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Adjusting your expectations about foster care

When foster parents say they’re “all in” when they aren’t, kids get hurt.

Carol Lee, senior editor

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It’s hard to picture what foster parenting will really be like if you’ve never been a foster parent before.

But, when foster parents say they’re “all in” when they aren’t, kids get hurt.

Often, children in foster care have experienced trauma, which shapes their developing brain. They live in “fight or flight mode,” expecting the world to be a dangerous place. Fear-based triggers lead to difficult, sometimes unexpected behaviors.

First-time foster parents can go into fight or flight mode themselves when they say yes to a child and realize they weren’t ready. When this happens, foster parents call us and say, “Come pick up this child, I can’t handle them anymore.” Then the child continues to “bounce around” in foster care.

Across the U.S., children need safe foster homes. While we don’t want to talk you out of becoming a foster parent, we want you to set realistic expectations for what foster parenting is like.

The child will warm up to me quickly.

The assumption here is that children will be so glad to be out of an abusive or neglectful environment that they will immediately sense your kindness and reciprocate your love.

However, children are loyal to their families, even family members who may have hurt them. Being removed from their homes and entering a new environment is scary.

A child accustomed to chaos could find the relative calm of your home unnerving. Children also feel out of control. They did not choose what happened to them or where they are living now. Although the safe home they are in is needed, they likely feel they’ve been “plopped in somewhere,” and they will search for opportunities to gain back some control. Expect that it will take time to earn the child’s trust.

I’m going to connect with and love the child right away.

Most adults have no experience loving and caring for a child in this capacity—a child they are not biologically related to. Yet, they expect to quickly bond and build trust with a child who has a history of relational trauma.

The child will respond to you based on a history you weren’t part of, a history you may not understand. The child may exhibit difficult behaviors rooted in trauma. You can’t take any of that personally. Foster care requires a deep reserve of compassion. Love may follow, but it can’t be conditional on whether the child loves you back.

The child is safe in my home and has nothing to fear.

You know the child is safe, but that doesn’t mean the child knows they are safe. Everything about your home is new for the child.
In our training meetings, we use activities to help new foster parents understand a child’s fears. We challenge them to think through practical ways they can help a child feel safe in their home, such as giving the child space, incorporating the child’s culture or traditions, and helping the child stay in touch with extended family members when possible.

We want to adopt a child from foster care who will fit our family.

The first goal of foster care is always reunification with biological parents. When that isn’t possible, adoption is usually the next path. Bethany works closely with children and adoptive families to create a good match, but foster care adoption is not like taking a test drive: “We’ll keep looking until we find one we like.”

There’s a difference between “We want a child who fits our family” and “We want to open our home and family to a child who needs one.” Bethany’s priority is to find families for kids, not the other way around. In training, we ask parents, “What routines make things work for your family now? What do your evenings look like when you come home from work?

Expect that foster care and adoption will disrupt your routine. Even your sleep is likely to change. Everyone in your home—parents and biological siblings—will need to adjust to welcome a new child into your family.

How can you find out up front if your expectations match reality?

  • Do your own research. You’ll find a variety of posts on our website that can give you a clearer picture of what to expect.
  • Ask a lot of questions one-on-one when your caseworker is doing your home study.
  • Be vulnerable about your questions and fears in training meetings. Chances are good someone else in the room has the same questions you do, so please ask!
  • Meet with an experienced foster parent. Ask them what they love about foster parenting and what is most challenging. Ask what surprised them. Ask what they wish they would have known sooner. Ask about ways their family has changed. Ask how real-life foster parenting has been different than what they’d expected. Ask what advice you need that you don’t yet know to ask for.
  • Join a support group for foster parents. Sit in on a local Bethany meeting or find a group online. Learn from their experience and make an informed decision whether foster parenting is right for you.

Before you say that you’re all in, you need to know what to expect so you can be informed, prepared, and equipped to meet children—right where they are.

Become a foster parent