The decision to become a foster parent is life-altering, exhilarating, and terrifying. Like first-time parents bringing their newborn home from the hospital, the thoughts, feelings, and experiences you have in your first days as a foster parent are incomprehensible prior to meeting your child.
However, there are some things that potential foster parents can do to prepare for parenting these amazing and resilient kids. As a mom who has been in the trenches, I’ve found each of these actions helpful at different times in our journey.
1. Develop a community.
I cannot stress this enough to potential foster parents: surround yourself with loving, supportive, helpful people. They don’t have to be family. They can be your close friends, your church community, your neighbors, or a foster care support group. Choose people whom you trust, people who are supportive of your decision to care for children in need, and people you feel comfortable asking for help. These individuals and families will become your lifeline when you feel you are drowning in the system, and your backup childcare when life doesn’t go as planned. They can also be mentors, cheerleaders, and loving influences in the lives of your children.
2. Read and research.
There are amazing books on parenting children who’ve experienced trauma. I read The Connected Child twice because there was more great information in it than I could absorb in one reading. I also recommend The Explosive Child and many of the titles on this list. Because we were open to caring for children of any race, I researched transracial families, and I searched for stories from former foster and adopted children to better understand their experiences. This is my experience. It doesn’t have to be yours. I appreciate that not everyone enjoys reading a book cover-to-cover, but I would encourage potential foster parents to seek out information in ways they feel comfortable—read blog posts, use books as a resource and only read sections, or watch videos (I highly recommend this one). Find what works for you and do it.
3. Ask and listen
I believe in the power of story. There is no greater asset to a foster parent than other foster parents. They have experience and knowledge that no class can teach. Moreover, they will likely be brutally honest about their lives. Foster parents are often foster care advocates, but we also realize that this life isn’t for everyone. If you don’t personally know any foster parents, ask your agency to connect you with some. Or find a foster parent support group and attend a meeting before you have a child in your home. What you will learn through the stories of hardship and restoration they’ve seen first hand is invaluable and will give you hope in circumstances that seem hopeless.
4. Seek out training.
The required training by most foster care agencies isn’t enough. Every foster parent I have ever known wishes they’d had more training prior to accepting their first placement. You can never be fully prepared, but the more tools you have in your parenting knapsack, the better you’ll be able to navigate the tough situations. I encourage potential foster parents to gain as much knowledge as possible about childhood trauma and how it affects the developing brain. I would also encourage you to seek out trainings specific to the children you are willing to parent (e.g. physical disabilities, ADHD, oppositional-defiant, learning disabilities, teens, etc.). A few night classes or an all-day Saturday course can give you great insight into the needs of children in foster care and some much needed confidence in your first days with your kiddo(s).
5. Set parameters.
To set parameters regarding the children you are willing to parent, you must do some serious soul-searching and be honest with yourself about your abilities and short-comings. If you have a partner, it is imperative that the two of you are in agreement surrounding the needs of the children you will accept. Saying “no” is always okay and often in the best interests of the child and your family if his/her needs are more than you can manage. No matter what parameters you define for your family, they are okay. Please don’t allow guilt, shame, or coercion to lead you into an unhealthy situation. You will receive calls about children in desperate need of homes who don’t fit your family. It’s a guarantee in the system. Be prepared to hold fast to your parameters. Trust your gut and wait for the child that needs your gifts and strengths.