Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to know everything or be a saint or quit your job to be a foster parent. Yes, you should educate yourself, and it may be helpful to take some classes to help you parent children from hard places. BUT what you need most is a willingness to open your home, the perseverance to keep showing up, and love—lots of it. Of course, you will run into issues and problems that you don’t know how to handle, but isn’t that just life? Life is going to throw all kinds of difficult situations your way, no matter what you do. When you become a foster parent, you’re choosing to enter into difficult situations for the sake of a precious child. It is a hard but beautiful calling, and you are capable of answering the call, even if you don’t feel worthy. With that being said, I do think there are some helpful steps you can take to help boost your confidence in becoming an awesome foster parent and providing healing for hurting children in your home.
Mindset: What Is Your Role?
It is helpful to consider your mindset when entering into the foster care world. What is your motivation? How do you view the biological parents that have had their rights temporarily taken away? What do you expect from the children that enter your home? Many people—when they are not integrated into the world of foster care—view foster care as a means to adopt children. However, when you enter into the foster care realm, you will discover that it is much more complex than that. All agencies will tell you, “the goal of foster care is reunification with birth families.” If possible and safe, the children who are in your home will be placed back with their birth families.
This makes your role a difficult one as you are both caring for the child entrusted to you and hoping for the restoration of his family. You advocate for the child that is placed in your home, but you also advocate for the child’s parents. (Many of these parents are former foster youth who do not know how to raise their own children and often need to feel safe, cared for, and loved themselves.) You love the children in your home fiercely, but you also recognize that they have a mom and/or dad who loves them too. You fight for the restoration of their family until the restoration of their family is no longer an option. And when it is no longer an option for the child in your home to return home, you have the opportunity to adopt her and give her lifelong stability, support, and love. Being an awesome foster parent means loving a child that has been placed in front of you—for however long she stays, whether that is one night or forever.
If you are familiar with foster care at all, it is likely that you have heard this phrase. I remember when I first started to become interested in foster care, and I turned on a Tapestry Podcast. I listened as they talked about compromises, redos, and time-ins (all suggestions from the wonderful Karyn Purvis), and I thought to myself “Now this is not going to work in my house.” They talked about how traditional parenting just doesn’t work with children who have come from trauma. As I listened, I tried to believe them, but it was really hard to believe that this was the kind of parent that I was going to have to be if I wanted to do foster care. I didn’t fully believe them until our first placement entered our home. This might sound overly dramatic, but I became a believer that day!
All children in the foster care system have experienced some form of trauma. The removal from biological parents alone is a type of trauma. On top of that, they likely have experienced some type of neglect or abuse. This means that when a child enters your home, he is on high-alert. Children’s brains are often stuck in fight-or-flight mode, almost never feeling safe or at ease. This state of the brain causes behaviors—sometimes aggressive, sometimes manipulative or controlling, sometimes very silly—that will require parenting methods that might be outside your comfort zone or maybe some you wouldn’t have considered before foster care.
Trust-Based Relational Intervention (TBRI) will help in your caring for children in the foster care system. However, TBRI in and of itself does not make you an awesome foster parent. As a foster parent, it is important that you accept that you are going to make mistakes throughout your journey. What makes you awesome is that you are always willing to learn, ask for forgiveness, and do what is best for the children in your home. You do not have to have all of parenting figured out before you start or even while you have a placement. Educate yourself, implement the parenting techniques, and consistently show up for the children in your home, and you will be an awesome foster parent.
My husband and I started foster care before having biological children. We had no idea what we were doing, and we were catapulted into the preteen and teenage years. Even though we had been extensively trained, we felt (and still feel) at a complete loss about some things. Most of our parenting journey has been us trying to do what is right but messing up a lot. We ask for forgiveness. We gave second (and third, and fourth…) chances. We wait outside the doors of their bedrooms and follow them down the street when they rush off in a fury. We consistently and compassionately show them we love them by not giving up when it is really difficult to do so. We did not become “awesome foster parents” by perfectly implementing TBRI, but by imperfectly trying the best we could with what we knew.
The children that enter your home through foster care have experienced unthinkable neglect and abuse, and then on top of that, they have been upheaved from the only people and places they have ever known. Chaos rules their inner and outer world, so they need your home to be a safe, loving, warm, and welcoming place. They need you to be safe, loving, warm, and welcoming. This, of course, looks different for different families. Some of you may be excellent cooks, and food is the way that you will win a child’s heart. Others of you may be adventurous, and giving the child new experiences is your way of showing love. However you show love, show it extravagantly.
