When you raise grandchildren or extended family members, visits with the children’s parents can feel more stressful and stickier than a typical foster relationship might feel. There is a history between you and your adult child or family member. Big feelings usually come rushing up for everyone. How do you help family visits go well in a kinship care relationship?
It is impossible to craft a perfect plan to make sure your family visits are successful. But there are many things you can do to set you and your kinship child up for smoother, more pleasant family visits. It might not be possible to implement all 7 of these tips at every visit. Still, if you tackle one or two of these ideas at a time, you can lay a foundation from which to build for future contact. Remember, “progress, not perfection” is the goal when building these relationships.
1. Encourage contact with the birth parents.
It is not always possible for children to remain in contact with their parents. At times, contact may not be in a child’s best interest. However, it is generally healthy for your grandchild or kinship child to maintain a relationship with the parents, especially if reunification may be the end goal.
Bring up the subject.
You might need to be the one to bring up the topic of upcoming visits with the kids when they are young or not yet good at expressing themselves verbally. It’s helpful to start by framing the visit as a positive opportunity – especially if the contact has been limited or strained thus far.
If the child comes to you to start the conversation, encourage his desires for connection and talk about how the future visits might go. Give the child space to be honest about his fears. Encourage him that you will be with him, and he won’t face it alone.
Get creative with contact.
If meeting in person isn’t possible, you can encourage contact in other ways, including phone calls, video chats, pictures, cards and letters, and email. Have a conversation with the child about how she can creatively connect with her birth parents in ways that feel comfortable. For some kids, that might mean making short videos of building a new Lego toy or learning new dance moves with Mom on a Facetime call.
Using technology to maintain contact can be an excellent middle ground for feeling your way through the challenges you and your adult child or extended family member might have about this placement. If you don’t know how to use tools like video calls, filters, and other apps, ask the child or her parents for help. The bonus is that your efforts to learn and try can show how much you desire to facilitate connection.
2. Preparation is Key.
Preparation is a key to helping make visits with the children’s family go smoothly. You cannot control what anyone else does or does not do – you can only manage your emotions and help the children learn how to manage theirs.
Your ultimate goal is to be ready to help your grandchild or kinship child process her feelings. If there are hard feelings between you and the child’s parents, prepare yourself for those meetings. Try to settle the pre-existing issues you may feel about your adult child or family member in your own heart and mind. Re-commit with your spouse or partner or a trusted friend that you will walk into the meeting with an open heart and mind.
Some kinship caregivers find it beneficial to talk with a professional, trauma-informed therapist or counselor who works with foster or kinship situations. Working through your history of attachment struggles, parenting challenges, and personal “baggage” is an excellent investment in your mental and emotional health. Plus, you are investing in the child when you come to parenting whole and healthy.
Prepare the children.
In the days leading up to the visit, allow the children to talk about their thoughts or feelings. Ask them about their expectations. Tell the kids where the visit will take place, how long it will likely last, and what the plan for the time together is. Let them ask questions – often, kids cope with anxiety by asking lots of questions. Be sure to include in your answers some assurances that you will be present, you will keep them safe, and you will help them before, during, and after the time with their parents.
When it’s time for the visit, keep last-minute instructions to a minimum, especially if you sense that the child is nervous or hesitant. Gently remind yourselves that you are safe, you are together, and you will be there for them. Then keep your tone as matter-of-fact as you can and go into the meeting on the same team.
At the visit, please do your best to let the child forge her connection with her parent(s). Try not to require hugs or other affection that she is not ready to offer. Be as kind, courteous, and welcoming as you can be. Remember that little eyes are watching you. How you act or react will carry a message.
Prepare for after the visit.
Sometimes, visits trigger dysregulation and discontent for everyone. It’s wise to prepare for some regression or challenging behaviors that may crop up while your little one works through big feelings and thoughts after the visit. For some families, that might mean planning a quiet day to recover at home without extra responsibilities, to allow time to re-connect and be present for the child. For other families, that could be a scheduled therapy session to help the child process.
You will learn what works most effectively for the child as you spend time together and talk through the emotions that family visits evoke. Whatever you find that helps the kids re-regulate, you can put it on the calendar as a routine attached to visits. It will comfort the kids to see it on the family planner as something that they can count for healing time together.
