This is a guest post written on behalf of Active Parenting. I think their suggestions for providing open communication and support to children in times of transition are very valuable.
Active Parenting in Foster Families and Stepfamilies
The number of single foster parents and stepfamilies in the United States is growing substantially. According to the Stepfamily Foundation, half of the nation’s 60 million children under the age of 13 are currently living with one biological parent and that parent’s current partner.
On a smaller scale, but equally important, the 2002 Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS) reported that 532,000 children in the U.S. were living in foster care. There are important differences between step- and foster families; however, they are similar in several significant ways. Single foster parents who understand these common traits are better equipped to raise happy, healthy kids despite the challenges that foster and stepfamily life present.
Both families are born of loss.
The impact of major loss on a child, whether by death, divorce, or other family changes, creates a psychological wound that requires healing. Without healing, children often act out their pain through misbehavior, depression, or physical ailments.
Parents can assist in the healing process in a number of ways, including:
- Providing a loving and nurturing environment.
- Talking with the child about his/her painful feelings (such as anger, sadness, hurt, and mistrust) in a supportive, non-judgmental way
- Helping the child develop healthy coping skills (like writing in a journal, talking with peers and adults, playing sports, making new friends, and schoolwork— whatever works for that child)
- Being patient. It often takes a year or more to heal from loss. Don’t take a child’s misbehavior personally. Remain loving and use firm but respectful forms of discipline when necessary. Remember that it is the deep pain the child is experiencing that is causing the inappropriate behavior.
Both must explore hidden expectations.
All parents and children have expectations of how the family will work. “What is acceptable behavior and what isn’t?” “How clean do we keep the house, and the kids’ rooms in particular?” “Which jokes are appropriate and which ones aren’t?” The list is endless. These issues are a challenge for any family, but the learning curve is particularly sharp for step- and foster families. “Will she get mad if I say that?” “Will I be expected to make my bed perfectly?” “Gosh! I didn’t expect that!”
The key to understanding expectations is to “get them on the table” so everyone knows what the expectations are and can discuss them openly. This means lots of family meetings with kids over the age of 5 or 6, using phrases like, “In our family we______ (take a bath every day, don’t hit each other”— whatever your values and traditions dictate.). Remember that children have expectations, too. Discussing with—rather than dictating to children will help them feel part of their new family. Be flexible so you can pay attention to the child’s needs as well as your own values.
Both must quickly establish limits and boundaries.
Any family must set behavioral limits and boundaries—in other words, what is and isn’t acceptable behavior. Some limits may be strictly defined, such as where it is and isn’t OK for kids to play. Others, however, may be more abstract, such as not treating anyone in the family disrespectfully.
As a rule of thumb, the younger the child, the more important it is to have a very firm boundary. In step- and foster families where no common history exists between family members, parents have an additional challenge: they must set clear limits quickly, before major misunderstandings arise. Again, involve the children in this process. Negotiate these limits, but only within the boundaries of your family values and the specific situation. In general, four key boundary areas must be addressed:
- Space. This includes letting kids know where they can and can’t go, how neat they need to keep their room and other rooms in the house, and how they can decorate their room.
- Time. Is it OK to watch TV on school nights? If so, how much? What about other kinds of “screen time” (computers, video games, etc.)? How much time will be spent on homework, sports, and other recreation?
- Money. How much is available for allowances, vacations, clothing, and other wants and needs? How can kids earn more money?
- Authority. When do children need to ask permission and when don’t they? Who is responsible for discipline?
One of the biggest conundrums that many step- and foster parents face is whether to make a child’s biological parents an active part of that child’s life. In cases where children have been abused and are seriously at risk, visitation from biological parents may be forbidden.
In the majority of cases, however, promoting visitations and healthy relationships between birth, step-, and foster families is a good idea.
Often, problems are generational: Parents have problems because no one showed them how to be good parents. If left untended, the problems become the next generation’s inheritance. Foster parents can play an important role in establishing a break with the past by teaching effective parenting skills to a child’s other adult caregivers. For more information, visit Active Parenting.com for more effective parenting techniques.