Q: How do you help your young child understand the transition for kids coming in and out? Your youngest is about the same age as my oldest so I'm trying to figure out how we're going to explain all of this to her.
A: This is a GREAT question, one I wish I’d had some advice on before we had our first kiddos. It is written by a friend of mine with 2 young kiddos in a family that is just getting ready to start accepting placements. Our situation is a bit different in that when we first started the process, Logan was an only child. We were able to talk about “brothers and sisters” in terms of foster children without getting confused with biological siblings. He didn’t have any bio siblings – he knew others who had siblings but in his world having them dropped off by CPS was just as reasonable as other more ‘normal’ methods of getting siblings. For our daughter, she has been with us since she was 9 months old and has always had brothers and sisters who have left. She’s just now getting to be old enough to realize that kids are coming and going.
In my experience, the age where you can start preparing kiddos is between 2 ½ - 3 ½. Much younger than that and they probably can’t be “prepped” because they don’t have a good grasp on what is coming nor can they process the “why” much. Of course, every child is different and I’d recommend trying to prep vs. not trying any day.
When we were going through the process, we talked a lot about brothers and sisters with Logan. We told him about how his brothers and sisters would be coming. We prayed for them. We talked about how they had different mommies and daddies but they couldn’t keep them safe so they were coming to live with us. We sang silly songs about them (Think “Jesus loves my brothers and sisters, this I know...”). As I mentioned, Logan knew that other people had brothers and sisters but he didn’t – he often talked about his “brother Charlie” and “brother Benjamin” – we have no idea who those kids were to this day but he knew how friends and his cousins all had siblings. We prepared a room. As we shopped for things we talked about what we thought his brothers or sisters would want to (eat, wear, play with), etc. We talked about whether he’d share a room or not and what toys he’d share and which he wouldn’t. We just incorporated it into everything we talked about because we knew at one point we’d get a call and within a short time he’d suddenly have siblings.
That call came (and so did the kids) while Logan was sleeping. This was probably worst case scenario (and yet likely...) for us in that the kiddos were going to share a room with him and we didn’t want him to wake up and suddenly there was a crib and a baby in his room that weren’t there before. So, we moved Logan into our bed that night so that he would see us first when he woke up instead of the other kids. When he woke up we talked to him about how “our brothers and sisters” came while he was sleeping and then began the introduction process.
From then on all we talked about was how the kids were staying with us while the parents were trying to get better. They might go or they might stay but Logan would ALWAYS stay. Concepts like “forever” don’t really mean anything to kids that young so we tried to emphasize that he would always be with us. We talked about how he came from our tummy so that meant he would never leave. Later as Summer was adopted we were able to explain how she would now always stay too....we called her the sister that would stay.
Now that Summer is old enough we’re trying to pay more attention to how we transition kiddos out and how she’s processing when they leave. We follow our goodbye routines for the whole family, but for her in particular we also have had to make a few accommodations. Specifically, we’ve immediately moved the child’s bed out of her room to help her process that they aren’t coming back.
Here are a few other tips:
- · Ask for your child’s opinion before the child arrives – As soon as we get a call and are sure a child will be placed with us we ask our children how they feel about adding a new child or sibling group. We tell them “we just got a call” and share how many, age, gender, and that they can’t stay with their family, would it be ok if they came to stay here with us? This is clearly a dangerous question. What if your child says no? You can either ask in a better way (what do you think about them coming to stay with us? Would you like it if they came to live here?...something opinion oriented) OR, you can just roll with it like we do. Usually Logan (and Summer) say yes. Logan has said no before and at that point I take the chance to talk through it with him – kids need a home, what are his concerns, etc. At the end of the day if he still says “no”, we’d tell him that as mommy and daddy we appreciate his feelings and are thankful he shared – as mommy and daddy we are making the decision to give the children a home because that’s what Jesus would want us to do (quote scripture) and go out of our way to help ease his/her concerns. That hasn’t had to happen yet.
- · Talk about it as much as possible. Talk about your children’s dreams and wishes about how it will be (what do you want your new brother/sister to be like? What would you like to do with them? Etc.). This will give you good insight into what they are thinking is going to happen and you can help clarify things that WILL NOT happen before the kids arrive.
- · Remind your children they will always stay.
- · Remind your children the foster kiddos might stay or might go and that you will take care of them as long as God (or the judge) wants you to.
- · Decide how you will explain the reason for removal/care. We tell our forever kids that the parents couldn’t keep the kids safe. We tell foster children that they’re parents are sicky and are working on getting better. This has worked for us so far.
- · Emphasize your core family’s routines. Understand which routines are going to stay the same and which are likely to change so you can help prep your kiddos for that change ahead of time.
- · Tell everyone involved in your case that you need as much notice as possible before the kids leave so you can prepare your own children. This is essential. Start with the investigator who drops the child off at your home. Tell the lawyers. Tell CASA. Tell everyone you meet with about the case. Repeat it often.
- · Take every opportunity to remind your children that the foster children might not stay or might leave someday when their parents are better. This sounds like “Oooh...a Dora birthday would be so much fun! If XX is still here on her birthday we’ll see if we can do that” or “I bet XX would love to go to Sea World with us. If he/she is still here next time we go we’ll ask if she can come along” or “you want to be a puppy for Halloween? That’s a neat costume – if you’re here on Halloween we can try and find that costume for you”. Don’t promise anything to your kids or the foster kids about what WILL happen with the fosters.
- · Pray for the foster kids parents. Talk about them as a family in a healthy way (don’t ignore they exist). We put up their picture, when possible, on our bulletin board as a reminder for all of us.
- · As you get updates on the case, share with your kids whenever it’s appropriate. If they’re working on reunification and doing well, tell your kids that so and so’s mom is working really hard on getting better and she hopes one day so and so can go back home with her...stuff like that.
- · As soon as you get a date that the child is going home, pull your child aside and tell them so. “Remember we’ve said that XX’s mom is trying to get better? Well! She’s all better now and XX can go back home to live with her!” Try to make this sound happy. Then ask (several times in different conversations) how your child is feeling.
- · Setup and follow a going away routine. It’s therapeutic.
- · Plan to spend quality time as a family after a foster child leaves. We often go out to lunch or dinner and celebrate our “core family”.
Finally, realize that no matter how much you plan you can’t protect your child from the feelings they have about children coming and going. Don’t try to. Let them have their feelings. Talk about it. Remind them you are there for them and they will always stay. Give them lots of hugs. Remind them they are special to you and you want them. Pray.
Then get up and do it again J