Being a foster parent is a rewarding and challenging experience, and it gives you the opportunity to have a positive impact on your community.
The early stages of welcoming a child experiencing foster care into your home include a major adjustment period. No matter how good your intentions, you are a stranger and your home is unknown to them. They have just lost everything familiar, and are suddenly faced with new people, spaces, rules and expectations. That is a lot for anyone, of any age, to handle.
The first few days are a big adjustment for everyone, but if you follow these tips, you can help ease that transition.
Have the basics ready.
It will make a child’s transition easier when you already have the basic supplies that they’ll need on hand. This includes clothing, items for personal care, school supplies and food.
When a child experiencing foster care arrives in your home, it’s a good idea to let them settle in and ask if they want anything to eat or drink. This lets them know that you’ll take care of them and that food is always available. They might also be too shy to ask for food or a drink if you don’t prompt it first.
Keep the lines of communication open.
People typically don’t like to pour their hearts out to strangers, and during those first few days, that’s what you are to them: a stranger. They don’t know you and they probably won’t immediately open up to you. That’s fine. What’s important is that they know they can talk to you if they want to.
Let them know that you’re always available if they want to talk. Ask them how they’re doing from time to time. You may get short, casual responses most of the time, but every so often, they may want to get something off their chest.
Be flexible with your expectations.
It’s your house and you set the rules, but it’s important to remember that they may have come from a much different environment. It’s unrealistic to expect them to behave a certain way, especially right off the bat.
There are some habits that change quickly, but others take more time to change or simply won’t change at all. Give them leeway regarding your rules and lifestyle. It’s fine to reiterate your rules when necessary — just avoid being overly strict as they try to adjust to their new surroundings.
And remember, sometimes your rules are the ones that should change (or at least flex for a bit)! Does a child coming into your home tell you they only want to eat hotdogs for dinner? Hotdogs it is! Are they used to sitting on the couch for meals? Move dinnertime to the living room for a little while. Small changes can make a child feel comfortable, accepted and valued.
Speak positively about their family.
It may frustrate you to think about what a child in your home as experienced. But kids love their parents, even if their homelife was not perfect. They may also come to enjoy living with you, which often leads to confusing feelings of dual loyalties. By speaking openly and positively about their family you can help them see that everyone is working together and on the same team to support them. Taking the "us versus them" out of the equation can help kids feel much more comfortable and supported by you.
A child in your home may ask questions about their family that are difficult to answer. You should always remain calm and be positive and honest in your responses. If they ask questions you do not know the answer to ("When will I get to see my mom? Why can't I stay with Grandma?"), you can tell them that you know don't, but you will ask their social worker and let them know the answer as soon as possible. Do not make up answers or interject your own opinions.
Focus on listening and empathizing.
Take care of yourself.
Even though you’ll probably be focusing on providing a nurturing environment for the children in your home, you can’t forget about taking care of yourself. It will be an adjustment period for you as well when you have someone new living under your roof.
You won’t be able to provide the best care f you’re stressed. Take time to clear your head when you need it. For some, this could involve going on a walk or meditating; for others, it could involve starting a new hobby. Find anything that helps you decompress so you can keep a clear head.
Establish yourself as a caregiver.
Although you want to be flexible, it’s important that you demonstrate that you are the caregiver in charge and that you are there to keep them safe. If you have siblings placed in your home, often the older one has been acting as a caregiver for the younger one(s). By letting them know that you are there to keep them safe, provide food, enforce rules, etc., you can allow the older sibling to relax and just be a kid, knowing that their younger siblings are taken care of.
Again, do not expect this to happen immediately. The children in your home need to know that they can trust you to do what you say, and that just takes time. If you can be consistent, fair, flexible and transparent about your expectations, trust can begin to be established.
Editor's note: This article was published a number of years ago and has been updated for 2023.