Foster Parenting:Â How will it affect my children?
By: Tzivy RossÂ Reiter, LCSW
The question we are most often asked at OHEL by parents who are seriously considering becoming foster parents, is "will my children be affected by having a foster child in the home?" The answer most certainly is a resounding yes. Any child who is in need of a foster home by definition will be a child who has been hurt in some way, either by an act of commission or omission, and he or she will be in desperate need of both physical and emotional healing from that experience. While the responsibility for meeting the needs of a foster child will lie with the foster parents in partnership with OHEL, it is the children of foster parents who are really the unsung heroes.Â They will be asked to share their toys, their rooms, their parents and their love in order to help a wounded child whom they have never even met before. Their acts of compassion are bestowed while lacking the comprehension to grasp the true meaning and purpose of their sacrifice, making their gift all the more remarkable.
The presence of a foster child in the home will present an opportunity to teach children the midah of chesed in the most hands-on way, conditioning children to be giving, to share and to be sensitive to the pain of others. Foster parenting allows families to dedicate themselves as a unit to a purpose that is suffused with meaning and direction, granting a unique perspective in a world that is often devoid of altruism and sacrifice.
Challenges & Blessings
Foster parenting will also create challenges and difficulties that will require patience and flexibility from all members of the foster family. Due to their insecurity and the disruptions in their own family attachments, foster children will often present as anxious and clingy, or as withdrawn and alienated from their foster family. Both of those presentations can be confusing to children who are expecting a ready playmate in their familyâ€™s new foster child. Once they become more comfortable and secure within their foster family, foster children may displace much of their anger over their abusive and neglectful experiences in their family of origin towards their foster parents and sibling, as they are the only figures with whom they feel safe enough to express their genuine sadness and devastation. This behavior can be very hurtful to both foster parents and their children, who have given so much of themselves to help this child and do not understand what they have done to deserve their foster childâ€™s anger.
Foster children are sensitive to perceived rejection, and will often be hypervigilant in looking for disparity between their foster parentsâ€™ treatment of them and their own children. Foster children can be attention-seeking and may try to dominate the time and attention given by their foster parents. However, with time, patience and intervention, much of the foster child's maladaptive behaviors can become alleviated to a great extent, contributing to the foster family's adjustment.
Our advice at OHEL to prospective foster parents who believe that their children will not be able to tolerate the presence of a foster child and some of their accompanying behaviors is:Â donâ€™t become a foster parent at this time. Raising emotionally well-adjusted children is a formidable task under the best of circumstances, and the demands of parenting some children may preclude their parents from also caring for a foster child at the same time. All Jewish children should be nurtured to their fullest potential, and caring for an OHEL child should never come at the overall expense of one's own child.
However, at OHEL we have B"H seen many families of young children successfully care for a foster child as well, to the benefit and reward of their entire family. While there are no fool-proof ingredients to ensure this success, the following suggestions have proven to be helpful toward this end:
â€˘Â Â Â Include the entire family in the decision-making process before becoming a foster parent. Anticipate with your children, each according to his or her own level of understanding, changes that may occur within the family. Give concrete examples of some of these changes, such as modifications in sleeping arrangements, changes in family schedules, etc. All children in the home should be comfortable with the decision before proceeding.
â€˘Â Â Â Donâ€™t overcompensate for the deprivation that your foster child has experienced in the past. Special treatment toward the foster child will result in resentment and jealousy on the part of your children. Foster parents cannot be responsible for erasing the harm that foster children have experienced in their past; you can only try your best to build positive experiences with them for the future.
â€˘Â Â Â Give your children permission to feel both positive and negative emotions about your familyâ€™s foster child. This may include feeling resentful, angry and jealous at times. All children of foster parents will experience these feelings on some occasions, and may feel guilty about it as well. Foster parents should validate these feelings as acceptable and understandable.Â Â Your children will need a forum to express these feelings to you, and to resolve conflicts between them and their foster sibling in a healthy way.
â€˘Â Â Â Give your children as much age-appropriate information as possible to enhance their understanding of their foster siblingâ€™s behavior. If some of their foster sibling's behavior is unusual or upsetting, explore with them why they think he or she might be acting this way. Developing empathy for a foster child and his or her past experiences will promote their understanding and acceptance of his or her behavior.
â€˘Â Â Â Make time for your family as a unit whenever possible. A typical OHEL child receives many services often including counseling, big brother/big sister volunteers and tutoring. This will leave open opportunities for your family to have uninterrupted time together in such a manner that your familyâ€™s foster child will not feel excluded as it can simply be scheduled around his or her own appointments. Special time with a child who is longing for the "old times" will go a long way toward making your child feel recognized and rewarded.
In conclusion, taking a foster child into your home will most certainly have a profound impact on the entire family. There will be times of frustration, but also times of immense pride and great joy.
A long time OHEL foster parent, described this best when she told the story of her own daughter, â€śRivkahâ€ť, who came home before this past Motherâ€™s Day with not one, but two gifts in her arms. Rivkah explained to her mother that she purchased the additional gift for her young foster brother to give to his mother for Mother 's Day at his next visit with her. She realized that Motherâ€™s Day would be a day fraught with great pain and sorrow for this woman at her separation from her son, and she wanted her to have a special gift from her son and remember that someone was thinking of her on this day. She also wanted her foster brother to feel important and to be reassured that he was no different than the rest of the family on a day that was sure to highlight his shameful status as a foster child.
"I remember thinking that this gift of a tarnished gold locket reminded me once again why we decided to do this important mitzvah. As a parent and an OHEL foster parent it was the best gift she could have ever given me."
It was the gift of true giving, showing innate sensitivity and the special form of chesed that is uniquely developed through the all-encompassing family experience of caring for a foster child.