe, structured, consistent environment, and establishing expectations is a step toward creating that environment. Keep expectations simple to start. As everyone begins to adjust in the first few days, you can engage your child in foster care in a more in-depth discussion of household expectations. But for now, keep it simple.
- In time, consider getting their input and creating expectations and consequences together. You can create ownership and buy in to the rules and expectations by asking open-ended questions. You’ll prompt your child’s thinking. You’ll also begin to better understand their thoughts, feelings, and challenges related to rules so that you can address them.
- In some instances, children who are in the foster care system may not have learned to follow simple rules or how to do everyday tasks like making their bed or brushing their teeth. Rules and expectations can allow opportunities for learning, teaching, monitoring, and recognizing effort.
- Be available and approachable. The child who has just joined your family has experienced a distressing event. The child might be feeling angry, sad, scared, and lonely. Or they might feel anxious, scattered, and relieved. All their feelings are appropriate. Your job is to be available and approachable. Some children might want to talk about the situation, and others might need quiet time to reflect. You could say, “I am here if you want to talk, but it is okay if you don’t want to talk about it right now. You can come to me at any time.” Sometimes, simply being around and present as the child engages in play or another activity is reassuring and comforting.
- Offer plenty of down time. Consider limiting the number of scheduled commitments you have. Your child in foster care has just experienced a dramatic change in their life. Rest is important.
Be mindful of what you choose to say as a foster parent. Do not say anything that would be hurtful about the child’s family of origin, history, or past experiences. Reassure them that you are on board to help in any way you can to reunify them with their family.
Be careful not to present yourself as overjoyed or too excited that they are now in your home. Because they have just been removed from their family, they may not share the same excitement and feelings you have.2 Focus on making sure they feel safe and welcome.
If the child is of school age, discuss which school they will be attending, especially if the school will be new to them. Schedule a time that your child in foster care can meet the new teacher and make a visit to the school before attending.
The First Week
The first week with your child can be a rollercoaster of events, changes, and emotions. It can be positive and rewarding but also exhausting. You are both getting to know each other, and your relationship is new. Both you and your child in foster care are in the process of transitioning into a new role. It is common during this transition for your child in foster care to test limits. Your role as a foster parent is to provide a safe, stable, and nurturing environment in which your child can thrive.
- Keep a positive attitude and recognize that everyone is learning.
- Check in with your child often and offer to talk and listen. Follow the child’s lead. Offer opportunities to talk, but don’t force conversations.
- Begin a more in-depth discussion of household expectations and include the child in creating those expectations.
- Start to establish a predictable routine. Establishing a routine can help everyone. Eating meals, doing homework, doing chores, and waking up and going to bed at predictable times are ways to begin establishing a routine.
- Plan to attend several important meetings. You can expect to have a court hearing, a meeting with the case worker, an interdisciplinary team meeting, a family of origin visit (when appropriate), and a meeting with the attorney or guardian ad litem (GAL).
Keep your child informed about meetings and appointments. Prepare them and check in. You could ask “How are you feeling? Are you nervous? How can I support you?”
- Ask a lot of questions, so you can better support and care for your child in foster care.
- Communication is essential to make sure your child in foster care receives the services they need.
Stay organized. Write appointments down and keep a tidy schedule.
Know your limitations and set healthy boundaries for yourself.
- Reach out to your support network.3 Ask for help when you need it.
- Check in with your co-parent and children already living in your home. You could say, “I know we have had many demands on our time, but I want to be sure to check in with you. How are you feeling about all this change? How can I support you?”
- Include others in your home in making decisions so that everyone feels like a valued member of the family. Consider having a family meeting to discuss schedules, changes in the family’s routines, etc. You could say, “I would like us to decide together how we want to do our after-school routine.” Or, “I would like us to brainstorm ways we can have our morning routine go smoother.”
- Be patient with yourself and everyone in your home. You might feel discouraged that everything isn’t going the way you expected it to go. Or, you might see unexpected emotions or behaviors from the children already in your home. Remember, this is a big transition for everyone.
Be careful not to side with one child over another child. Treat every child in your home with dignity and respect.
The First Six Weeks
Within the first six weeks, you will probably feel like you are settling into a routine and are more comfortable in your role as a foster parent. You will most likely also notice changes in your child in foster care and in the other members of the family living in your home.
