Interacting with a child’s birth parents can be one of the most nerve-wracking things about being a foster parent. How do you approach a complete stranger after someone else has asked you to care for their child? How do you handle their confusion and anger and defensiveness? What about the reasons their child was brought into foster care–how will those things affect your interactions?
There are many reasons you should work to create a healthy relationship with your foster child’s parent:
1. Joint interactions are less stressful for the child, particularly during family visits and court proceedings.
2. The child is less likely to feel like they must choose between two parents.
3. The child learns that it is possible to disagree with someone and still treat them with respect and kindness.
4. The transition to the next step of the case, whether it is reunification or adoption, is smoother.
5. Your life as a foster parent is challenging enough, without adding a difficult relationship into the mix.
But how do you create that healthy relationship? So often these interactions are tense and uncomfortable at their best and combative at their worst. All my relationships with my foster children’s parents have looked different, but here are a few key components that have helped me along the way.
Start with compassion
Sometimes it is hard to feel compassion for your foster child’s parent. After all, they are the reason the child is in this situation! But if you look deeper, you’ll often find that the birth parent is a victim themselves–of addiction, of mental illness, or even of their own traumatic childhood. Understanding the nuanced factors that lead to neglect and child abuse can help lace your interactions with grace, rather than judgement.
Take the initiative
Your foster child’s parents are not going to be in a healthy emotional state when their children are removed from their care. Even apart from the factors that lead to the child coming to your home, the removal of the child is itself traumatic. If you want a good relationship, or you want to improve a rocky one, you have to be the one to take the initiative. Set aside your differences, swallow your pride, and sometimes just smile and nod and wait to roll your eyes in private.
Find a safe, appropriate way to communicate
The key to any healthy relationship is communication, and the foster parent/birth parent relationship is no different. Check with your agency and your child’s social worker to see if there are guidelines you need to follow, then look for ways to communicate more. Use your common ground (the child) as a jumping off point for discussions. Do you see your foster child’s parent at the beginning or end of family visits? Can you share a funny thing the child said or did? Is there a recent drawing or photo you can give them? Help the child buy or make cards or gifts to celebrate holidays like Mother’s Day, Christmas, or family birthdays. These things help birth parents feel connected to their child and communicate that you realize they are still very much a part of the child’s life.
If your agency permits it, there are also lots of ways you might be able to communicate outside of visits. Can you set up a secure email address to share photos? Perhaps you can use Google Voice or a similar service to speak on the phone without revealing your primary phone number.
At the same time, it is important to maintain appropriate boundaries with your foster child’s parent. These boundaries are going to look different depending on the parent, the nature of the case, and your child’s comfort level. I have found it helpful to communicate, usually with my actions, that while I am happy to talk to them, I am not available to them 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and that we have our own family commitments that need to be respected.
I also try to avoid any discussion of the case itself. It is not my job to discuss the steps they need to take for reunification or any potential changes in the child’s plan.
Sometimes, despite your best efforts, a working relationship is just not possible. In these extreme cases, your boundaries need to be determined by the best interest of the child.
Acknowledge the parts that are uncomfortable
Co-parenting is not easy, even if it is done by two people who have chosen each other as a partner in the process. For foster parents, co-parenting with both the foster child’s birth parent and the government agency who oversees the case, it’s even more difficult. Sometimes there will be differences of opinion and the need for awkward conversations, especially around household rules and the expectations of the child. It’s okay to acknowledge that these conversations can be uncomfortable.
Managing a healthy relationship with your foster child’s parent is hard work, but it is worth it– both for your sake and the sake of the child! Fellow foster parents, what would you add? What has helped you create a good relationship with your foster child’s parent?