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New foster families: What to expect

  • Need to know
A young girl stands by the water at the beach smiling at the camera.

By Marc Gregory, Practice Development Facilitator, Mercy Community

Families come to foster care for many different reasons and no two families will have the same experience.

Foster care can offer many joys, wins, and can also provide an incredible sense of purpose and meaning. For a foster carer’s biological children, the experience of fostering can offer significant developmental experiences and help shape the adults they become.

However, there are some important truths you must be aware of when becoming a foster care family. Even though each family’s fostering journey is unique, all families will have both positive and negative experiences. What defines an experience as ‘negative’ or as a ‘positive growth’ experience, is all about you and the dynamics of your family.

Understanding the dynamics of your family

When a foster child enters your family, your family’s structure, roles, and expectations will shift in response to the needs and influence of the foster child. Many foster children have experienced great loss, adversity and trauma in their lives. All have different needs, and ways of surviving and coping.

Foster carers’ biological children often say that you can you never quite know until a foster child joins your family how things are going to go. Some families experience a connection from the very beginning, while others know quickly that it is not going to work out. There are also families that experience great adversity initially, as the family and foster child learn about each other, but then settle into a new family dynamic. Others again will experience periods of adversity on and off over time, reflective of the dynamic and changing needs of both the foster child and the foster family.

Whatever a foster family’s journey, what we can say with certainty is that your family will face challenges and adversity, and successful fostering is dependent on your family’s dynamic ability to adapt.

Ability to adapt makes the difference

It is your family’s ability to adapt and shift through the foster care journey that makes the difference. This takes commitment and clarity on your family’s ‘why’, ‘how’, and ‘teamwork’. Your ability to be flexible and adaptable, along with how you approach foster care and your beliefs about children, family, parenting, trauma and child development are what make the difference between adversity being a negative experience or a chance to grow and learn.

Based on the feedback of families that have participated in studies, fostering has generally been regarded as a rewarding experience, enriching the lives of families, strengthening relationships and having a positive influence on the development of foster carers’ biological children. Multiple studies have shown that, for biological children in a foster family, the experience of fostering has enhanced their personal gratitude and appreciation, altruism, empathy, emotional intelligence, relational skills, and social awareness. Due to the purpose and meaning foster care offers, many carers’ biological children go on to become foster carers themselves.

In many cases, foster children and their families keep in contact throughout life, becoming an extended family. Equally however, studies also suggest that the negative impacts of foster care on family dynamics—and biological children specifically—remain a key reason why some families end their fostering journey. Being aware of this, and planning for it from the very start, will set you up for the greatest opportunity for success.

It’s the whole family that fosters

Caring for a child or young person will impact everyone in the family, so it’s important for families to work as a fostering team from the very beginning. Something successful fostering families quickly realise on their foster care journey is that each person in the family is a part of what makes it work—it’s the whole family that fosters.

The biological children in a family naturally play a vital role in caring for the foster children who join the family. They can provide supports that parents may struggle with in the first instance. For example, kids are much better at informally showing other kids the ropes on how your family does things, from your routines and rituals to the expectations within family home. Biological children support foster children in play and provide important peer support as siblings, cousins and friends do in natural family life. Biological children sometimes help foster children develop understanding of why parents do things a certain way and generally help the foster child to feel included.

Foster children need to experience how to simply ‘be’ in a family safely, with love, care and respect shared between all. Through acceptance and nurture, foster children can learn to trust. It requires a team effort to purposefully work together to ensure that everyone’s needs are met—the foster child’s, and the needs of everyone in the family.

However, this raises challenges that are essential to recognise. To be a successful fostering family, it is critical that carers recognise the needs of their biological children and proactively plan how to meet these needs. This is incredibly important. For many families in which fostering didn’t work out, not recognising and meeting biological children’s needs was a key factor.

Your biological children’s needs

The needs of biological children in a foster family come down to three fundamental things: To be included, to be heard and to be supported. Let’s look at these one by one.

To be included

It is important to include biological children, no matter their age, in all decision making about foster care. The best time to start this is now—from the very beginning, from when you are first considering becoming a fostering family.

For the best chance at a positive outcome, decision making must be a family process where everyone is involved, in an age-appropriate way. While how a three-year-old, and a 16-year-old are involved in decision making will look very different, the process is the same: parents actively seek their children’s views and consider their needs in decision making. The experience of being included in discussion even from a young age strengthens relationships with parents and defines open communication as a family norm for biological children.

Being involved is also about biological children being informed. Also, while foster care and child protection can be hard topics to talk about, biological children clearly say to us that parents need to not ‘sugar coat’ the challenges of foster care but be real and open about them. Most importantly, biological children need to be informed about how the family is going to do fostering together, how they will be supported, and how their needs will be met. Being informed and involved has many benefits for biological children. Through being informed, biological children gain a sense of control, and of being a respected and valued part of the family—vital for success in foster care.

To be heard

Biological children sometimes find it a struggle to have their thoughts, ideas, questions, and worries heard. Sometimes, because parents are loving and caring for their children every day, they can get caught up in doing things for them with the best intentions but overlook the chance to really hear them, their thoughts, needs and concerns. Many biological children have felt ‘not heard’ throughout their entire fostering journey, from the initial decision-making process to day-to-day events of fostering. Not hearing the views and wishes of biological children impacts negatively on their wellbeing and resilience through the foster care experience.

However, listening to children so that they feel genuinely heard strengthens children’s relationships with parents, their sense of self-worth and respect, and their appreciation of the views and wishes of others. Through the experience of being heard, and having their views respected, children learn valuable life skills in open communication and how to compromise, negotiate and respect the views of others and how to work together.

Crucially, being heard in the context of foster care nurtures biological children’s trust in their parents continued love and care for them, and that their parents see them as competent and valued. The trust developed through being heard enables biological children to feel more safe and secure when sharing their thoughts and feelings with their parents. This then enables parents to better support and meet their children’s needs through the uncertainty and challenges presented by foster care.

To be supported

When we talk to biological children about their experience of foster care, one thing clearly jumps out—the wish to be supported! Biological children of all ages seem to express feelings of pride and satisfaction in the contributions they make through fostering, but have felt that they are not always recognised or supported in their vital fostering role.

While taking pride in their contributions, biological children express that at times they have found providing this support can be stressful and demanding on their time and energy. Being genuinely supported through these experiences is what makes all the difference to biological children and is what turns experiences of adversity into positive developmental experiences.

Biological children will continue to have the same developmental needs as everyone else, it’s just that the experience of being a foster family changes how those needs may be met. By understanding

biological children’s needs and recognising the vital fostering role they play, we can ensure biological children are supported and that foster care is an enrichening experience for all.

Mercy Community supporting your family on their foster care journey

Mercy Community is striving to be a leader in focused support for foster care families. Our foster care support teams are here to assist you and your children in the transition to foster care, and in enjoying a successful fostering journey together.