We always have a tradition that when we receive a new placement, we allow the child to pick dinner at a restaurant, and then we take him to wherever we have the most gift cards and buy him some important items for his new room (like a bedspread, curtains, etc.) This immediately gives him a voice in your home and is a way to say “Welcome to our home!” in a way that is meaningful and connects with him.
Connection is always first and foremost in trust-based parenting. One way that I have connected with older children in my home is through physical touch. I am not a very touchy person, but I have found that holding a child’s hand (even when it seems like she is too old to do so) or rubbing her back can help provide a feeling of safety that she might not have experienced before. Another way that I try to connect is by going above and beyond in caring for the children. I try to take mental notes of the things they like and surprise them, leave them notes in their lunchbox, and add their favorite meals to our dinner plans. One of the most simple ways you can connect with foster placements is to play with them. We join them in their basketball games, jump with them at the trampoline park, and watch their favorite movies and shows with them. Sometimes, we even connect by playing a silly game on a phone or watching a funny YouTube video.
You can also connect with birth parents while the children are in your home. Many awesome foster parents take pictures to share at visits with a child’s birth family, buy or make presents for moms and dads for birthdays, milestones, or for Mother’s Day or Father’s Day. Others take photos and memories to create photo books or scrapbooks for the children and their parents when they leave to help them have a tangible place to turn when describing that time in their life. This is a way that you can connect not only with the child’s birth family, but also with the child. It shows her that you care about her whole self, including the people that she loves.
Provide Felt Safety
When children come to you from the foster care system, their brains are on high-alert, and they will not feel safe. Yes, your house is safe (especially if you’ve followed all of the rules in order to be a foster parent—geesh!). But the children in your home will not automatically feel safe. You can be an awesome foster parent by providing some structure and predictability and by making their world small. Children and teenagers in your home are coming from chaos and will need some kind of expectation for what their days will look like with you. The more they experience “felt safety,” the more they will be able to follow along with the guidelines and expectations in your home.
One way I have created felt safety in my home is by creating a family calendar. We have a calendar hanging in the entryway to our home. On it, I write big events, our date nights with the kids (my husband and I take turns each month taking them out), and dinner plans. This has helped our kids tremendously with food security. They can see the meal on the calendar and then go look in the fridge to see the ingredients for dinner. You could also create felt safety by incorporating special bedtime routines, staying with them until they fall asleep, or even buying familiar groceries or going to familiar places. This all shows the child that you are a safe person, that you will follow through on what you say, and that you will not abandon or leave him or her. Time is key. Over time, the trust will build because you provided a safe and loving environment for a child to grow, heal, and love.
Take Care of Yourself
All of this being said, foster care may seem pretty overwhelming. I’m not going to sugarcoat it; it is overwhelming. That is why taking care of yourself is essential. Awesome foster parents know that they are only human and are not able to carry the load of foster care on their own. They let others help, and they take care of themselves. As we continue in our journey of foster care and adoption, I realize more and more how caring for yourself is a top priority because it allows you to care better for others in your life. Since starting foster care, I have started going to counseling and the gym on a regular basis. I plan breaks for myself—both alone and with friends. Taking care of my needs was not high on my priority list at the beginning of our foster care journey, and it took a toll on my mental and physical health. It took me a while to come to terms with the fact that I can’t do foster care alone, that I need people surrounding, supporting, and loving me in order to do the difficult, wonderful calling. We need other awesome people in our lives supporting us in order to be the awesome foster parent we want to be.
You Don’t Have to Be Special
People will often say that “it takes a special person to do foster care,” but I disagree. I think it takes a willing person. You should be educated and informed; you should take the classes; you should read the books. But at the end of the day, when you choose to become a foster parent, you choose to show up for a child who needs to know he is valuable. You choose to show her that she is worthy of love and belonging. You choose to be his parent for however long he needs one, no matter what.
And you know what? That is what makes foster parents awesome.
Karly Pancake is a foster and adoptive mom, Spanish teacher, and wife to TJ. They live in Denton, Texas, where they adopted two children through foster care. Her children have changed her life forever in all the best ways. Nothing about her journey to motherhood has been what she expected, but she has certainly loved the adventurous ride. Karly is a big fan of University of Kentucky Basketball, running, and, of course, pancakes. She is passionate about fostering and adopting older children in the foster care system and has been a foster parent since 2017. She started writing to process adoption and becoming a mother, and she hopes to help others on the adoption and foster care journey through her writing. You can find more of her writing at her blog Foster Truth or on her Instagram WeFosterTruth.