A common worry among foster carers, especially people who have only recently been approved, is how to form a bond with a new foster child who comes into their care.
Susannah Davis and Jayne Hughes have great experience in this topic and have shared their insight and tips, from how to prepare for the foster child’s arrival to supporting your birth children as they bond too.
Susannah is Regional Training Service Manager at Outcomes First Group, our parent company. Jayne is one of our most experienced foster carers; she has fostered more than 30 children over the last 15 years, aged from birth to 18.
This amount of experience can’t be summed up quickly – so grab yourself a brew (and maybe a tissue) and get comfortable.
How does bonding with foster children differ from bonding with your own birth children?
The main difference is that a foster child hasn’t been with you from the start. As your birth children grow up, you get to understand them and what makes them tick. With foster children you are starting from scratch – you are learning about them and they are learning about you.
And there’s another layer to deal with, too, because foster children may have had lots of broken attachments. This is where Therapeutic Parenting is so important. You can’t expect to do the same as you would do with your birth children and succeed in building a bond.
- With foster children, you have to take things from their perspective and deal with whatever it is that they need from you.
- Be yourself, make sure you have good support networks and, above all, have fun.
- Anything you can do to help create a less intense, more playful environment will help you to build bonds with foster children.
With your own birth children, bonding normally comes naturally. You hug and kiss your children to show them you love them. When you’re fostering a child, with them it’s very different.
- Often they don’t want to be touched.
- You have to go at their pace.
- It can be a long process but once they start to trust you the bond will develop naturally.
We had one teenager who wore his baseball cap all the time. He would never take it off. Then, one day, he came downstairs without his baseball cap on and we looked at each other and said “wow”. He’d put down his comfort blanket.
It took weeks for him to get to that point and we didn’t try and force it. Not long after that he began to copy my birth children and kiss me on the cheek before he went off to school. It was such an amazing change.
“Be prepared for the unexpected and willing to think the unthinkable”
What do you advise in the first few days and weeks of fostering a child?
It’s essential to take things at the child’s pace and think about things from their perspective. They may well be anxious or scared.
One foster carer, with the best of intentions, put up welcome balloons and invited the neighbours around for a buffet when the foster child arrived. But the child had suffered physical abuse from his dad and he had a broken nose. He just wanted to go quietly to his bedroom.
- Put a welcome basket on the child’s bed and maybe think about their favourite food or activity.
- Make sure that they know everything they need to know about your home and the people in it to reduce any anxiety they may be feeling.
- Reassure them that you are there for them, that you will listen, and that they don’t have to do anything they don’t want to do.
- I always suggest being prepared for the unexpected and willing to think the unthinkable.
Try not to plan too much and don’t expect things to happen quickly. A child will only bond with you when they feel safe and that can take months. Consistent parenting is essential so they know what to expect and where the boundaries lie.
Normally there is a period at the beginning when children may be on their best behaviour but after a while they may start to test you to see if you will still stand by them. Stick to the boundaries you have created, keep things as calm as possible and be consistent.
We were fostering a child of nine who had had eight foster homes over six months before she came to us. She had a background of severe abuse. She would run away repeatedly and we had to call the police. She expected us to go crazy when she came back but we didn’t, we just stayed calm and said, “your pizza is on the table”. After a few months she stopped running and began to settle down.
- Try to make a child’s bedroom warm and comfortable.
- Keep a girls’ box and a boys’ box ready containing suitable bedding and accessories. (One night we changed the bedding three times and, in the end, none of the children came!)
- It’s a good idea to keep pizzas in the freezer, too. Food is an important thing for foster children and they may not have eaten much before they come to you.
Our dog often helps a young person to settle. Teenagers who’ve come to us in the middle of the night often don’t want to talk but will sit and play with the dog.
And what about as time progresses?
Gradually the guards will start to come down. You will begin building a relationship with that child and start to have different conversations. Take it slowly.
Foster children let you know as they start to settle down. You can help this along by making sure they know you will fight their corner in every situation.
I recommend involving them in everything you are doing as a family. We always take foster children on holiday with us if we can and the rules are the same as they are for our own children and grandchildren.
“We know these children are not ours but we live our lives as though they are”
How can birth children bond with foster children?
