As new foster parents, you may find yourself navigating relationships that are not only completely unique but also very complex. One of the most potentially problematic relationships, however, can be the one with the biological family. Remember the old adage about walking a mile in someone’s shoes? The biological family may have a sense of lost control, that their parenting is being judged, that the agency (and by extension YOU the foster parents) are their enemy.
Navigating this particular relationship with careful consideration can alleviate stress, provide a positive source of information, can be affirming for the children, and can ease a transition home if that time comes. Here are some things to consider when working on that relationship:
Follow the Leader
One of the most extraordinary gifts a young child can give is to see the world through their eyes. Ask your new foster child what they love about their mom and dad or about a favourite memory. These thoughts can not only serve as positive stories you can remind them of on sad days but are also excellent conversation starters. Speaking about a positive story your foster child shared lets the parent know you have some common ground. It lets them know you are encouraging cheerful memories and contradicts the idea they may have of you as being “against” or opposite to them.
Try the team approach
Think of yourself as an extension of the child’s team. The end goal of parenting (whether biological or foster) is to have a healthy, happy child grow into their full potential. Encourage the bio parents to take on some designated roles that they have success with. This could be as simple as reading them stories or helping with homework, performing an act of personal care, or maybe completing a craft. This shows the parent that you aren’t trying to replace their role and that you recognize their importance to the child.
Communicate within Boundaries
As soon as a child enters your home, find out how and when you are expected to communicate with the biological family and open that door. Understand that it takes some time for communication to be established in a safe environment for both biological and foster family and so it is recommended that you establish an email address and phone number that can maintain your family’s confidentiality. Fortunately, there are many free and simple options such as Gmail or outlook as well as apps such as What’s app or text now that will keep your number a secret. A parent that has just been separated from their child would likely keep you busy all day with updates if they could. You may empathize with this but too much communication can act as a barrier if you find yourself stressing to come up with things to say. One email or a few texts a week to update on information (she lost a tooth! Or he has a math test tomorrow!) Is sufficient.
This is a delicate balance that, if not done properly, can create significant issues during access visits. First, treat all items the children arrive with carefully. Children can travel with a LOT or almost nothing so ensure items are labelled. During access visits, try to check at a pickup that everything is returning with the child. The back and forth will happen for every single visit so establish a relaxed pattern of transferring items into a large carry bag from your trunk so you can double-check that it’s all there, and encourage biological family to do the same. It’s ok to joke about how kids are known to misplace everything to take the pressure off the moment because that’s universal!
Understand that sometimes rapport can break down. Sometimes biological parents are not in the right head-space to build any more relationships in a world they may deem untrustworthy or judgemental. They may even be combative. If this is the case, keep communication objective and concise. If they seem “on the attack” take it with a grain of salt. You are under no obligation to answer accusations or justify yourself. Continue to share information about the children in a positive way and they will either get the message, or not. Either way, you are holding up your end of the relationship and if they change their mind, you will still be there.
Between your new family members, agency workers, and various professionals involved in care, you already have many new faces on your plate. These tips can hopefully help you navigate the unique relationship with the biological family in a respectful way to create a partnership with them to the benefit of all parties involved. For more foster care tips and resources follow us on Facebook or Twitter, LinkedIn or Instagram.