Foster parenting is not for the faint of heart! There are some important qualities foster parents must possess. Fostering is one of the hardest things you’ll ever do. There are 3 a.m. phone calls, meltdowns in the middle of Walmart, food hoarding, crazy lying, and long legal battles. There is a myth that if you just provide a nice, clean house, then everything should fall into place. Or that if you just love your foster child she will love you back and be eternally grateful, then everyone will live happily ever after! But finding that love is not enough to help a broken child from hard places. The reality is that the average foster parent fosters for about one year and then resigns. Fostering is harder than it looks.
So, what are some important qualities needed to be a good foster parent? Well, let’s look at some negative motivations first. Then, let’s look at fostering from the vantage point of needs. If we can meet needs on a consistent basis, we will be rock-star foster parents and have a bit more longevity.
Wrong reasons to foster
Believe it or not, people get into foster care for the wrong reasons. They may not even realize it, but their motivations may not be the purest. Whatever the case, the child is not the center of their motivation. Perhaps you are looking to get into fostering for the first time. Maybe you entered with good intentions, but things have changed and you realize that you stayed too long. Now you have lost sight of your original purpose.
Here is the bottom line: if the individual child does not remain the center of your purpose for fostering, no amount of important qualities can make you a good foster parent.
- Money. Yes, foster parents do get reimbursed for caring for a child. It is not an income nor a job. It is a stipend. It is supposed to be used for room, board, transportation, clothing, and other needs the child may have. Some people become foster parents because their finances are not where they need to be or because they think it’s easy money. But guess what? It won’t be worth it. No amount of money overrides the need to care for a child who is basically homeless. Also, older foster youth will know if you are doing it for the money; they have a sixth sense like that. The love of money over love of the child may prevent attachment with that child; attachment is vital if a foster parent is to be successful. Don’t do it for the money.
- Guilt. Have you ever seen commercials of poor, disheveled, unhappy looking children that need to be sponsored? Now, don’t get me wrong, children living in poverty do need help from sponsors. But my point is this question: what is your motivation? Is it guilt? The same thing applies to fostering. Should we foster out of a sense of guilt or out of a full heart that wants to give to an individual in need? If you care for a child in foster care, then you will not be satisfied if you do it out of guilt. Plus, any good feelings will quickly dissipate.
- Pressure. Is your spouse gung-ho about fostering? Were your parents rock stars at fostering? Does someone else feel that you would be a good foster parent but you do not? Whatever the reason, don’t feel pressured to foster. Fostering is not for everyone. Good foster parents have to have the right motivation, a good support network, and the right mindset. If you are not on the same page with your spouse or are being pressured, take a step back and reevaluate your motivations. Have an honest conversation.
- The need to fix your own childhood. Living vicariously through our children is common when it comes to sports, music, and drama. To feel that we succeed when our child succeeds is only natural. The opposite is also true. Especially if you have had a traumatic childhood, fostering may seem like it is therapeutic for yourself. You may feel that if you can help another child heal, somehow it helps you to heal a little. Not necessarily. Remember that children need adults. Adults don’t need children. Focus on serving your foster child unconditionally without any thought of return and your foster care experience will be much better.
What are some important qualities you need to have for your foster kids?
Rather than focusing on what we need to do to become foster parents, we need to be focusing on who we need to be. We get so busy doing things and running from one appointment to another that we lose our true purpose. Our purpose is not to check off the next thing off our to-do list; it is to be there for our foster kid.
- Be patient. The foster experience is one of waiting. Waiting to become licensed. Waiting for your first child to be placed. Waiting for services for your kiddo to begin. Waiting for a call back from your social worker. Waiting to see behavioral changes in your child. Waiting for reunification or adoption. Waiting for the next child. It seems like all you ever do is wait. If you are not a naturally patient person, foster care may not be for you. But the person who needs your patience the most is your foster child. Patience has to do with our perception of time. Children who have been traumatized do not have an accurate perception of time. But, as adults, we should. Therefore, model patience to your little one and they should follow your lead… in time.
- Be flexible. The child welfare system is a behemoth! But it is filled with good people. That being said, things don’t always go our way. Perhaps a court ruling or a social worker decision or out-of-control behaviors from your kiddo throws your world out of balance. It is important during these times to be flexible. You get no extra recognition for having a perfect schedule, a clean house, or a well-behaved foster child. However, your flexibility speaks volumes to your foster kid that our attitude toward a situation is more important than the situation itself.
