It doesn’t matter if it is an emergency, temporary placement, or they end up with you until they go off to college, one of the hardest and most important things that you can do for a foster child is making them feel comfortable and supported. Here are some tips for helping a foster child feel at home in your home early on.
- Touch. It is a very important thing to feeling welcoming in a home and building trust, but can also be a scary, overwhelming, and potentially dangerous thing depending on the child’s background. Guiding a foster child through the home for the first time is probably best by the hand for younger children, and a light hand on the shoulder for older children. You should always offer a hug but never initiate the first one until they feel comfortable.
- Food is a big issue with foster children. Depending on the circumstances they are coming from, they might be ravenous from the moment they walk through your door. Hoarding is a big issue with children who have grown up not knowing where the next meal will come from. To a lot of foster children, the food WILL run out, and they do not know when or why, but they do know it will certainly happen. Some foster parents go so far as to put locks on the pantry because so much food goes missing. I don’t recommend doing that, as it adds emphasis to the fact that they do not have control of their hunger or safety. Just understand that they aren’t stealing, and do not treat it that way. Some children may have not grown up with electricity and never have had hot food before, or have never had a fresh vegetable. Offer a simple, accessible snack before the tour of the home even starts, and do not be surprised if you start to find food squirreled away in hiding places. Your best bet is to make a rule in the vein of ”they can eat whatever they like whenever they like, but it must be eaten in the kitchen”. If the problem is severe, there are therapists who specialize in food hoarding.
- The tour. Take it slow in introducing them to the house. Think of a time when you stayed in the house of someone you barely knew. How awkward it can be to not know where the toilet paper is kept, what to do with your dirty towel, or where the trash can is. Foster children often have to deal with conflicting rules in moving from home to home, and it’s a lot of information to take in all at once so make it clear what your rules are as you go, but do not punish them too harshly for not adhering to them the first few times. Sometimes foster children are coming in with only the belongings they are wearing, so some age-appropriate books or clothes or toys set out for them can be a very nice gesture. Also keep in mind that children may want to take the time to look into the closets, under the beds, in the cupboards. They are checking to make sure the home is safe or that there are places they could hide if they need to. Let them take the time in the tour to do so.
- if you have other children, have them be a part of the tour. Let them guide the kids around. Have the children there for the rules, so the foster child knows that the rules apply to everyone. Let the children pick together what the movie for the night will be. Don’t force interaction, but make it available to them.
- Activities. Children may not be interested in participating, but activities can take their minds off of other things and help them feel part of the family quicker. This could be as simple as making the popcorn for movie night, or it could be something in the vein of helping to assemble a bookshelf for the room. Packing the lunch for a picnic that everyone goes on. Do not force them into choosing things or making the decisions for the whole group, as that can lead to pressure and panic, but offer them the choice to make the decision.
- Make a Memory Book. This will take a little research and digging, but can give a foster child who feels constantly upturned something solid to hold on to. Foster children who are in many foster homes or in foster care for a long time can start to have memory loss of their childhood and life events. Some may not even remember what day their birthday is. You can contact schools for reports and records, the case worker for photos. Depending on the circumstance, the book could include the child’s family tree, pictures or stories they have created, photos of people that are significant to them, like their friends and your family members. If you don’t have any of those, you can print out photos of people they admire. Add things that are important to them – little mementos like a hair ribbon from their best friend at the last school or a pebble from a camping trip. Part journal/part scrapbook, a memory book should focus on the future as much as the past, and have plenty of room for them to add to. This they can take with them in future homes or schools and use to remember the things that are important to them. Building the book together can also help you get to know the child and bond over the project.
Every child, every circumstance, every home is different. There are so many ways to take care of a child, but the most important is to be there for them. Security and a sense of control are key in the lives of foster children, most of whom have lived a whole life without it. Any way you can best build that security with and for them is a good way!
Thanks for reading!