3. Don’t put the children in the middle.
Again, before the visit, try to set aside your feelings about the child’s parent. Once you are together, give yourself some space to acknowledge the emotions triggered by seeing your adult child or family member. But try to do it quickly and internally. Avoid venting about pre-existing issues between you or saying critical things to the parent in front of the child.
Remember that feeling a need to choose sides can be distressing and confusing for children, particularly young ones who do not fully understand the complicated dynamics. Kids who have experienced trauma are typically sensitive to tension, so buffer the children as best you can from that conflict. Please don’t make the kids feel guilty about spending time with their parents.
4. Communicate and cooperate with the children’s parents.
Even though you probably did not plan to be raising kids at this stage of life, do what you can to adapt. Be sure to include the parents and help them feel part of their life with you. Send texts, pictures, or short little videos that capture different aspects of her day. Share updates from the school, doctor appointments, and social events. Talk with the parents about the children’s friends, hobbies, or extra-curricular activities. If there are no safety issues to be considered, share the children’s school and sports schedules.
If your kinship arrangement not a formal one through the foster care system, determine together who the appropriate emergency contacts are for the kids and who your emergency contacts are. Offering them that information will communicate your desire to collaborate in parenting their children. It can also express your trust in the relationship and their intentions to be part of the kids’ lives.
5. Make visits part of your routine.
Contact with parents will be less stressful for a child if he knows what to expect. Whenever possible, plan the family visits well in advance and create a regular schedule. Talk ahead of time with his parents to be sure everyone’s expectations for visits are clear.
In addition to scheduling regular visits, how the time together is spent should become routine for the child. It is always most productive and least confusing for the child when the parents and grandparents enforce the same rules and expectations. It might be helpful to chat with the parents ahead of the first visit to discuss some basic ground rules.
For example, the child should expect that both Grandma and Mom will enforce basic manners when visiting. The child will get a chance for a re-do when he forgets his manners.
6. Be sensitive to the children’s feelings.
It’s important to talk with the kids about how they feel about parental contact. Even when kids are looking forward to a visit or call, they might still experience many feelings, including uncertainty and nervousness. Kids may worry that their parents don’t love them anymore. They fear they won’t have anything to talk about with Mom or Dad.
This course will help you understand the core issues that adoptees, foster, and kinship kids face.
Remind them before the visit or phone call that you are “with them.” Reassure them that they are loved by you and by their parents. Some kids might want you to sit with them for phone calls or stay physically close during in-person visits. Others will need to know you are near. Talk together in advance about what they want. If possible, check-in with them during the visit to see how they’re feeling. Be flexible if the child expresses that he needs a change of how you are “present” while the contact is happening.
Once the call or visit is over, tell them how proud you are of handling their big feelings and doing a great job with the visits. You can ask them how they think it went and what might be helpful for future visits too. Many kids might not be ready to talk immediately, but it can be a follow-up point later.
7. Help the children deal with disappointment.
Inevitably, some visits don’t go well. Kids are unpredictable. Parents sometimes don’t show. Prepare yourself for the possibility. Once it’s over, vent to a friend or your counselor if you need to. But in the face of the child’s disappointment, avoid the temptation to say angry or hurtful things about the parent. It will not make her feel better – instead, it will only increase her distress and confusion.
Instead, BE with the child. Talk with her about what happened and how she feels about it. Remind her you are present, she is safe, and she is cherished. Check with her after the big feelings of hurt have settled. Repeat – together if you have to – what you talked about in your preparations. Remind her that you are on her team.
Keep the children’s best interest at the forefront.
We can’t predict how your visits will go. By preparing yourself and your kinship children for contact or visits, you can communicate that you are trustworthy and safe. Your grandchild or kinship child should know that he has a haven in you. The ultimate goal in parenting him – including challenging experiences like messy family connections – is keeping everyone mindful of the child’s needs and how to serve his best interest.
Image Credits: Seattle Parks and Recreation; Mosman Library; Clarkston SCAMP; Isaac Wedin; Glenn Beltz