Birth children will have been involved in discussions about fostering from the start of the process. While it’s not appropriate to tell them what a foster child has been through, they need to understand that these children come from different backgrounds and may have had different experiences to their own.
I find that birth children are often able to manage situations intuitively. Foster children may be less suspicious with someone who is closer to their own age. I’ve seen a birth child put on the Wii and invite a child to play with them and this is really helpful.
It’s worth reminding birth children that everyone needs their own space sometimes and not to take it personally if, sometimes, a foster child just wants to go to their room.
If your agency has done its matching properly then the foster child should mix well with your birth children.
Most of the time birth children are excited at the prospect of a new foster child. Sometimes, of course, it can be hard for them, for example if a foster child is abusive or steals and birth children feel there is nothing they can do.
But fostering is such a fantastic life lesson for them. Our boys were teenagers when we started fostering and it has taught them so much, including how lucky they have been in their own life.
Our children played a major role in our fostering journey as a family and would often take looked after children skating or bowling. That’s not to say it’s always easy because it isn’t. There can be feelings of jealousy and anger at the way foster children behave sometimes.
How do you deal with difficult feelings birth children may experience, such as jealousy or anger?
The quality of the match between foster children and the fostering family is important, which is why we spend a long time on the process. We need the right children to be in the right homes with the right people. It’s worth remembering that you are a fostering family and that includes your birth children.
- It is important for all of the children in the household to get to spend one-to-one time with the adults.
- If you’re a couple, you may have to work it so that each of you spends time with the children separately.
- I recommend keeping the same boundaries and safe care practices in place whether foster children are there or not so that resentments aren’t allowed to develop (“We can only do X when there’s no foster child here”).
- There are support networks so that birth children can talk to each other and share experiences. We run events so that birth children can meet each other and provide support to one another.
It can be hard sometimes but it’s important to be open with your birth children and explain why you are doing what you are doing. Sometimes they can feel ignored or jealous and it’s important to keep the communication going.
National Fostering Group involves birth children in its events and that’s a really important thing as birth children have a key role in the success of a placement.
“This is what we go through to get them to the life that they deserve. It’s hard work but it’s the most rewarding thing you will ever do”
If you’ve built a strong bond with a foster child, what happens when it’s time for them to leave?
The key is the way you frame it for yourself. You need to think about where the child is moving on to and what the outcome is for them. If the transition can become a celebration of something good, it will be easier to manage. That’s not to say it is easy, however, as it is a separation and loss.
- I recommend that people give themselves a break and practice self-care at this time, as well as thinking about their own birth children and how things feel for them.
- It is important to send the foster child with their memory box and life story work, so they are taking this into their new home with them. Never send them with their belongings in bin bags.
- Being open and honest right from the start – explaining to birth children that the foster child will be with you for as long as s/he needs to be – makes it easier to manage the end of their time with you.
For many foster carers this can be the most difficult part. We’ve found it to be this way, particularly with babies as you bond with them if they are with you from birth.
National Fostering Group is careful to make the transition as smooth as possible, with a period of introduction and time spent with the child’s new family. It’s perfect the way they do it.
But, nevertheless, when they go it is a form of grieving and it can take a while to heal. We know these children are not ours but we live our lives as though they are.
- Once we know where a child is going and when, we start to help to prepare them for that transition with their life story books and memory boxes. That helps provide closure for us too.
- If we can, we try to build a relationship with their new family. If they see us getting on well with their new family, it shows them that it’s OK for them to feel relaxed with them.
Saying goodbye can be hard for birth children, too. One of our boys was doing his GCSEs when one of the foster children left. We had a call from school to say he was distressed and we had to go and collect him from school. He was so upset and he hadn’t wanted to tell us.
This is definitely the worst part but you have to think about the needs of the foster child first and foremost. This is what we go through to get them to the life that they deserve. It’s hard work but it’s the most rewarding thing you will ever do.
Have Susannah and Jayne inspired you?
Fostering a child is clearly challenging but hugely rewarding too – and we give you plenty of support. If you’d like to find out more about becoming a foster carer, we’re happy to tell you more – get in touch for a chat with your local team.