Whether you are fostering a child through the child welfare system or helping raise the child of a loved one through a kinship care arrangement, it’s almost always in the child’s best interest when the adults can cooperate and get along. The benefits of resource parents and kinship caregivers working collaboratively with birth parents include stability, continuity, and safety for the child. As we enter the holiday season, many foster parents and kinship providers feel anything but merry and bright about the challenges of working with birth parents while providing nurture and care for their child. Interactions feel fraught with family history. Phone calls are tense with unmet expectations. It’s challenging for all the grown-ups involved, impacting the children. We offer these concrete tips for working with your child’s birth family during the holiday season – and beyond – to smooth the way to a relationship between you all.
Start by Acknowledging the Power Imbalance
Relationships are complicated under the best of circumstances. Working on a relationship with your foster child’s or kinship child’s parents brings several “hard” layers, especially during the holiday season when schedules are off, senses are overloaded, and triggers abound. It may even feel like you cannot find common ground with these parents beyond your love for this child.
Indeed, you each bring different experiences, skills, and perspectives to the table. Plus, in every relationship, participants must manage the power balance. In this situation, these parents likely feel the power weighs heavily on your side of the scale. Acknowledging the imbalance of power allows you to set your heart and mind with the intention to lift this family up and contribute to their success.
Concrete Tips for Working with This Child’s Family
All of these factors can combine to create a rocky, challenging relationship. Foster parents and kinship caregivers can implement these tips to manage the added layers of challenge during the holiday season. Further, these tips are great tools for building and fortifying the ongoing relationship you want to craft with the family for the child’s good. If you are working with a caseworker through the foster system, clear these suggestions with them to stay compliant with the policies and procedures for this child’s case.
1. Make Contact as Soon as Possible
If this child is a new placement to your home, contact the parent(s) as soon as possible. (Again, run this one by your caseworker for safety policies and contact rules.) Try to contact them by phone, text, or email to assure them that their child is safe with you. Let them know that you plan to take good care of the child for as long as they are in your home.
Ask the family about favorite holiday traditions*, music, movies, foods, or activities that make the child comfortable. Offering these familiar comforts can build trust between you and the parents. Tell the child you’ve spoken with their parents about favorite holiday plans. Ask them how they’d like to incorporate their family’s celebrations into yours.
*This resource can help you better understand the various holidays that foster or kinship children might celebrate with their families.
Sadly, the birth parents may have heard scary stories about resource parents neglecting or hurting kids, being overly strict, excluding kids, or only “doing it for the money.” Kinship caregivers might be painted as divisive or treating cousins or grandchildren as second-class citizens in their homes. Overcoming those beliefs will take time and will happen when you consistently prove yourself willing to stay connected and interested in sharing the path to this family’s healing.
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2. Don’t Try to Replace the Birth Parents
As you work on maintaining the connection with these parents, assure them you are not trying to replace them in their child’s life. Respect that they know their child better than anyone else. Ask them questions about their child’s likes and dislikes:
- What are their favorite and least favorite foods?
- Do they have allergies?
- What is their bedtime routine? Are they afraid of the dark?
- What do you want the children to call us?
Remember that holiday gift-giving might be a struggle for these parents this year. Consider what you can do to keep the parents in the primary gift-giver role if their family exchanges gifts during the holidays. Try asking:
- What is at the top of your child’s wish list this year?
- How can we help you get something like that for them?
Similarly, please work with the kids to make or buy presents for their parents. The focus shouldn’t be on extravagant, expensive gifts – remember, the parents might likely feel shame and guilt over being unable to parent right now safely. Instead, consider reaffirming the parents’ place in the child’s heart.
3. Speak Positively of the Child’s Family
It is important not to say negative things about the parents to this child. Use words that strengthen the connection between parent and child. Honor their family’s traditions, religion, or culture as well. It can be as simple as “Your mom really loves you” or “I bet your dad will love this drawing.”
And don’t forget to include their extended family: “Your grandma will love that we made her special holiday dish. I’ll send this picture of us to her now!”
4. Don’t Take Their Anger Personally
Naturally, your foster or kinship child’s parents feel angry over losing their child, even briefly. Set reasonable expectations about their feelings and try not to be surprised if that anger is initially directed at you. Their anger might be expressed as hostility, rudeness, or distance from you or their child. These expressions can be painful for you – especially if their parents are also loved ones. But tell yourself that their anger is not about or aimed at you.
Try not to take it personally by remembering that their anger likely stems from shame, guilt over this circumstance, and fear of permanently losing their child. It might also help to remember why you brought this child into your home – to give the child and the family time to heal and find a safe, new path forward.
5. Include The Birth Family
The holiday season can be a perfect segue to include the child’s parents or family in your lives if you don’t already have one. For kids in the child welfare system, check with the caseworker for policies and permission first. But consider inviting the parents to school holiday concerts, faith community events, or family dinners. If your family enjoys a holiday movie on the first night of winter break, include them in the tradition.
You can go on to expand the invitations to medical appointments, school conferences, community events, and other family celebrations. At these events, introduce them as the child’s parent. Ask doctors and school personnel to discuss their children’s needs directly with the birth parents rather than aiming the conversation at you. The goal is to encourage these parents to feel empowered and equipped to step back into the parenting role.
6. Build The Birth Family Up
When you provide a safe place for their child, remember that this family is in the lowest season of their life. Anything you can do to build them up and recognize their strengths will go a long way toward helping your relationship and helping them be better parents. Remember that the holiday season can bring up hard memories, feelings of inadequacy, and reminders of dreams lost or delayed for these parents.
At each opportunity, say something positive and affirming to the parents. Be authentic and specific to avoid a sense of flattery or insincerity. If conversations feel awkward at first, try to offer a compliment that connects them to their child and establishes your shared love for this child. For example:
- “Congratulations on getting your GED. I know you worked so hard for it! Let’s celebrate at Christmas dinner.”
- “Your handmade kinara is beautiful – you have a talent for woodworking!”
- “Johnny loves your family’s recipe for latkes. Will you teach me how to make them?”
- “Suzy has a solo in the winter concert. Did she get that amazing voice from you?”
Extend The Spirit of the Season to the Birth Family
The bottom line for working with this child’s birth family – parents and extended family – is to treat them with the same kindness and respect you want. Not only are you modeling for this foster or kinship child how to behave in gracious and compassionate ways, but you are also showing the parents that you have the best interest of their family at the heart of what you do while helping raise this child.
You can intentionally employ these tools during the holiday season to help you get over bumpy or awkward interactions. Then, consistently weave them into your relationship to build a supportive, productive relationship that keeps you all focused on the ultimate good for the child you all love dearly.