When welcoming an older foster child into the family, it can be challenging to strike a balance. You don’t want to come on too strong and overwhelm them. You also don’t want to be too blasé and make them feel like just another body in a revolving door of placements. How do you welcome older foster kids to your family with that balance in mind?

We turned to our online community to capture many helpful ideas. These experienced foster, kinship, and adoptive parents have logged countless hours in on-the-job training! Their advice fell into a couple of broad themes, and we appreciated the creativity that their conversations offered to the topic.

Be Curious

Before the young person gets to your front door, employ curiosity to gather information about them. Find out where they’ve been, what worked well there, and what did not work so well. Ask their caseworker many questions to help you understand what the young person has experienced and how they’ve processed it so far. We always recommend that foster parents request the child’s whole file for review, but we know that that’s not always an option before the young person arrives.

In the early days of the foster child’s arrival, be curious about them. For example, let them know that once a week, each kid gets to pick their favorite foods for dinner (or dessert, or breakfast, etc.), and tomorrow is their turn. What would they like? Would they want to help?

Some families have informal icebreakers they employ. At dinner, everyone answers a mix of light-hearted and more profound questions to start conversations. Gather that information and use their answers to keep laying the proverbial welcome mat for this young person.

Find ways to tease out information to learn more about your new foster child. You can use it to help layer a sense of welcome that uniquely meets their needs. Many times, teasing out this data comes from quiet observations and well-placed curiosity. Your curiosity should not come across as interrogation, especially if you sense from the young person’s body language that they are feeling overwhelmed.

Be Open & Accepting

Many times, young people can come across as shut down, closed off, or disconnected when they first join a new foster family. Others come in hot, right? Either way, it’s okay – they are processing a lot of information, and their stress reactions are probably too much to handle.

Accepting either first impression is key to helping them feel safe to open up to you and allow their true self to shine through. When you model an open-hearted, open-minded style that communicates your presence, you pave the way for helping these kids feel accepted right where they are. Hopefully, you’ve already dealt with your own “stuff,” so you aren’t triggered by their responses or lack thereof.

Train yourself to ask open-ended questions that gently force a little interaction when modeling openness. But be patient and gauge their responsiveness – you might need to ease into your family’s regular mode of openness and acceptance. Keep being curious and open but let them lead the early interactions. They will eventually feel safe and welcomed – even if they can’t say so.

What’s It Like to be in Foster Care?

As you show yourself to be open to your new foster young person, you will learn what works and what doesn’t with them. For example, many kids feel triggered by too many questions, so we can use that information to find other ways to forge a connection. Bringing them a plate of cookies or grabbing a library book based on what we’ve heard them discussing can show your openness to learning about this child. Using the information from the caseworker about likes and dislikes can also show your acceptance of who the child is when you implement what you learn into the daily routine.

Cultivating a sense of openness and acceptance will allow you leeway to keep modeling and leading them toward more openness as your relationship grows.

Be Intentional

Hopefully, in your foster training, you learned about parenting a child who has experienced trauma, abuse, and neglect. Welcoming an older foster child with intentionality means donning a trauma lens and viewing them through that perspective. Indeed, we don’t mean that this young person is to be seen only as a trauma victim! However, especially in the early days of a new foster relationship, it’s likely that their stress responses are on high alert. That lens will help you see their underlying needs.

With parenting tools

Your trauma-informed perspective will help you choose to see behaviors as communication of need. Using what you’ve learned about the impacts of trauma can help you meet the underlying needs with warmth and intentionality. The goal – especially in the welcoming stages of your relationship – is to throw open the doors of your home and heart, metaphorically and physically.

The parenting tools you employ in these early days with this new young person will pave the way for the growth of your relationship. So seek reliable, evidence-based information to help you keep growing and learning. Practice trauma-informed parenting skills explicitly aimed at this child’s age/stage. Commit to adding more tools to your parenting toolbox as you know more about what meets their needs well.

With self-care

Intentionally parenting this foster youth through the stress of yet another transition requires that you be healthy and strong for the process. It’s hard work to nurture and support a new child in your home. So many dynamics change in this transition. It will help if you also consider how to be intentional with your self-care.

