In my family, foster care is normal. My kids have grown up in a home where caseworkers are their friends, our foster care agency is “the fun place with the ducks” (there’s a pond behind the building), home studies and in-home team meetings are words that mean “clean your room” and judges are people they know and trust. My kids talk freely about things like drug use, visitation, court, and prison. And they have managed to survive the roller coaster of foster care with their emotional stability in tact.
I think part of the reason they have done so well is because we started this conversation when they were very young. It may seem too early to talk to 2, 3, and 4 year-olds about foster care. You don’t want to spoil their innocence about the world or make them feel unsafe. But what we’ve found is that by starting these conversations with them while they are even too young to understand some of what you’re saying, you make your mistakes early, too. You make mistakes before they are old enough to remember and you’ve got time to fix it. And by talking about it early, you end up normalizing it instead of instilling fear. Foster care is just life.
(Everything I’m sharing with you is what I’ve learned from a “boots on the ground” perspective. I am not a therapist and I know in the world of foster care, the “right” language is always changing. I’ll do my best to explain what has worked for us with a full understanding that there may be other approaches.)
So here’s what I want you to think about when talking to a toddler or preschooler about foster care:
-What you say to them, they may repeat. While we might be tempted to give our kids a lot of information in order to help them have grace with this new member of the family, we need to be aware that those words can come back to haunt us. It is better to use words you’d be okay with them bringing up in their Sunday School class or at Grandma’s house or when they meet the family of your foster child.
“Sam is coming to live with our family for a little while so his parents can get some help in learning how to take care of him.”
-Talk in generalities. A foster child’s story belongs to them. It is possible to talk about the circumstances that might lead to a child coming into foster care without giving specifics about a particular person. You can talk about poverty, drug use, alcoholism, domestic violence, prison, neglect, all in age-appropriate ways.
“Someone might not be able to take care of their child if they didn’t have enough money for food or clothes, or if they put things in their body that made them sick, or if they had angry people who wanted to hurt them around, or if they had to go to prison for awhile, of if they didn’t know how to be a good mom or dad and needed help.”
-Let them ask questions. Sometimes we overload our kids with information they aren’t ready for. We get anxious about the topic and start oversharing. When you feel that way, stop. Take a breath. Ask your kids some questions and see what they really want to know. Start with that basic level of understanding and curiosity and work from there.
“Is there anything you want to know about why Chris came to our family?”
-Let them give answers. A good way to judge a child’s ability to handle information is to ask him the questions and see where he takes the answer. Then you know your starting point, have language that makes sense to him to use in your answers, and you can correct any misconceptions.
“Why do YOU think a kid might not be able to live with his mom and dad?”
-Be aware of your own feelings. Foster care is an emotional journey. Don’t make your toddler your therapist. They are not capable of handling your feelings about another missed visit, or the stress of dealing with an infant going through withdrawal, or the anger you have at an unresponsive caseworker. If you are feeling really emotional about a particular aspect of foster care, don’t unload that on your kids. They don’t have the skills to take that on and you don’t want them coming to resent this child for bringing that into your family. If you’re feeling frustrated, talk to a friend. In front of your kids, look for the silver lining.
“Looks like Callie’s mom couldn’t make it to the visit today. I’m glad we get some extra time with her!” or “We’re sure gonna miss Callie today, but it’s so great that she gets to spend time with her mom.”
-Explain your own safety net. Kids who grow up in a fostering family can have some unique concerns. If this kid came into foster care, could it happen to me? We have used this opportunity to talk to our kids about the safety net that surrounds them. I don’t ever anticipate it happening, but I also know that even if my kids couldn’t live with me (if my husband and I died), they still wouldn’t become wards of the state. We want to reassure them we have a plan and explain that plan to them.
“If for some reason you couldn’t live with mom and dad, then you would live with grandma and grandpa or with your aunt or with our friends from church. You have lots of people that would love you and take care of you, but we don’t think that will ever need to happen.”
-Talk about boundaries. A foster child may have been exposed to things your kids have never seen. You need to emphasize to your children that it is important for them to talk to you about anything that makes them feel uncomfortable even if it’s something they don’t understand. They need to know they have your blessing to defend themselves if someone tries to do something they know isn’t okay. You need to be observant and curious if your child brings up something that sounds questionable.
“Before Serena came to us she may have seen some things that aren’t okay or safe for children, so she might not know what’s okay for kids to do. If she wants to do something with you that doesn’t feel right or if you ever feel scared, you need to come talk to an adult right away. Mommy will not be mad if you come talk to me and then I can help Serena learn about safe behavior.”
-Remind them of the importance of love. It can be scary to know there are unsafe adults in the world. We want our kids to know while adults may make unsafe choices, that doesn’t mean they are unloveable or beyond hope. We need to model that hope and love towards the people involved in the case. We talk to our kids about how people make mistakes, but that isn’t a reason to stop loving them. We love each other even though we hurt each other sometimes. This parent has work to do, but that means they need lots of love and support. Use that positive language as you talk about things like visitation and court in front of your toddler.
“Katie’s mom has to be in jail for awhile. The choices she made mean she can’t be with us, but that doesn’t mean we stop loving her. We don’t stop loving someone just because of the choices they make, even when those choices have hard consequences.”
We have been having these conversations for a long time in my family. I had hoped maybe the kids were understanding things in a age appropriate way with healthy doses of truth and grace. My hope was confirmed when my 7 year-old heard we were going to be adopting his foster sister. He said, “I feel happy for us, but sad for her mom.” That is the goal in how we want our kids to understand foster care– it is bittersweet for us. By talking about both the challenges and joys openly, you can help create kids that truly get it.
For more information about foster care, contact Christian Heritage.