How to Thrive as a Foster Parent

On Sept 21st, America’s Kids Belong hosted a free webinar panel called, “How to Thrive as a Foster Parent.” For many prospective and current foster parents, the idea of thriving sounds amazing but seems like a rarity or an unattainable goal. Panel host Travis Vangsnes, begin the webinar by explaining that foster parents can interchangeably fall into these three categories when it comes to thinking about thriving or lack of thriving.  

Foster parents can find themselves:

  1. Under-resourced and alone: Some of us need resources and support in order to feel like we are better thriving. 50% of new foster parents quit in a year or less! This means that kids in care who are moved to multiple placements lose stability, trusted relationships, and suffer academic setbacks. If you are in this group we believe there is great hope. This type of thriving is possible by shoring up resources and supports to foster longer and stronger.
  1. In need of a paradigm shift: Some of us are thriving but the challenges make us feel like we aren’t. This leads us to becoming regularly disheartened in thinking that what we are doing by offering a safe, nurturing, and loving home is failing to help make a difference. This is where we may need a paradigm shift as we examine what thriving means. Thriving can be defined as movement towards growth, development, and health.  Even in all the difficulties and hard challenges, if we are continuing to grow and help kids feel safe and loved, we are doing well.  And there are many practical tips for this type of growth. 
  1. Burned out: Maybe what you feel  is complete burnout from stress. More resources and support will not help at this time. Maybe some of us aren’t wired to be foster parents, but more called to support others. For some of us, fostering is a season where we will give everything we have to be a place of stability and healing.  At some point that season may need to end, and there is no shame in that. It’s impossible to thrive if you are stretched too thin.

Foster care’s elephant in the room

The elephant in the room when it comes to thriving and foster care is navigating the ongoing relational loss. We face so many hard goodbyes after getting attached to these kids. We often hear the line “I’d get too attached” as a reason people don’t consider fostering. These kids deserve only people who get too attached. But foster parents have to sometimes take breaks between placements to appropriately grieve and rest and to get ready for another placement. This is healthy thriving.

Watch the panel here:

Panel Highlights

  • Travis Vangsnes SC (moderator): former foster/now adoptive dad, former house parent, Storyteller/ Grantwriter/ Marketing dept at AKB
  • Courtney and Bobby Williams: CO, long time foster parents 15 years/ adoptive parents, Cultivate Connection Facilitators, Courtney is a foster parent recruiter in CO
  • Terry Gray: SD, foster dad for teen males aging out, adoptive dad, Political advocate for foster youth policy reform in SD
  • Christina Bauer: TX, formerly in foster care/adoptee, mom, Social Media Manager at AKB
  • Danny Smith: SC, former residential foster care supervisor, former house parent, Strengthening Families Parent Educator

The first question that was brought to the table was…

“So what are some basic ways we can take care of our own needs so we aren’t running on fumes and depleted?” 

Some of the advice given from all panelists.

  • Get sleep
  • Address basics self needs like hydration
  • Nutrition matters for your energy and mood.
  • Read cues from your spouse and their needs.
  • Use support systems/ friends to take a break.

Christina (former foster youth) chimed in…

“As someone who was in foster care, I would have liked to know that my foster parent had a close friend they could confide in or was attending some therapy. I just believe that is so so important. You are human and you are experiencing second hand trauma.  If you are not taking care of your mental health, things can go south real quick.”

“Let’s talk about how to create or find a supportive community to lean on.” (Travis)

The group discussed how thriving can’t happen in isolation. We need community. Bobby described a regular guys group he created just to process life together and not feel so alone in the challenges of parenting.

America’s Kids Belong WRAP support concept

 Courtney, a big believer in this valuable system, gave some helpful thoughts:

WRAP Team- This is a concept that gives a structured supportive framework that your  community or church family can use to know how to help you foster stronger and longer. Find out more about starting a WRAP Team (download the guide here).

The acronym stands for:

W- Words of encouragement

R- Respite

A- Acts of Service

P- Prayer

Travis stated that “if thriving doesn’t mean things are easy or always smooth, then how should we understand what it means to have a thriving foster home?” 

Danny shared right away, “I do feel like a paradigm shift is in order here. To me the two goals you should  be thinking about here is, ‘Does this kid feel safe? And does this kid feel loved?’ Danny shared more about how we get caught up in behaviors, or wanting perfect relationships.  He said that those are issues that will slowly improve.  He went on, “If you are doing those things to make them feel safe and loved, you have a thriving foster home.”

The panelists agreed with nods, having simple goals takes pressure off of you and the kids. Courtney added to the idea of the pressure foster parents and others can wrongly put on themselves. “Everyone is always saying, you guys are so great, you are amazing! We don’t know how you do it.” That feels like a lot. Like you have to match the expectation.  You just can’t live up to that. It also makes it seem like foster parents are superhuman and that’s unattainable.” For people on the outside they may feel as if they could never be foster parents.

Bobby shared a mantra that has helped them:  “As foster parents, be ready to live the interruptible life.” So when it comes to dishes, schedules, house cleaning, behavior in stores, you can have the mindset in advance of being ready for interruptions. 