- Be calm. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a clean house, peace and quiet, all the kids getting along, and no dishes to wash at the end of the day? Foster parenting is far from that! As foster parents, we would prefer peace and order but fostering often brings chaos! Consider this: if the situation is chaotic for you, think about what it must feel like for your foster son or daughter. Adults must stay regulated even when their child is emotionally dysregulated. You must be a rock when your child feels like he is drowning. You must be like an oak tree when the storms of life hit. That’s what your child needs. What good will it be if you are emotionally dysregulated when your child becomes emotionally dysregulated?
- Be a model. Don’t like your foster child cursing? Don’t curse. Don’t want your foster youth to smoke? Don’t smoke. If you want your child to be calm in disappointing situations, then you need to model that as well. Unconsciously, a child models behavior that he sees. So, if you can be a calming influence on your child, eventually you will see that in your child.
- Be an advocate. Foster parenting is not glorified babysitting. As a foster parent, you are the expert on your child! You are responsible for your child 24/7 and know more about your child than any person that serves your child. Therefore, meet your child’s needs! Be their advocate! Yes, your child may have an attorney or a Court Appointed Special Advocate or a Guardian ad Litem, but no one can advocate better for a foster child than their foster parent! Do they need counseling? Do they need an Individualized Education Plan? Do they need a change in medication? Do they need permanency? Do they need help transitioning into adulthood? Then, you, as a foster parent, need to go get it for them! Don’t take no for an answer until they get their needs met! That is what an advocate is! Be one for your kiddo!
- Meet them where they are. Is your foster kid not going to be the next Lebron James? Or Serena Williams? Or Bill Gates? Or Steve Jobs? Perhaps you had unrealistic expectations. What do you do now? Don’t lower your expectations, adjust them! Meet your child where he is, and challenge him to be the best that he can be. Don’t compare him to your biological children, the neighbor’s kids, or any other kid, for that matter. Compare him to what you think they can accomplish with whatever gifts and talents they currently have; don’t compare him with the gifts and talents you wish they had. Celebrate them for who they are, not who you want them to be!
- Love them unconditionally. Adults are supposed to meet children’s needs, not the other way around. If you are fostering to meet some unmet need, you will not be satisfied. If you have a need to be love returned to you from your foster child, you will be disappointed. The best foster parents meet their child’s needs without thinking of that child saying, “Thank you,” or “You’re the best foster mom,” or “I don’t know what I would do without you!” You need to find the motivation to foster within yourself because it often will not come from the child. The phrase is often said, “love is not enough” when it comes to fostering kids with trauma. This means that you need love and patience; love and advocacy; love and continual education; love and an understanding of trauma. But most of the time, it takes love and an understanding of your own needs.
Next steps for important qualities
- Experience. If you do not have your own children and you have never worked with children then you will need some experience before fostering. Whether it is with Big Brothers Big Sisters, coaching, providing respite for current foster parents, working with a church youth group, or volunteering in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at your local hospital, you need to see firsthand what it takes to work with children who have been traumatized. This is your best preparation for fostering.
- Education. Twenty-five years ago, there were not many trainings on trauma-informed information out there. And what little there was, required you to travel a bit in order to get trained. Now, with the advent of radio, podcasts, books on tape (or mp3s), and the internet, foster parents no longer have any excuse for not being educated. Most pre-service training courses are now online as well. With these resources at the tips of our fingers, we should be motivated to learn as much as we can and put our learning into practice!
- Speak with a veteran foster parent. It is a given that you will be interviewed as a prospective foster parent. But have you considered interviewing the agency? Or better yet, interviewing a foster parent that belongs to that agency? This can help you determine whether that agency is a good fit for you. That family will also show you the ropes so you can be better prepared when fostering a child from tough places.
Foster parents are jewels! They are rare, they are valuable, and they are beautiful! But they didn’t get that way overnight. It takes time to develop a diamond. The tough times now only prepare you for tougher times ahead. Fostering is tough. Does it get easier? Not necessarily, but you are more prepared the further down the road you go. Finally, there is no substitute for patience, flexibility, and teachability. Remember there is no such thing as a successful foster parent, only healthy kids. And this makes all the difference!
Derek Williams is an adoption social worker and has been in the field of child welfare and behavioral health since 2006, where he has assisted families in their adoption journey. He and his wife started their adoption journey in 1993 and have eight children, six of whom are adopted. His adopted children are all different ethnicities including East Indian, Jamaican and Native American. He loves traveling with his family, especially to the East Coast and to the West Coast and is an avid NY Mets fan! Foster care and adoption are his passions and callings for Derek, and he is pleased to share his experiences with others who are like-minded.