- Continue to align expectations and goals with everyone in the family. Remember, the goal of foster care is for your child in foster care to be reunited with their family of origin. Invite family conversations at dinner or while playing a game together to discuss how your family has changed and what they have learned.
- You could say, “Do you remember the first day you came to live with us? We have changed a lot.” Reflect on those changes. You can also start to talk about what it will be like when they leave your home and go return to their home. “How are you feeling about going home? What are you most excited about? What are your concerns?”
- Ask similar questions of the other children in your home. You could say, “What feelings do you have knowing that (child’s name) will be leaving us?” Explore their feelings. You could also help your children reflect on what the child in foster care might be feeling. You could ask, “How do you think (child’s name) is feeling about going home?” Helping children identify feelings can grow their social and emotional skills.
- Reach out to your child protection specialist about opportunities to get to know your child’s family of origin. The child protection specialist will determine if/when this is appropriate.
- Plan to schedule and attend several medical (doctor, dentist, vision, hearing) appointments for your child in the coming weeks. Most medical appointments for a child in foster care are required within 30 days of their placement in your home. You will need to work closely with the child protection specialist to set up necessary medical appointments.
- Help your child in foster care navigate the foster care system. Your child may experience disappointments. For example, their biological parents might miss a scheduled visitation appointment, or the court may decide that they will need to stay in foster care for a longer period of time. Reassure your child that these situations are not their fault. “You didn’t do anything wrong. Sometimes things don’t go as quickly as we would like them to go.” Normalize their feelings. “How are you feeling? It’s okay to be angry, upset, or disappointed.”
- Remember, your child in foster care is still adjusting to their new environment and in that adjustment time, you may see your child express challenging behaviors. Some examples of challenging behaviors you may see your child in foster care display include:
- Lying.4 Your child might not tell the truth or leave out specific content (lie by omission).
- Aggressive behaviors like hitting, kicking, and spitting.5
- Sleeping problems6 like having a hard time falling asleep or waking up multiple times in the night.
- Eating problems like eating too much, eating too fast, eating very little, or being a picky eater.
- As you get more comfortable with your child in foster care, you might start to notice “triggers.”7 Triggers are anything that elicit a reaction in the child right before a display of a challenging behavior.5 For example, asking a child to wear socks with their shoes (trigger) causes the child to scream and cry and refuse to wear the socks (challenging behavior).
- Challenging behaviors are often seen in children who have a history of abuse and neglect.8 The response that you choose when dealing with challenging behaviors is important. Your goal is to address the behavior while also maintaining and building the relationship you have with your child in foster care. Challenging behaviors can be stressful to manage as a foster parent. When faced with challenging behaviors, ask yourself,
- “What are some of the reasons this child might be behaving this way?”
- “What is my reaction to this behavior?”
- “How do I feel?”
- Use intentional communication to engage in a conversation with the child. After engaging in intentional communication with the child, spend time reflecting on your experience. You could ask yourself,
- ”Did I react in a way that was constructive and could foster learning for this child?”
- “How could I handle the situation better next time?” Brainstorm ideas.
- “Do I need to seek help from a professional to manage this behavior?”
Check your own emotions and make sure that you are calm before engaging your child about the issue. Research suggests there is a link between high foster parent stress levels and an increase in challenging behaviors in the child in foster care.9
Reach out to your support network for ideas and tips to manage challenging behaviors.
- Take time for yourself. It is important to take care of yourself so you can care for others. Find time every day to do something you enjoy. You could use the time to take a walk outside, read, watch your favorite TV show, take a bath, meditate, go to the gym, or whatever helps you feel reenergized and connected. Caring for yourself can help you maintain perspective and be your absolute best.
- Plan a fun activity with everyone in the family. A fun activity can build relationships and give everyone something to look forward to doing. Fun activity ideas that are no or low cost include:
- Visit a park
- Have a scavenger hunt
- Volunteer together
- Play a board game
- Visit the library
- Have a picnic
- Make a living room fort
The first 24 hours, the first week, and the first six weeks after having a child in foster care join your family can be exciting as well as stressful. Tips and guidance to navigate this new transition can ease stress and help you feel confident and ready to provide a loving home and experience for a child in foster care.