Thursday, March 15, 2012

"Foster Friday" - Explaining "Family" to Young Children

For my latest giveaway, I asked entrants to submit their ideas and questions for "Foster Fridays" topics.  One that immediately stuck out to me was a question that my sister asked.

"How does everyone explain a foster relationship to small children? And what "titles" do you use to help them understand? For example... We have referred to my sister's long term foster kids as my kids' "cousins". They hear the foster kids call me "Aunt Christy" and my mom and dad "Nana and Papa". But then what is confusing to them is when the foster kids get sent back to live with one or both of their biological parents and they then have either limited or no contact again. The kids keep asking me if the foster kids were/are "really part of our family?". I think it is confusing to them because they have other "cousins" who are permanent. So I wonder how everyone else explains and "labels" the relationship?"
I know I have tried to explain that there are all different kinds of "families."  There are the families that you are born with, and there are families that you choose (kind of like how Mommy and Daddy weren't a family when they were little, but they chose to be a family when they got married.)  I've also talked about our biological family members who live far away and who we don't get to see very often.  Just because we don't get to see them, doesn't mean they aren't still our "family."  I know it's all a difficult concept to grasp for a couple of 1st graders who are trying to make sense of all of this. 

So how do you explain foster care to your young children?  What (if anything) has helped them understand the relationships they have with their foster siblings/cousins/etc.? 

Kylee - You weren't much older than my niece and nephew when your family started fostering.  Do you remember your feelings at the time?  What helped you the most?

With Monkey going home next week, this is going to be a fresh topic in our family.  Any advice you all could give would be appreciated!


Tammy (aka. "Mimi") said...

Dag nabbit!!! It's not Friday, is it? Oops. :P

Kylee said...

Alright, since you asked, here are my thoughts. : ) My family primarily fostered infants/young toddlers, so this might not apply to families that have older foster kids whose ages are mixed in with bio kids.

My parents chose to be very straightforward with me from the beginning, allowing me to understand that it was only temporary. When a child came into our home with broken bones, they explained to me that "this child was hurt by her daddy because he got very mad at her and made a mistake. She is going to be here with us for just a little while until she heals and is able to go back home or go live with a relative who will care for her."

So while we treated the child like family and loved them like they were ours forever, it was always made clear that we are NOT this child's family. I typically would call my siblings "my foster sister or foster brother", but sometimes once we had them for awhile, I were call them brother and sister, as that was the appropriate term to grasp how deeply I loved them!

One thing that helped me visualize more what my parents told me about us being a temporary home, was actually meeting the families. There were several times that my mom would transport to parent visits and I would go along. I ended up meeting the majority of my foster siblings moms/dads/aunts/whomever-was-there. I loved these kids so dearly and it helped me to meet their bio family and understand there are other people that love them too!

Finally, honesty is so important. I think we often times underestimate how much kids understand and try to water down the story. Kids understand a lot and I personally believe it is ok to share much of the story with them. While it certainly needs to be age appropriate, it is ok to tell your child why the baby/child is in foster care (drugs, abuse, neglect), what the child's history is, how the case is progressing, and where/when it looks like the foster child will go. My mom always filled me in on lots of details and I'm not all too scarred ; )

I think a lot of my understanding was based on my parents being incredibly open with me with everything. Meeting the family, listening to the story, and sometimes even "listening in" when a caseworker was here. Obviously there was a lot they sheltered me from, but when you choose to allow foster children into your home, you're opening up your family to a whole big piece of the world that many children have not yet come into contact with. There are certainly many disadvantages to that, but there is also a lot of maturing and growth that can take place at an early age.

Phew. Sorry for the novel!

Tammy (aka. "Mimi") said...

Thanks, Kylee!!! :-)

When I first started fostering, the twins were only three years old. We told them that I was going to "babysit" (a term that they understood) these babies until their mommies and daddies "got better" and could take care of them again. Now that they are older (and have been exposed to much more with my six kiddos so far), they have A LOT more questions. They are most confused with Angel, Booger Bear, and Monkey because they were with us much longer than the others. Booger is still a BIG part of our lives, and when anyone asks, his mom and I both always say the kids are cousins because it seems to describe their relationship the best.

I know they are especially confused with Monkey though because he is the first baby who calls me "Mama." That opened up a whole new line of questioning because they know that I'm keeping Monkey while his first mama gets better. I'll definitely be "Mimi" from now on to avoid that confusion!

Maybe we'll start going with "foster cousins" and be a little more open with them about some of the details of the cases so they can ask more questions and be more prepared. I know I haven't DELIBERATELY kept things from them, but I don't think we've ever sat down and had open conversations with them about my kids' situations recently either. We did in the beginning, but that was a 3-year-old version of what Aunt Tammy was doing. Things have definitely changed since then!

Thanks again, Kylee! That gave me somewhere to start! :)

Kylee said...

Yes, it's amazing to me how quickly kids grow and change...the questions definitely get different and harder to answer as they get older. Not sure if this would work, but maybe you could explain to them that when you love someone SO much, you call them "mama". It's almost like a term of endearment, even if there is no biological relationship. I have people in my life that I call "Mama R", or that I call "sister", just because of my love for them.

So maybe explaining to them that Monkey has loved you and lived with you for so long, so he calls you Mama out of love for you.

Not sure if that would help. I never realized what a complicated topic this is : ) It was always just normal life for me, so I never thought much of it!

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