I remember a specific exercise from my training class before I got my foster parent license. We identified all the facets of child’s development (physical, emotional, social, etc.) on a large sheet of paper and then, to illustrate the trauma that occurs when a child must be removed from their home, we ripped the paper into pieces and had to tape it back together like a puzzle. Halfway through the exercise, our trainers came around and said “family visit” and messed up all the pieces we had laid back together. Most children in foster care have regular visits with family. These may be weekly or even several times a week, and are an important tool for keeping the child and parent connected as you work toward the goal of reunification. But sometimes, family visits can cause issues for both the child and the foster family. If you’re a foster parent struggling with something similar, here are some things you can do about it.
Talk to the child’s social worker
The child’s social worker is usually your best place to start. They aren’t going to know the issues you’re facing unless you tell them. Explain your concerns and be specific. If possible, offer suggestions on how to resolve the problem. Can the visit be moved to a different time or day of the week? Are there different locations available? If the child is seeing a therapist, you can also engage them in brainstorming solutions to help the visits work best for everyone.
When appropriate, talk to the child’s family
If you have a good relationship with the child’s parents, approach them with your concerns and ask for their help. Is the visit at a time when the child would normally be hungry? Ask if their family would be willing to bring a snack, or plan to bring one yourself. For one of my kids, the scheduling of the family visit left little time for homework, especially when they also needed to decompress. I asked her parents to help with homework during the visit–this had the added benefit of engaging them in their child’s education.
Study your foster child
One of the challenging things about foster parenting is having to parent a child you don’t know. Once a child has lived with you for a while, you’ll know how to read their emotions in their faces and body language, what tends to scare or overwhelm them, and what calms them down. For kids that are new to your home, you have to study them to identify both their triggers and their successful coping strategies. They may need to do something active (one of my kids wanted to jump on the trampoline alone for a little while after every family visit), or they may prefer a more introspective activity like writing in a journal or drawing. This can be a great exercise that you do together, as you help them learn to name their feelings and find activities they can use when they are feeling a certain way.
Clear your schedule
Family visits can trigger big emotions, so one of the greatest gifts you can give you child is space to process them. Plan ahead based on your child’s needs, but keep plans flexible. Some kids need a low-key night with familiar routines, while others need the distraction of physical activity. Strive to give grace and keep your expectations of the child low.
Check in with other foster parents
Experienced foster parents can be one of your best resources when it comes to problem solving. Chances are, whatever behavior or issue you’re facing, another foster parent has experienced something similar. It can also be helpful to get perspective from someone who understands what you’re experiencing but isn’t in the throes of it now. Even the simplest solutions can be difficult to see when you’re in the middle of the meltdown.
Above all, remember that family visits do serve a purpose in a child’s life. They help children and their parents to retain, and even grow, the connections that are so important if a child is to return home. They can also be great learning tools if families have the supervision and assistance to learn how to parent and connect well. Birth families, foster families, and social workers can all work together to make them the best experience possible.