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Foster parenting bears a resemblance to parenting a biological child, but with a few more degrees of difficulty. Kids in foster care may have a variety of special needs depending on their reasons for being placed in foster care. And since foster parents aren't the legal guardians of foster children, most major decisions are made using a team approach. Despite the challenges of parenting a foster child, it can be a tremendously rewarding experience to care for a child in need.
The foster-care licensing process provides foster parents with an opportunity to learn about foster-care policies. Some rules vary by region, such as the type of discipline that is allowed. The foster-care licensing process will inform you about other guidelines, such as whether or not your foster child needs his own bedroom, the type of record-keeping you will be responsible for, and expectations about your attendance at team meetings. A home inspection will ensure your home meets the local fire and safety regulations.
Learning About Your Foster Child
Prior to a foster child moving into your home, ask the guardian questions to learn as much as you can about the child's history and needs. Also, try to learn about the child's likes and dislikes, as it can make the transition to your home easier if the child experiences some familiarity. For example, using the same type of laundry detergent a child is accustomed to can provide comfort as he experiences a familiar smell when he lays his head down on the pillow at night. Information about the child's trauma history can be helpful as well. For example, a child who did not have enough food to eat may take comfort in seeing there are cupboards full of food in your house.
Create a written list of simple household rules. Kids who were neglected may not be used to having any rules, while kids who were physically abused may have only experienced inconsistent discipline. A clear set of rules can help reduce anxiety, as a foster child will have a better understanding of the expectations. Explain the consequences for breaking the rules. A child who has been physically abused in the past may be relieved to hear, "In our house, when kids don't do their chores, they aren't allowed to watch TV."
Praise good behaviors and provide plenty of positive attention. Use a reward system to help a child learn new skills. For example, a foster child who has never eaten dinner at a table before may benefit from earning tokens that can later be exchanged for larger rewards whenever he uses table manners. Consequences for misbehavior may include time-out or taking away privileges. Address specific behavior problems with other team members, such as the child's therapist and guardian, to develop a behavior-management plan.
When kids reside in foster care, there is a lot of uncertainty. Understandably, kids want to know if they are going home, what will happen to their belongings, and when they will see their families again. Waiting for a permanency plan to be developed can be excruciating. Provide foster children with lots of emotional support as they ask questions and experience a wide variety of emotions. Teach them healthy ways to cope with their feelings by talking, writing, drawing or other age-appropriate activities.
Support for Yourself
Get support from your foster child's team. Usually there's a therapist, guardian ad litem or advocate, and legal guardian to provide support. Ask questions and seek advice about how to handle difficult behaviors as well as sticky situations and complicated questions. Attend foster-parent support groups to learn from seasoned foster parents. Take advantage of training opportunities for foster parents. State agencies generally offer foster parents a variety of educational opportunities to learn more about issues such as trauma and behavior management.
Amy Morin is a licensed clinical social worker who works as a therapist for adults and children. She is also an instructor at a community college, where she teaches courses in psychology and mental health. Morin received her Master of Social Work from the University of New England.