If you’re a fan of family comedies or Mark Wahlberg (I am), then chances are you might have seen the movie, Instant Family. Mark Wahlberg plays the husband of a couple who adopted three children. I have watched this movie about 10 times now and I cannot tell you enough how much joy I get from it. The first reason for my love of Instant Family, it is based on a true story. The second reason is it is an honest reflection of adoption. Keep in mind, it is a two-hour movie so not every complex aspect of adoption could be fit in, but it is earnest.
The Wagners go through the process of fostering three siblings, one of whom is a teenager, Lizzy. In the movie, it shows the children struggling with acclimating to their new home. It shows important moments of bonding and the real emotions that children who are placed for adoption go through; such as doubt, low self-esteem, testing boundaries, confusion, resentment, anger, distrust, and more. One of the best scenes shows Mr. Wagner (Mark Wahlberg) seeking out ways to bond with Lizzy (the teenager). Lizzy struggles the most with readjusting into their home. When she starts acting out, Mr. Wagner takes her to a home he is working on fixing up and shows her how to release her frustrations and angst with some home demolition.
There is also a scene where the Wagners take the three children to an amusement park to try and bond with them. Two of the children have a blast and gain the approval of the Wagners, while Lizzy takes off to hang out with her friends.
There are several scenes where the Wagners take great strides in connecting with the children and taking their feelings into consideration, allowing their bonding to commence. I truly could not have been happier with how the movie played out. Again, they were not able to fit every complex circumstance of adoption into two hours, but it did give a few great starting points on how to bond with your foster child.
1. Groundwork – So, you are about to embark on fostering and your child will soon be making their way into your home. What should you do first in terms of preparing and bonding? The first thing you should do is groundwork. You should immediately be asking for records so you can review where your child is coming from, what they might have been exposed to previously; if they have experienced any kind of trauma; did they have a foster mom that they had problems with; do they have allergies; what are their likes or dislikes; do they have a favorite toy or favorite holiday? Laying the groundwork gives you a mental state for what you might be able to expect or look for once your child has entered your home. Not only does it help you with preparing, but it also speaks volumes to your foster child that you took the time to get to know them and took an interest in their lives before you came into it. A lot of foster children see more than one placement. I had two placements myself. It can be overwhelmingly exhausting for a child to have to go through the repetition of giving one more person the rundown of their life or their likes or dislikes. It speaks volumes to children when they see effort from adults. In a child’s mind, it is one less thing that they have to be responsible for when their worlds can be a bit bonkers and unbalanced.
2. Quality Time – The second most important step you can take to bonding with your foster child is spending quality time with them. Now, you certainly are not expected to take your child to the amusement park every weekend, but taking your child on family outings and going places is a great option. Making an effort to partake in family gatherings shows a solid foundation and makes your child feel included. It is also a fun way to get acquainted and start the relationship on a positive and fun note. Amusement parks can be expensive though, and quality time does not mean monetary. It is just as important, if not more, that you engage with your child and do activities such as homework, reading, playing board games, going for walks, going to the park, cooking with them, helping them get ready for school or bed, talking about their day, and reflecting on their hopes and dreams. Building attachments with your child is done with consistency. It is imperative you set quality time aside each day to set the expectation of you and your child. You want to hold yourself accountable in your role of this connection and pairing. Quality time gives both of you something to look forward to as well as familiarizes you both with one another.
3. Routine – This one is just as important as quality time in my book and goes hand in hand. Establishing routines from the beginning of placement has many benefits. The first being that it creates a sense of safety and belonging. Children in foster care are often craving a sense of control as their lives have been sent in so many directions. Establishing routines can give them the control they need while also reaffirming that they are safe and have a key role in the family. Routines can be as simple as reading books after a bath, brushing your teeth after every meal, setting up chore lists and times, and set blocks of time for activities, and school work or other play time. Trust is one of the hardest things to earn with children in foster care. Regular routines are something your child can depend on each day and can help strengthen their trust for you.
