Friday, June 01, 2012

Foster Parent Friday - Preparing Forever Siblings for Foster Children

Q: As a potential foster parent with children of my own- how do I prepare them for being foster-siblings? Do I instruct them about privacy and such? I have a 4 year old, 8 1/2 year old and a 11 year old- all boys.

A: When we began the foster parent journey our son was about to turn 3.  He turned 3 a couple days before our first PRIDE class and was 3 ½ when we got our first kiddos.

I personally think for him this was a perfect age.  He was old enough to become a big brother (2x with one placement) and to talk through some of his feelings about things yet he was too young to understand all of what trauma means with kiddos.  Having siblings was novel and cool, except when they were playing with and possibly breaking HIS toys, and yet we were able to work with him to find alternative strategies (keeping a handful of special toys up high where littles couldn’t get them and sharing the rest).  I do think it was a perfect time for our family. 

Our son had been asking us for siblings and making up imaginary brothers and sisters for a while but we couldn’t give him those siblings through birth due to infertility so we knew he thought he wanted siblings.  He didn’t have a good grasp on where babies came from and so the concept of them being literally dropped off on the door step seemed a completely reasonable option.  When my husband and I decided to begin the process we started talking to Logan about the possibility that brothers and sisters might come but we did so sparingly and in ways such as “won’t it be cool when we get to go to the park with brothers and sisters” or “it will be so much fun to garden with brothers and sisters”.  It was simple.

When our license came we began to talk to our son a little more frequently about the possibility of having brothers and sisters.  We’d ask him what he thought (a few times a week) about having new brothers and sisters.  We’d ask him if wanted to share a room with them or if he wanted them to sleep in another room.  We asked him questions about how brothers and sisters would fit into HIS life since he really wasn’t able to comprehend how he could fit in their life.  We did not talk to him about the trauma they might have experienced or privacy or aspects of abuse.  We had already built communication in our home about things people should and should not do, like touching private areas and such, and so we did not make a big point of associating bad behaviors with brothers and sisters (from foster care) by telling him “if your foster brother touches you in a private spot what should you do…”.  We just continued to reiterate general principles with him at an age appropriate level.

We got our first call at 11:45pm on a Saturday night.  If you’ve heard the story, you’ll know that I had forgotten about the possibility of a placement and when the phone rang I was a bit cranky with my hubby, thinking it was him calling, even though he knew I had JUST gotten Logan to sleep.  Turns out it was a CPU worker with a placement and I apologized to my hubby even though he didn’t know I was upset with him J  Oh, and my nephews and niece were spending the night that night.  The reason I bring this up is that I did make special preparations for the arrival of the new placement because of how late it was when they arrived (1:30am).  I was concerned about how my son would react waking up in the morning to a new crib and baby in his bedroom so before the kids arrived I moved our son into our bed.  That way we knew he’d see us before he saw the kids and we’d have a chance to explain to him that brothers and sisters came while he was sleeping.  In his mind – that’s how they came – while he was sleeping one night.  Our crib was in storage at my sister’s house so I called them to bring it over so we could put it together before the kids arrived.  They went ahead and took my nephews and niece home so that we didn’t have to worry about them while adjusting to the new kids.  

The rest of the placement went fine.  We told our son that the kids’ parents were not able to be a good mommy and daddy right now, that they were sicky and trying to get better.  That’s our general line to explain the reason for foster care to little kids.   We explained steps in the process to him in age appropriate ways as things went along.  We explained that we didn’t know how long they’d stay, that they might leave sometime, but that he would always stay.  We said that a lot.  We thought it was sufficient.

When our kids finally did go home it was right after we moved to a new house, I’d broken my ankle, my best friend (his best friend’s mom) died, my husband’s grandfather died, and our car broke down all in a matter of a week.  It was an eventful week (that didn’t stop there…check out the “One Year Ago Today” series if you want to hear more).  It was chaotic at best.  Life was crazy.  My hubby and I were surprised that they were leaving but didn’t have many more tears to cry by the time they did leave.  Nevertheless from the time we heard they were going home we started preparing Logan – telling him that they’d be going to live with their grandmother but he would always stay with us.  On the day they left we took pictures, got all their things together, and threw them a little going away party.  The caseworker arrived early, while the party was still going on, and so we rushed a little bit to get them finally ready to leave.  As I was taking one of them to the bathroom my little Logie came in to the restroom, really brave, and said “Mommy, if I have to go now I will”.

