This content was originally published by Creating a Family, the national infertility education and support nonprofit.
Foster children who come to your home have likely endured a great deal of loss and hurt before coming through your front door. Helping new foster kids transition into your family can be challenging for everyone, as you try to get to know each other and begin sharing daily life together – even if it is only for a short time.
How can you help ease the pain of yet another significant change? We’re offering suggestions for helping foster kids transition into your family, gleaned from some experienced foster and foster-to-adopt parents in our Creating a Family Facebook support group.
The primary theme that came through loud and clear when we asked members how to help new foster children transition into the family was familiarity. Giving him a sense of continuity and familiarity will go a long way toward opening his heart to you and allowing you to form nurturing connections while he is in your home.
Obviously, creating familiarity with a child you’ve only just met can be complicated. Use the information your caseworker provides you to pick up clues. If there’s not enough detail in the child’s file before you meet him, try asking him questions about what his previous bedroom was like, what he likes to eat, what games he enjoys or books he likes reading.
If he cannot tell you (or is not ready yet to share) what would feel familiar to him, or if he is unable to bring any of those things with him, go shopping together. Establish an amount that you can use to help him purchase some things that feel familiar. This might be his favorite snacks, but it could also be a poster of his favorite NFL star or basketball shorts or tees for school.
One mom suggested putting pictures of the child and his “important people” around his room and among the family pictures you have around the house. This is a great suggestion that creates a sense of familiarity but also builds a sense of belonging and inclusion.
Familiarity brings a sense of comfort as well as continuity. One thoughtful member told us that she tries to use the same soaps and laundry detergent that the child’s previous care providers used. That kind of continuity can provide comfort for the child when he’s not even conscious of it!
Dr. Karyn Purvis suggested in a guest appearance on the Creating a Family radio show that you bake chocolate chip cookies close to the child’s scheduled arrival so that the house smells of vanilla and chocolate – comforting smells for almost anyone!
find a balance
While quite a few of our experienced foster moms suggested fun family-focused activities together in the early days of transitioning to your home, several were also quick to point out the value of “shrinking your world.”
For example, one of the “BTD” moms shared that they spend the first few days with very little outside activity or visitors. They keep things structured, with a predictable routine right away. They save the outings for later, doing family activities or extracurriculars after several days together are under their belt.
Another mom suggested holding off on a routine and structure for a few days. She prefers to allow a very “chill” atmosphere to create a sense of safety and connectedness, with time to “catch their breath.” After the foster child has time to adapt to their home, she slowly introduces the family’s regular routine and expectations.
There is validity in both ways of doing it, and you will have to figure out what works for your household.
Whenever you do decide it’s appropriate to communicate your family’s routines and expectations, try to do so in age-appropriate ways. Remember, many foster kids can be behind their age-peers in their ability to understand your expectations. Manage your expectations in a way that sets both of you up to succeed in this new relationship.
As you start to communicate your family’s routines, there are a few things that will help:
- Use a picture schedule or a social story
- Keep it simple and predictable
- Break the schedule down to manageable parts
- Be consistent in enforcing the routine
- Reward them often for “getting it” – especially when they are new
- Find ways to make it fun together
The point of all this communication should be to build connection and belonging between you. A wise momma shared how they intentionally made connections with their new foster kids:
“…we had a family dinner and covered our family rules and asked for their input about what they think we should maybe add.”
Offering your new foster child an opportunity to weigh in on the conversation (and being flexible enough to receive their input) gives a sense of control and ownership to the child. That will, in turn, build trust and confidence in your new relationship.
In addition to communicating clearly about your house rules and expectations, try to designate a regular time to talk individually and as a family. This too is essential to building trust and a sense of care.
We loved this suggestion from another intentional mom:
“…every night in the beginning we would have everyone do a Best, Worst Hope: best thing about today, worst thing about today, what I hope for tomorrow. It gave us insight on how we were doing meeting their needs and led them in practicing speaking their needs and wants.”
Another creative opportunity for family talk-time came from a family who does Ice Cream Night.
“Close-ish to bedtime we would declare “ice cream night,” and we’d take a trip to the grocery store where everyone got to pick out their own choice of ice cream. Then we would go home and sit around the table and eat ice cream and talk.”
Isn’t that fantastic? There are so many fun ways to make these ideas work for a family welcoming a new foster child!
Where the rubber meets the road
Check out these other practical suggestions that the foster parents in our group offered. Each one has behind it the purpose of nurture, connectedness and felt safety. There are also fun and accessible to everyone, regardless of budget constraints – which is always a win-win in our book!
- Do a little “interview” together – getting to know likes, dislikes, favorite hobbies, etc.
- Offer a special stuffed animal, blanket, pillow or other “soft” items for comfort
- Cook their favorite foods regularly once you’ve discovered what they love
- Engage in physical activity together – the park, a zoo, neighborhood walks, biking
- Read together – taking turns reading to them and letting them read to you
- Snuggle time on the couch or incorporated into the bedtime routine
- Pick a wall to paint together in the child’s new room, allowing the child to choose his favorite color
- Have regular family meetings, sometimes for tackling tough issues and other times just to have fun together.
Originally published in 2010; updated in 2019 by Dawn Davenport. See the original blog post.