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How Will Foster Parenting Affect My Children?

Addressing the most common concern from parents.

Key points

  • Fostering a child is a transformative experience for the entire family.
  • Foster parenting teaches parents and children sensitivity, compassion, and resilience.
  • Caring for a foster child also has challenges, which should be discussed as a family.

In honor of National Foster Care Month, I am answering one of the most common concerns from parents considering becoming foster parents:

I am thinking of becoming a foster parent. My spouse and I have thought about it for a long time but have yet to take the time to explore the possibility. My concern is my two school-age children. How would they react to having a foster child in the home? Is becoming a foster parent a good idea? How do I know that it will not harm my children?

A Transformative Experience

The presence of a foster child in the home is a transformative experience, not only for the foster child but also for the entire family. Opening your home to a child in need allows a family to do something meaningful and fulfilling, often resulting in growth and bonding among family members. Foster parenting teaches parents and children sensitivity, compassion, and resilience in the most hands-on way.

In a world that has become increasingly technology-driven and filled with virtual and superficial relationships, foster parenting demonstrates that emotionally intimate relationships result from vulnerability, communication, and the lost art of physical presence. Foster parenting also allows families to dedicate themselves as a unit to a purpose that is suffused with meaning, granting a unique perspective in a world often devoid of altruism and sacrifice.

However, foster parenting requires patience and flexibility on the part of all family members. Any child in need of a foster home will be a child who is hurting, either by an act of commission or omission, and they will need to heal from the trauma of their experiences. While the responsibility to meet the child's needs will lie with the foster parents, the foster siblings are the unsung heroes who share their toys, rooms, parents, and love to help a wounded child they may have never met. Their acts of compassion are bestowed while lacking the adult comprehension to grasp their sacrifice's true meaning and purpose, making their gift all the more remarkable.

Possible Challenges

Now, there are a few challenges that may arise. Due to their insecurity and disruptions in their family attachments, foster children may present as anxious, clingy, withdrawn, and alienated from their foster family. This can confuse children expecting a ready playmate in their family's new foster child. When they become more comfortable and secure over time, foster children may trust the family enough to express some anger over their abusive and neglectful experiences in their family of origin, often displaced onto the foster family. This can hurt both foster parents and their children, who have given so much of themselves and do not understand what they have done to deserve their foster child's anger. Yet, this demonstration of emotion often indicates that the foster family has made their foster child feel safe enough to express genuine sadness and devastation.

Foster children are sensitive to perceived rejection and can be hypervigilant in looking for the disparity between their foster parents' treatment of them and their children. Foster children can be attention-seeking and may try to dominate the time and attention given by their foster parents. Foster children may understandably exhibit trauma responses through externalizing or acting-out behaviors, which can test the family unit.

Suggestions to Keep in Mind

If you would like to proceed, please do so with a realistic view of your family's challenges. Here are some suggestions to keep in mind:

  • Include the entire family in the decision-making process before becoming a foster parent. Anticipate with your children, each according to their level of understanding, changes that may occur within the family. Give concrete examples of some of these changes, such as modifications in sleeping arrangements, changes in family schedules, etc. All children in the home should be comfortable with the decision before proceeding.
  • Don't overcompensate for the deprivation that your foster child has experienced in the past. Special treatment toward the foster child will result in resentment and jealousy from your children.
  • Permit your children to feel positive and negative emotions about your foster child. This may include feeling resentful, angry, and jealous. All foster siblings will experience these feelings occasionally and may feel guilty about it. Foster parents should validate these feelings as acceptable. Your children need a forum to express these feelings and resolve conflicts between them and their foster siblings healthily.
  • Give your children as much age-appropriate information as possible to enhance their understanding of their foster sibling's behavior. For example, if their foster sibling's behavior distresses them, explore why they might act this way. In addition, developing empathy for their foster sibling's past experiences will promote a greater understanding of their behavior.
  • Take advantage of the support and resources available to you through your certifying foster care agency. The agency will educate you about your foster child's needs and will work closely with you and your children on an ongoing basis on issues related to your foster child's adjustment to your home.

Welcoming a foster child into your home will undoubtedly profoundly impact the entire family. There will be times of frustration but also times of satisfaction and joy. If you are proactive in your approach and sensitive to your children's responses, there is every reason to hope they will not be harmed but grow tremendously from this experience. I have personally seen many foster siblings develop tolerance, perspective on what is truly important in life, and sensitivity to the feelings of others, traits that will surely enrich their relationships throughout their lives.

A foster mother recounted the following story, which captures it best:

My daughter came home before this past Mother's Day with not one, but two gifts in her arms. She purchased the second gift for her 6-year-old foster brother to give to his mother. She realized that it would be a day fraught with pain for this woman at her separation from her son, and she wanted her to have a special gift and remember that someone was thinking of her. She also wanted her foster brother to feel important and be reassured that he was no different than the rest of the family on a day that would highlight his status as a foster child. This was the best gift she could have ever given me.

It was the gift of true giving, showing that innate sensitivity is uniquely developed through the all-encompassing family experience of caring for a foster child.

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