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Helping Foster Kids Adjust

Providing foster care for a child in need of a temporary home can be one of the most rewarding experiences a family can have, while simultaneously presenting some of the most difficult challenges. Both the child and the foster family must make many adjustments, and there will likely be some hills -- or maybe even mountains -- to climb along the way. However, foster families shouldn’t feel they have to go it alone. The American Academy of Pediatrics, or AAP, and foster care organizations across the country offer plenty of time-tested advice and tips on how to help foster kids adjust, integrate and acclimate into their new environments. According to Dr. Moira Szilagyi, chair of the AAP Committee on Foster Care, Adoption and Kinship Care, an empathetic, loving, consistent and responsive foster parent capable of viewing the world from the child's viewpoint is fundamental to helping a child adjust to the foster care home.

Adjusting Takes Time

Foster care children may range from birth to 17 years old, and every child’s adjustment will be unique, so the adjustment will require different amounts of time for different children. “The child's individual temperament is a major factor. The child's prior experiences will also play a major role. Children who have had multiple prior caregivers or had worse trauma experiences may require more time to develop trust,” said Dr. Szilagyi. She advises that, in general, foster parents should expect it to take six to eight weeks for children to settle in. However, some children will need more time and teens, especially those with complex trauma and loss histories, may take longer.

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Birth-Family Connections

Dr. Szilagyi stresses that foster parents should speak kindly of the child’s birth parents, as they likely love and miss them, and are worried about them. She suggests that foster parents make compassionate statements, such as, “Your parents cannot take care of you right now, so I have been asked to do that. I know this is hard for you, but I am very happy you have come to live with me for a while."

Cindy Shimabukuro, assistant project director of Partners in Development Foundation, or PIDF, agrees and says that foster children entering into a new home environment often benefit from keeping birth-family connections. PIDF is contracted by the Hawaii Department of Human Services to provide training, assessment and support to prospective resource (foster) families. Shimabukuro, who has 20 years of experience in the field of social services, suggests that resource (foster) parents work closely with the department or service organization to set up visitations and contacts with the child’s siblings and other birth-family members whenever possible. “Keeping those birth-family connections will help to relieve a lot of anxiety for the child. If it’s possible, talk to the birth parents to find out if the child has certain rituals, enjoys certain foods, bedtime stories and so forth,” said Shimabukuro.

Easing Anxiety Through Simple Gestures

Foster children likely feel lost, confused and even scared at first. So, one important goal is to ease anxiety for the child and make him feel more comfortable in an uncomfortable situation. Shimabukuro says that it’s critical that the entire foster family is on board and supportive of the incoming child. When the child arrives, take the time to show him around the house, involving all the family members whenever possible. “Be sure to explain things that are as simple as where he will sleep to how the family likes to roll the toothpaste. Find out about some basic preferences of the child, such as his favorite foods and if he would like a night-light on in the bathroom. When the child first arrives, the main idea is to keep things normal and simple. This is not the time to make a trip to Disneyland,” added Shimabukuro.

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Introduce and Reiterate House Routines, Rules and Chores

Regarding house routines and rules, Shimabukuro suggests that these be introduced to the child right away to avoid more changes for the child down the road. Also, establish regular chores soon after the child’s arrival and bring them into the routine slowly. Shimabukuro reminds foster parents that even smooth transitions can feel traumatic for some foster children, so everything said during the child’s fist day or week may need to be repeated several more times, as it may have been difficult for the child to actually hear and retain all of the information during this transition period. This is natural and should be expected.

Help and Support

Even the best prepared and most caring foster parents may still experience difficulties in helping a foster child to adjust. Remember, foster families do not have to go it alone! Dr. Szilagyi advises that most foster children would benefit from having a mental health evaluation and receiving services if only to have a safe place to go to talk with a caring but objective adult. She also suggests that any child who has experienced sexual abuse, severe physical abuse, chronic neglect or multiple caregivers; witnessed significant violence; or who displays troubling behaviors should absolutely have a mental health evaluation by a trained, licensed pediatric mental health expert.

There are also online sites and support groups available to assist foster parents with the adjustment period and beyond. A few of those sites are listed in the Resources section. When it comes to helping foster children to adjust, it just might take a village and the villagers stand ready to help.

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