Thriving comes with the responsibility of being as healthy as you can be for the kids who are untrusted in your care.  So, Travis asked Christina, “As a former foster youth who was abused in foster care, what is your message to prospective and current foster parents when it comes to things like self care and emotional awareness?”

She gave a cautionary statement.  “We really need to do away with this idea that thriving means saying yes [the most times] to placements.” Christina tells how her experience in foster care was sadly not one of safety, and love due to her foster family taking a lot of very high needs placements and not having bandwidth to foster the kids in their care.  She said, “This is not about you. This is not a competition!” 

Christina continued: “I think if you are a foster parent who has or is experiencing burnout, you would know that when you are burnt out and you have stretched yourself too thin, you are not the kindest person.  Kids entering foster care are in a very vulnerable space. When I was in that time of crisis, and then experiencing abuse and neglect, when I should have been receiving love and safety. It was very disorienting for me. It made me question whether I should have just been left with my birth family.”

She reminds us that you should keep yourself in check and “if you do just one placement well, and you love that child and provide a healthy environment for them, that is thriving and that is successful.” Travis commended Christina for her honesty and sharing a piece of her story.  

He asked the panelists, “What resources are the best and most accessible to help foster parents and the kids in their care?”

Courtney: “Take the classes you need.  What are the areas you need to grow in?  It is ok to ask your county and be like “Hey, I’m really struggling in this area, what resources or classes do you have?” Courtney went on to say “If there aren’t any classes you need, ask what can your county put on for others who might be struggling.” 

TBRI has many resources and videos that have helped them immensely.  Bobby and Courtney are actually Cultivate Connection Parent Facilitators which is put on by Empower To Connect Network. This 18 hour parent group course helps you put TBRI principles in practice. (TBRI: Trust Based Relational Intervention) 

Travis reminded everyone that America’s Kids Belong’s website has many valuable resources that might help them in their journey, from blogs, to documents, WRAP guide, other panels and education on Youtube and even the Foster Friendly App. 

A great question was, “What are some healthy practices and rhythms that will help you and the kids in your care thrive?” Panelists collectively shared…

  • Learn their world and what they love.
  • Check in with them regularly and be honest.
  • Show them they are safe even when it is hard.
  • Always honor their birth parents and  respect that the child will feel safe if you are on the side of reunification when possible.
  • Ask their permission for things and give them little bits of control. 
  • Praise them often and look for things going well.
  • Don’t take their behaviors personally.
  • Listen to them, figure out how to communicate with them.
  • Play and have fun.

Travis asked Danny, “As someone who has educated parents/foster parents for years, what advice would you give to a foster parent who has tried everything to help a youth and is disheartened by the feeling that what they are doing isn’t working?”

Danny had some wise counsel for self reflection: “Do you feel like you like them? If they don’t feel like you like them, they’re gonna give you a reason to not like them. What I have seen in my experience is that it is a defense mechanism. They have gotta feel safe, liked, and loved, so if you are engaging in many of those healthy practices, you are still asking yourself “Why is it not working?” I would say just keep doing it. It takes time.” 

“I know how difficult it is to get up everyday and do your best, and everyday is different. It is  one of the hardest things in the world. Just knowing that all these little things that stress us out day to day, in the end it’s not gonna matter.  It is how we made them feel. They are gonna remember – Did they feel safe, liked, and loved?”

Travis asked Terry, and other panelists, “How can things like humor, lightheartedness, and having fun help you connect with kids and help promote a thriving home? “

  • “Use lighthearted  humor with teaching and correction, so that you can calm the fear around discipline.” -Terry
  • “Laughter is super therapeutic. It helps them grow trust with you. It takes the layers off of them that they need.” -Bobby
  • “Rewards that are crazy and funny, are the best motivators, and will make them want to do well more than anything else.” -Danny

Questions from attendees and advice given from the panel

What are some healthy principles to teach to the behavior instead of just giving consequences?

  • Know the behavior and don’t label the child, but name the behavior.  
  • A consequence doesn’t need to feel like a punishment. Teach skills instead of punishing behavior.
  • Sometimes helping them regulate emotions is the biggest win, and needs  no consequence. 

What does it look like to help children when there is so much lingering uncertainty going on?

  • Communicate well with that child.
  • Advocate for reunification (this shows them you are  on their team)
  • Help them grieve well.
  • When it comes to reunification: remember it is not your job to choose if they go home or not, your job is to be there for the child.

What are  some questions you ask before taking a placement to know if you all can thrive, and have a good fit?

  • Ask about a diagnosis
  • Know the medications and health concerns
  • Know about any special diet 
  • Past physical or sexual trauma
  • Learn if there are any adults or family members they cannot have contact with?

What advice can you share about fostering children from different cultures/ kids of color.

  • Find people in that culture to walk with you
  • Make sure and have toys, books, and foods from their culture or that look like them.
  • Celebrate things their culture celebrates.  
  • Be ready to learn and grow your experiences. 

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