4. Privacy – Privacy is another important way to bond. When you are fostering a younger baby, talking about the family history in front of your child does not hold the same impact as when the child gets older. Keep in mind that even a 2-year-old starts to shape their identity at that young of an age. Hearing traumatic details about their family and their own trauma being discussed over dinner or on a phone conversation can be devastating to them. When you foster older children including young teens, the exposure to instability, trauma, and abuse is quite often more severe and has a more significant impact on them. This is also a time in an adolescent’s life where they are trying to find their own self-identity. Oftentimes they have heard every discouraging and horrific detail about where they came from and what landed them in the system to begin with. Your child is desperately seeking connections and will find that with anyone in their life or in their history. Another thing to keep in mind is teenagers can be very forgiving of the people and situations that landed them in foster care to begin with. Most foster care children have exposure to therapy, either in school or out. Part of the healing process that is encouraged of them is to come to peace with their story and circumstances. Many well-meaning foster parents, in an attempt to connect with or provide a sense of understanding, may be inclined to speak about the history and backstory with disdain and disgust. Remember that no matter what the story is, it is your child’s story. It is their story to tell. I have heard many foster parents say that they do not want their foster children’s story to define them.Your child’s story is their story. That means the good, the bad, and the ugly. Part of being the stable adult means providing unconditional love, compassion, and privacy. You might be the first one in your child’s life who has provided this. By providing unconditional love, compassion, and understanding, healing can truly begin for your child and for yourself.
5. Reasonable Expectations – The last key to bonding that I have is mounting reasonable expectations for your foster child. In a time in both of your lives where a lot of change is happening, it is important to make reasonable expectations and to voice them. Underlying some concrete and clear expectations for your home, boundaries, and relationships is important. Relationships are not built overnight. Healthy relationships are not built overnight. Even when both people in the relationship come from primarily healthy backgrounds, they take time. So take time setting up expectations that are reasonable, not overwhelming, and are also achievable. Allow the “honeymoon” period, where everything seems to be going beautifully well. All children, including foster care children, will rebel or push the limits. Testing is a crucial part of bonding because it will show the child that, even when they show you their worst, you will not abandon them.
My parents fostered a lot of children in their lifetime. When another child from foster care was introduced to our home, our parents prepared us for how to bond with them. A lot of the bonding depended on the age of the child. My mom was very open with us as we got older about the situation that the child left and as much as she could about the family and what to expect. When we would get the babies born affected by drugs, my mom was very real about how it was going to impact us. There was crying at night, there was the need for strict routine, noises, sounds, and even how to properly rock some of the fragile infants. When some of the toddlers came in, it was very common for my mom to have us all meet each other in the living room, and she would have us bond or have us pair with the child. We only had toddlers, infants, and children come in that had experienced trauma. My mom and dad would do their best with the information that they had access to, not only on what some of the behaviors might be but also how we could help. One of the children my parents fostered was a 6-month-old named Layla. She had been severely shaken by her biological mom’s boyfriend. She was both blind and deaf. The doctor told my mom there was nothing she could do but feed her and they would be finding her a permanent home as soon as possible. My mom refused to accept the doctor’s prognosis. My mom would put eye patches on Layla to help strengthen her eyes, alternating them from one eye to another depending on the day. She would have us read to Layla. When we talked to her, she had us stroke Layla’s face gently to let her know we were talking and cooing with her. When Layla first came, my mom was able to bang pots and pans behind her and she would not flinch. When it was time for Layla to be placed in a more permanent home, Layla would wake up if someone sneezed loud in the other room. A lot of Layla’s successes with her healing came from my mom, who educated herself and then educated us on what we could do to help her.
Bonding with your foster child is the seed of giving a child life. Bonding is the best gift you can give your child. You might be making a difference for one child, but for another child, you are the difference. You are the reason your child might hear again or see again. You are the reason your child might love again or trust again. You are the reason your child might become the next Olympic gold medalist like Simone Biles. You are the difference maker because of your determination and intention of bonding. You are setting the stage of healthy relationships.
Now it’s your turn. We would love to hear ways that you have bonded with your foster child! There’s no right or wrong answer and we look forward to more suggestions for our amazing community. We are all in this together.
Helen Simpson (Born in April of 1989) was born in San Francisco, CA. She was adopted at 3 years old. Diagnosed with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder at age 11 years old, from a young age she was putting pen to paper and writing as much as she could, since words seemed no easy feat. In 2007, she began her studies in Special Education at Harford Community College. In 2017, she made it her life mission to educate and give voice to as many people as possible. She runs a website and blog www.lovemeenough.com as an advocate for FASD, Special Needs, and Adoption. In its first two weeks on Amazon, Helen’s first paperback book, “The Way I Am Is Different,” saw spot #155 on Amazon’s Best Selling Ranks for Special Education literature. Helen currently resides in beautiful but increasingly crowded, Portland, Oregon with her husband, Brando, and son, William.