Having a foster child join your family is a huge life event for them and you. The first step is to create a warm and welcoming environment. This will help a child to feel loved and valued from the beginning of their new placement.
A child may appear to settle in quickly but put yourself in their shoes and think how frightening it must be to move away from everything you know, to carers about whom you may know very little. If a child is joining your family in an emergency for example, they may have been told little more than where you live and if there are any other children in the home.
If it is a planned placement the young person should have been given a profile, which has photos of your family and home along with background information about the family lifestyle. If there is time, a child should have the opportunity to visit and meet everyone – including any family pets!
AFA have supported lots of families through these challenging early days. We’ve compiled 10 top tips that will help you and your foster child adjust to your new situation.
1. Know what you need to know
It is really important that you speak with a foster child’s social worker before the placement starts. Although the information you need is often highly confidential it is essential that you have sufficient background knowledge in order to keep the child, you and your family safe. If there are gaps in the information available AFA can approach the placing authority on your behalf and specify the information you need, for example, a risk assessment.
Things that are helpful to know include the child’s preferred name, what they like to do, their routines, favourite foods and any medical requirements. If there is anything you are unsure about, ask the child’s social worker so that you can plan ahead.
2. Prepare for their arrival with some toys, books, or their favourite film
This is particularly important if a child doesn’t have any of their own belongings with them. Ask the social worker if the child’s possessions can be brought to you as soon as possible. But if there is going to be a delay, buy sufficient clothes (taking the child with you if they are of an age to choose what they want to wear) to last for a week at least. These clothes can then become the child’s clothes and move with him or her, if that is the plan.
Make sure that children have the necessary school uniform and PE kit so that they don’t feel different to their peers. It seems like a nice touch to have a photo frame ready for a picture of the child’s family, but make sure you discuss this with the child’s social worker first. Family relationships can be complex.
3. Introduce yourself using the name you’d like the child to use
First names are usually best. If a child is old enough, ask them what they would like to be called and what they would like to call you. Children may be coming from their family home or another placement where they have called the carers ‘Mum’ or ‘Dad’ and if they use these terms it is best to let them – there will be plenty of time to help them find something more appropriate. Make sure you involve anyone else living in the home in the discussion as they may have a preferred name too.
4. Be aware of your body language, eye contact, language and tone
Most children, regardless of age, want to be reassured when they are in a stressful or distressed situation. Where possible, you should ask the social worker if you can speak with the previous carer before the child is placed with you. This will give you the opportunity to find out more about the child and avoid any ‘triggers’ that may cause a negative reaction. If the full details of the child are not known, talk in a gentle voice and show warmth, being guided by the child as to whether they want to be physically comforted.
5. Show the child their room and the places they need to know
Children need to have their own room where they can take time out, study and sleep. They also need to know where the nearest toilet is and where they can find you if they are feeling upset or ill during the night. In time a young person may like to add a personal touch to their room, particularly if they are to stay with you for some time.
6. Offer the child something to eat or drink
Offer food and drink and where possible give the child a choice which, if you have spoken with the previous carers, can include something you know to be their favourite. Doing this fairly soon after the child arrives provides an opportunity to talk about who lives in the home and any other key pieces of information. Don’t overwhelm a child with details, stick to what they need or want to know.
7. Be sensitive to the information shared with you by the child or their social worker
Have somewhere where you and whoever came with the child can talk in private. Children who are living apart from their birth family are very sensitive to others sharing confidential information about their back history. This should be shared on a ‘need to know’ basis as family and friends should only know enough to keep themselves, their children and the child placed with you safe.
8. Let them know you’re happy to talk but don’t expect them to do so
It’s good to encourage open discussion but be guided by the child’s response. Be patient and think how it must feel for the child. Remember to say they are welcome to your home and that you will keep them safe. Keep dialogue simple and don’t expect a child to remember all that you have said. Be led by the child when talking about their birth family, keep questions to a minimum and ‘file’ information like the names of family members (and pets) that might prove useful later on.
9. Go through your house rules…but keep to the essentials only
When a child is coming into or moving to a new placement, they have a lot to think about. Foster children will, when it feels appropriate, join in with the chores and become aware of the house rules and what is expected of them. Make sure that you let your own children, or any other children you care for, know that the new arrival will not immediately be expected to join in with chores. Introduce house rules gradually, acknowledge a child’s contribution and be prepared to be flexible.
10. Think ahead and find out what they like to do
Ask about the activities a child is involved in or would like to do. Children like and need structure, but they also need spontaneity and variety. Many of our children have not had the opportunity to take part in very simple activities like shuffling through autumn leaves or jumping in puddles! All the family can be involved in planning ahead for the annual family holiday but be aware that many children can’t cope with too much excitement and their behaviour can become very unsettled when they are away from home.
Take care of yourself and all the family
With so much going on and needing to be done, your attention and energy can be taken up with settling in a child. It can be easy to forget about the needs of you and your family. Being a foster carer can be challenging, so make sure that you take time out for yourself, to be with your partner and spend some 1 to 1 with each of your children.
It’s important to remember that adjusting to a new situation can take time. All children are different and even the most experienced foster carers cannot prepare for everything that the first few weeks may throw at them. Use the support provided and discuss any difficulties with your Placement Manager as they occur. Our knowledge, experience and support are available 24/7 and we are here to help you whatever you need.
For fostering in Norfolk and Suffolk, please contact our East Anglia team on 01603 559255. For fostering in Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Northamptonshire, Nottinghamshire, Buckinghamshire and the West Midlands, call our Midlands office on 01332 813866.