My heart stopped.  Despite all the prepping we could have done he STILL thought he was going to have to leave us.  I told my mom to handle the leaving foster and took my son aside.  I reiterated to him that he would ALWAYS stay.  Brothers and sisters might come and go but Logan would ALWAYS stay.  He would NEVER have to leave with them.  This became something we continued to repeat to him until he got it fully.  It didn’t take long – after the first placement left and he did in fact stay he seemed to understand that he would always stay even if the others left.  It became our mantra with any other placement.  In fact, when we began talking about Summer’s adoption he was super excited because she would be a “sister who stayed”.  (one day soon, as she gets a bit older, we’ll have to go through this with her too – showing her she will always stay).

Since then we’ve had 10 kids and 6 placements.  We’ve learned a lot more about fostering and so has our son.  With all that experience in mind I’d recommend the following:
  • Emphasize that kids will come and go but your forever kids will stay forever.  Be prepared to have to reiterate that with them when a placement comes and goes.
  • Figure out how you want to explain foster care.  We used “sicky” and still do for younger kids.  If your kids are older, think now about how much you want to share with your forever kids.  We wouldn’t share the details with our kids, probably even if they were older, but as they get older they can and should learn more.  For example, many of our kids have experienced neglect because of parental drug use.  We tell Logan, who is fairly advanced for his age, that the mommies & daddies didn’t do xx (feed them enough healthy food, protect them enough, etc.) and we are now introducing the concepts of drugs to him but we’re not going to tell him that they are addicted to crystal meth or cocaine and that the kids were found playing in a storm sewer (I made that up…).  
  • Use teachable moments based on the age-level of your child.  We watch the news about once a day in our home, at least some of that time is when the littles are watching (like when we’re getting ready for school in the morning).  Sometimes we mute the tv if it is a story we don’t want our kids to hear, but most of the time we leave it alone and use the stories as a teachable moment.  Check out this post for an example.  We look for all sorts of examples to reiterate the purpose of foster care, adoption, and why they both need to exist so that it is a normal thing in our home, not something taboo.  It also helps build a relationship with our kids so that when they hear things like that in the news or when people ask them questions at school, church, etc., they feel free to bring those concerns to us so we can talk about it in our home.
  • Discuss abuse & neglect in age-appropriate ways including what to do if/when your children witness unacceptable behaviors.  Our son Logan is too young to sit down and explain more advanced topics of abuse but, as I pointed out, we discuss private areas and have setup the “emergency scream” (with practice!) in case of stranger danger or other abuse situations.  Older children should have more explicit conversations.  As noted here, my sister sat her children down (they are 10 & 12) to talk about more explicit abuse the children may have faced along with behaviors they may see in foster children (or children at school) that are unacceptable.  As a result of this conversation, one of my nephews mentioned behavior he’d witnessed in one of my foster kids that he didn’t know he should report to us.  The purpose of these conversations is to build open dialogue between you and your kids so they know what is unacceptable and that they can come to you with their concerns. 

Finally, be prepared to not have all the answers.  Things will come up that you didn’t know to talk about.  Things will surprise you, so they’ll surprise your kids.  The best thing you can do now is to build a solid relationship with your forever kids so that as a “core family” you can learn to go with the flow together as much as possible – so that you can have those conversations together as things come up – so they know they can come to you when weird things happen or when they have a concern.  The more you do that the better prepared you’ll all be to work together as a foster family.

One final thing to mention – we try to be as involving as possible with our kiddos in the whole process.  When we have a spot open we talk to Logan about whether he wants to have more foster kids.  He doesn’t get to decide but it helps us to know where he’s at and talk to him about our family.  When we get a placement call we include him in the decision, going as far as calling him at school to tell him we got a call and ask his thoughts about it.  Again, he doesn’t get to make the final decision but we try to let him know that he is part of our family and gets to have his voice heard in our family’s journey through foster care.

I am going to have a guest blogger (Kylee from Learning to Abandon) answer this question next week.  She is a sister in a foster/adopt family and blogs about her experience as a foster sibling.  Tune in next week to hear her perspective!


alicia said...

thank you for your honesty and perspective about fostering. my husband and i are considering becoming foster parents, we have 2 forever kids 3 and 1 and it is good to read about how to possibly prepare them if we do start this journey. thank you.

Mie said...

Hi Alicia - glad I could help. Please feel free to email mie if there is any other questions I can help answer for you.