When to Say “I Love You” to a Foster Child?
A surprisingly awkward moment for many foster parents is knowing when to say “I love you” to a foster child. Do you say it right away? Do you wait for her to say it? And what if you don’t really feel it?
Welcoming a new foster child to your home can feel awkward, overwhelming and even uncomfortable as you work to know the child and build a relationship with him. It’s so important to remember that while you are feeling the stretch of this new dynamic, he is likely feeling it one hundred times more.
There is no one answer of when is the right time to say “I love you to a foster child” and it depends on many factors: the child’s age, whether the expectation is that the child will reunify with her birth family or you will be adopting her, and you and your child’s temperament.
When To Say “I Love You” to a Foster Child
One mom in our Creating a Family Facebook Support Group summed up the awkwardness of knowing when to say “I love you” to a foster child well:
Today was the 1-month mark since our 12-year-old foster son moved in. We are adopting (him) from foster care. Husband and I have both talked about it and (feel like) it is similar to dating. Saying it too soon seems like it could be perceived as awkward. Not saying it though could seem like we don’t care?
Oh, the classic push-pull of “too soon” or “not soon enough” – it’s a tug-of-war that likely encompasses much more than just the words of “I Love You” for a new foster child. This wise momma is aware of the nuances and perceptions that could be going on. Her compassion for his potential perceptions is a great foundation. Other foster moms in the Creating a Family Facebook Support Group shared their experience.
Start Slowly When Saying I Love You to a Foster Child
Jocelyne suggested “easing” your foster child into hearing his new foster parents say it:
We said things like ‘we appreciate you,’ ‘we like having you in the family,’ or ‘we like your laugh.’ We talked about saying “I love you” and its importance. We told him there was no pressure for him to say it. We asked if (it was okay that) we said it. He was okay with it. He was 12 at placement. He didn’t say ”I love you” for several months.
Asking his permission to say “I love you” to him gives him freedom to find his own way through the newness of your relationship. It’s a very healthy, trust-building way to proceed. As was Daniele’s timely reminder that it’s not really about us or our expectations when she shared her experience with her tweens:
They haven’t said it back, nor do I expect them to because it is so recent for them, but I want them to get used to hearing that they are loved and appreciated.
Learning What “I Love You” Means
It’s important to bear in mind that many times foster kids come to our homes with life experiences of “love” and “family” that are not healthy or even very loving. Children who have experienced pain or neglect or other trauma by the hands of the very person whom they have loved and trusted since birth will very often need time to see a different kind of love and find a path to healing from those deep hurts. For that reason, April cautioned against drawing too many similarities between saying “I love you” to a foster kid and the awkwardness of saying it too soon in a dating relationship:
I think it’s never too soon. I don’t really relate it to dating because dating is not unconditional. I want these kids (even those who will be in my home temporarily through foster care) to know that I love them, always, no matter what. They don’t have to earn it. It’s not because I found them respectful or polite or funny or smart. It’s because they are worthy of my love and my job as a parent is to love them.
Love is a Choice
Sara shared that in their home they talk about love as a choice they make, not just a feeling and that joining their family meant that Mom and Dad were choosing no matter what to love them, “unconditionally – the good, the bad, and the ugly.”
Several other members said they find specific ways to express the “I Love You” as connected to the child’s innate worth as a person, emphasizing that the expectations of hearing it back or even feeling it reciprocated must be managed and kept firmly in check.
Deal With Your Own Stuff First
Speaking of expectations, be mindful that your own very personal preferences and individual family culture should be considered. This is a topic you and your partner might want to discuss in advance of welcoming a new child to your home. As with MANY of these issues in fostering, it’s a good idea to know your own attachment, parenting, and communication styles. This allows you to come to the relationship with your own “stuff” dealt with. Again, this is also important for managing your expectations so that you can freely say it, whenever you feel it’s right, without feeling a sting of hurt that the child cannot say it back.
Walk What You Talk
Another dynamic to be aware of is what kind of communicator your foster child might be. Is he a “microwave” communicator – does he warm up quickly? Or is he more like a slow cooker kind of processor? Think carefully about how you can make your words, if and when you choose to share them, really count for this kid in light of what you know about him.
As a couple moms cautioned, kids from trauma need to hear it but they need even more (maybe?) to know it in experience and deed…. In Amy’s words, “I would think it would sound hollow to a child from trauma. I imagine they need to see it in action first, hear it second.”
How Do I Say “I love you” to My Foster Child?
Saying “I love you” is not supposed to be hard, is it? But it can be in foster care, especially when fostering tweens and teens.
A couple of the moms shared their tricks. April, a foster mom to a teen, takes the direct approach. She develops and even practices a script:
I wanted to talk to you about something that’s a little awkward… but it’s important to me. Is that okay if we talk about it now? (Make eye contact) I want you to know that I love you. There’s never anything you can do that will change that. We brought you into this home because you are amazing, you are special, and you have my heart. You deserve every bit of love I have for you, and it’s my job to make sure you know that. So I’m going to start telling you I love you. All. The. Time. Until you’re sick of it. Until you believe it. And you should know that if you don’t feel the same way, that’s okay. It doesn’t change how I feel about you. I will be saying it all the time, but you never have to feel pressure to say it back. But I’m saying it because I mean it, I love you to the ends of the earth and I always will.
Katie, another foster mom to tweens and teens, takes a more indirect approach: she suggests sending a light breezy text message. The text can be an encouraging note for their day that ends with “I love you.” The youth can choose how to respond. Or not. This approach takes some of the weight of a face-to-face meeting off the child’s shoulders if you think they might not be ready for anything more direct.
Foster Kids Need to Hear That They Are Loved
The recurring thread through this whole enlightening conversation is that foster kids need to hear that they are loved. That they are safe in your care. No matter when you choose to say it, telling them they are loved is indeed critical to building a healthy, trusting relationship.
However, hearing it, even daily, is just not enough. Creating a safe, loving, nurturing space for them to hear it and feel it – even if they can or won’t ever say it back – is central to the role of a foster parent. Doing it well takes practice and a firm grip on your expectations. Brainstorming and support with other foster parents who are in the trenches with you certainly is a huge help.
When did you say “I love you” to your foster child?
Other Creating a Family Resources You Will Enjoy
- Becoming a Foster Parent: What You Really Need to Know
- Impact of Loss on Foster Kids and Foster Parents
- Dr. Karyn Purvis: Raising and Healing Abused & Neglected Kids