If you do not already have a self-care routine, it is time to start. Find what nourishes you and pursue it. Be sure to attend to your physical health by getting adequate sleep, eating healthy, and staying active. Your mental and emotional health is also paramount. Look for ways to refresh your mind and spirit through prayer, meditation, counseling, or regular time with adult friends. We have found that some combination of those things is typically most effective for staying healthy and balanced.

The bonus of intentional self-care is that you are not just caring for yourself in healthy ways. You are also modeling balance and health for your kids.

Be Practical

There is a myriad of great ideas that families can employ to welcome an older foster child to their home. Check out the list and let your creativity spark from the ideas shared by our experienced online community! We love this list of practical ideas paired with the previous mindsets of being curious, open, accepting, and intentional.

Idea #1: Make a welcome basket.

Many experienced foster families keep a stash of welcome baskets for new kids, and the ideas are as varied as the families who shared them. We’ve shared some of this information previously, but it bears repeating for the older child crowd. Check out this link to get more detailed information about each basket type.

  1. School Supplies
  2. Hygiene products
  3. Haircare tools and accessories
  4. Sensory and fidget tools
  5. Games and media
  6. Snacks and water

Idea #2: Take them shopping.

Some families suggest a short shopping trip after your young person settles in as a practical act of welcoming. Be aware, however, that there can be a few tricky elements to consider, like:

  • the overwhelm of too many choices
  • feeling safe enough to advocate
  • awkwardness about intimate habits and hygiene
  • discomfort about having or spending money

One possible solution to overcome those obstacles is to leave a gift card on the dresser with a welcome note. Offer a shopping trip when they feel ready. You can offer to make a list – or invite them to make their own. You might try to ease their discomfort by leaving a pre-printed list of everyday needs on the dresser. They can check off items they need and personalize the list before shopping.

Talking about their hygiene habits and products might feel too intimate for them this early in your relationship, and you can model openness by accepting that easily. Your calm, matter-of-fact approach can get them over the hump of that awkwardness. It’s okay to cover just the basics and deal later with the specifics of what they need or prefer for hygiene care.

As your new foster young person feels more settled, you can offer another shopping trip, but this time it could include a broader mix of fun and necessary items. Check out their clothing needs and observe their style so you can choose a store that suits them well. Using your observations to tailor the trip to their vibe will also make them feel accepted and welcomed.

Idea #3: Incorporate them into the daily routine.

It’s tempting to let a new foster child settle in and not feel pressured to participate in your family’s daily rhythms. There might be a valid need for that, but you should also figure out how to ease them into your home’s daily routines.

You can think of it in terms of how you welcome a guest to your home versus how you welcome a new family member who has come to live with you. You wouldn’t necessarily expect a guest to help set the table or fold laundry, right? However, if your sister’s college kid were moving in to save dorm living costs, you would expect your nephew to help with laundry, dishes, or garbage duty.

Your new foster kid wants and needs to feel included and connected to this new family. Participating together with the rest of the family in the rhythms that keep your home running is key to building a sense of family between you. Find ways to work the older foster kids into dish duty, laundry chores or dinner prep. Even better, find ways to do those chores with your new foster child, to help them learn your family’s routines and to spend time connecting and getting to know them.

If you sense that this child has experienced the neglect or abuse of parentification, tread lightly with the tasks you assign. (Parentification is a form of abuse in which an older child has been placed in the role of caregiver to younger foster siblings or birth siblings in the absence of reliable safe adults.) Please give them a voice and choice about the responsibilities you expect them to take. Keep observing their non-verbal cues to help you assess unspoken needs they might have around household work.

Be Balanced

Older foster kids can be a wonderful, fulfilling addition to your family. The transition of welcoming a new, older foster child to your home will take time and patience for you all. Preparing well before they arrive and closely observing once they are in your home means finding the right balance of being curious, accepting, intentional, and practical. This balancing act is not easy. In addition to these mindful and practical ideas, it will help to give yourself and the new foster kids some grace and compassion for the learning curve you are all on together.

We’d love to hear your tips for welcoming older foster kids to your home! Tell us in the comments.

Image Credits: Karolina Grabowska; RF._.studio; cottonbro; Wendelin Jacober