Being moved to a new foster home is scary and stressful for a foster child. The child has no reason to trust us, and prior experience doesn’t always assure him that he will be safe with us. Building trust with newly placed foster children takes time and intention.
What can we do as foster parents to build trust with our newly placed foster children? We put the question to our community of experienced foster and foster-to-adopt parents and got some excellent advice.
Preparation is Key
When accepting the placement of a new foster child, our on-line community of foster parents agreed that it’s imperative first to have a strong understanding of how trauma affects a child’s development and behavior. Building trust with your foster child will come more naturally if you understand the context from which the child is functioning.
In addition to the training that your agency offers you, the community of parents suggested a few key areas in which to focus some additional learning. We’ve included links to help you get started:
- Trauma-informed parenting
- ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) research
- Grief and loss in foster care
First Impressions Are NOT Everything
What you see in the first minutes, hours, or days in your home are not necessarily an accurate picture of that child, because trauma and fear all-too-often drive challenging behaviors. Read the file or notes the casework offers you in preparation. His conduct on Day 1 is his way of communicating an unmet need. Give room for his expressions of need and right away, start learning what you can do to meet that need.
Building trust will take time, but in those first days together, you need to find an approach that is unique to that child. Try to balance what you know of the child, with what you observe when you first meet him, with the gift of a “fresh start.”
Just because a child behaved a way in a previous home doesn’t mean they are going to (do that) in your home. ~ Megan
What they tell you on the phone about a child is good to know from a historical point of view, but you may not see any of that at all once they’re with you. ~ Jessica
When The Honeymoon is Over
Just as it’s reasonable to give grace for some challenging behavior in the first moments or days of meeting your new foster child, remember that things can go quite differently at the start of the relationship. It’s quite common for foster kids to have a “honeymoon period” in which they are on their “best behavior.”
Becky reminded us “when the honeymoon ends, you see the real behaviors. This is good because it shows that they are trusting you enough to be themselves.”
Certainly, no one wants to invite challenging behaviors. However, you can take comfort in the fact that you’ve created an atmosphere of trust when you start to see trauma-driven behaviors manifesting.
Hang in there with them for that honeymoon period and for the “new normal” that presents itself following. Your consistency through both transitions will build trust and send the message that you are with the child for whatever he needs from you.
Let the Child Show You Who She Is
The caseworker’s notes can undoubtedly give you preparation for the child’s arrival. But when it comes to day-to-day living, take the opportunity to “study” your new foster child and learn who she is.
Building trust with your new foster child might look a fun, staged “interview” where you ask – and get asked – a combination of serious and silly questions. The questions can include things like:
- What are her favorite foods
- What makes her feel safe
- How she likes to fall asleep
- Is she a morning or a night person
- What is a favorite/comfort toy
- What feels scary to her
- Her favorite kid show or movie
- Does she like salty or sweet treats
Of course, these can’t be done in an interrogation-style – you don’t want to trigger the child further. Many kids who are anxious or stressed by the changes will act out or have a meltdown if they feel cornered by a litany of questions. Instead, take time to suss out how to learn these unique things about your new foster child. Use what you learn to make her feel treasured. In turn, she will feel more confident in her ability to trust you.
Other practical things can open doors between you and your foster child to build a trusting relationship:
I always tried to incorporate their favorite meals into our rotation and stayed very sensitive to holiday celebrations. I also had a “check in” time every night (one-on-one) to recalibrate, encourage, and connect. ~ Jenny
Her point about the night-time connection is a good one. Bed-time routines are fantastic for building trust with your foster child. At the end of the day, her guard is likely down a bit. You can carve out time to address fears that might peek out. Creating a soft, warm environment and a predictable bed-time routine are additional tips used by a few of the moms to facilitate the building of felt-safety further.
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Patience, Patience, Patience
Building trust with your newly placed foster child takes time and patience. He needs space to grieve the changes and the losses he’s experienced. He needs time to settle in and figure out what he thinks and feels about all the new stuff he is facing now.
Give them time, give them space, remember if they speak to you or lash out at you in anger, you are not the one they are really angry with. ~ Bettina
And when you think you’ve given enough time and patience, you will need to provide more:
Patience, patience, and more patience. Give them time and space to grieve and work through all of their big emotions, but make sure they also know you are there to help them work through it if they choose. … And again, more and more patience. ~ Christy
Lower Your Expectations
When adding a new foster child to your home, loosely hold what you think “should” happen in those early days of learning about him. Let go of your notions about the little things – “pick your battles carefully.” He will show you how he feels about things like parental visits or being away from his siblings as he feels safe to do so.
Have low expectations for routine and structure at the start, especially concerning hygiene, healthy meals, sleep cycles, and so on. Whatever you are tempted to expect, drop those expectations a notch or even two.
But also — consider dropping your expectations of yourself! A newly placed foster child requires a lot of energy and time. Reducing your stress load will free you up to be gracious and open to building connection and relationship.
Here are some suggestions experienced foster parents had for lowering expectations of yourself:
- Order groceries and household supplies online and have them delivered.
- Take advantage of a free trial period for a meal-prep service.
- Ask friends for help with the laundry or yard work.
- Streamline your calendar for a few weeks.
- Ask the casework to provide transportation or family-visit support when possible.
But, Expect to Be Tested
One expectation that the experienced foster parents advised you hold on to is that your newly placed foster child will test you. All of the changes she has just experienced can make her grasp for some control.
Pushing back against your house rules, questioning your authority, and trying to get reactions out of you are common behaviors in kids who are seeking control. You will build trust with her if you stay calm, remain compassionate and consistent, and focus on meeting the needs that are driving her behaviors.
Long-time foster mom, Jocelyne, said it well.
You are a home to provide stability and safety, two things unfamiliar to these kids. They will push the envelope and your buttons in some of the dumbest ways, particularly preteens, because they are protecting themselves.
Finally, to build trust with your newly placed foster child, you must be trustworthy. Again, it’s important to maintain your composure, offer compassion balanced with boundaries, and meet physical and emotional needs will establish trust between you. Your ability to stay calm, Becky points out, is trust-building.
I think one thing that can’t be stressed enough is the reminder that when kids dysregulate (and they will over and over again in foster care) we must be calm. If we are calm from the very beginning it is showing that they can trust us.
Trust is also built in the context of establishing and maintaining consistent routine and structure. Tell your foster child what to expect of your home. Help him understand what the day ahead holds. Show him how you do things like chores and meal-time in your home. Carry through with it in all the big and little ways that you can.
Be the adult they can count on:
Never make a promise you won’t keep. These kids value so much when you say “I’m going to…” and then you follow through! Even as simple as a bed-time story can help them trust you and know that they can rely on you. A lot of kids in foster care have huge trust issues and are used to relying on themselves for SO. MANY. things. ~ Briella
Do you have any practical ways that you built trust with your foster child? We’d love to hear from you!
Image Credit: protoflux; Virginia Guard Public Affairs