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BY JOHN DeGARMO, ED.D.

Promoting healthy relationships for youth in foster care

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ne of the most important aspects of being a foster parent is helping a foster child learn how to build positive and healthy relationships. For many foster parents, this may be a most difficult challenge, as so many foster children have never experienced a healthy relationship with another, whether it is with a parent, adult or sibling. In order for foster children to truly be successful later on in life, building positive and healthy relationships with others is imperative. It is important to remember that the majority of foster children placed into foster care simply do not wish to be there. No matter how kind, pleasant, safe and comfortable a foster home may be, the home is still a strange one, with strange people. Indeed, most foster children wish to be in their own home, with their family members. Foster children are seldom grateful when entering into care, and may even lash out at their foster parents in the first few days and weeks due to the frustration, concern and even fear they feel about their situation. For many foster children, it is almost impossible to form a healthy and positive relationship with another, for a variety of reasons. To begin with, foster children often suffer from such issues as poverty, poor nutrition, health related issues, mental health challenges, lack of stability, and from the many
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forms of abuse. Furthermore, many foster children feel they are disloyal to their own biological family if they should form a positive relationship with another adult. Along with this, a great many foster children are faced with the challenge of having inadequate social skills. All of these challenges hinder a foster child from developing healthy relationships with others. If a foster child is to function in society in a healthy fashion, it is necessary that the child form healthy relationships. Yet, this is not the only reason why healthy relationships are important for foster children. A healthy and stable relationship with another can also have positive effects on other areas of the child’s development, as well. First, those foster children who have a healthy relationship with a foster parent are more likely to lead healthy lives, as they make healthy choices. Along with this, foster children who have positive relationships also tend to have lower levels of sickness and illnesses in their lives. One recent study showed that foster children enrolled in public schools struggle tremendously with both academics and behavior issues. Indeed, many of these foster children drop out of school due to the frustration of poor academics, leading to a variety of problems upon reaching adulthood.
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Yet, for those foster children who have stable relationships with their foster parents, there is marked improvement in academic achievement. Too, these foster children are less likely to repeat a grade or even drop out of school. Additionally, foster children who have learned to develop a healthy relationship with a foster parent, or another adult, are less likely to have behavior issues in school. Finally, social skills are also enhanced when a foster child is engaged in a positive relationship with a foster parent. Though it is quite difficult for a foster parent to create a healthy relationship with a foster child when no positive relationship has been in place beforehand, there are a number of strategies that a foster parent can employ in this attempt. It is essential for foster parents to remember that the formation of a healthy relationship with a foster child is likely to be a slow process, and it is possible that it may not meet with success. Therefore, a great period of time is necessary, as well as great quantities of patience. As a foster child will need to adjust to a great many things in your home, it is important to not only have a great deal of patience during this time of adjustment, it is also important to set realistic expectations for the child. With this in mind, it is important to set up some rules and expectations, though, early on with your foster child.

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As expectations and rules may make or break your foster child, you need to be realistic with your expectations from the child. You also need to ensure that your family’s values and moral structure does not change. You probably do not accept violent behavior, disrespectful attitudes, profanity or destruction of property within your home. Yet, many foster children have not been brought up in this manner, and you may find that your foster child does not understand your values and morals. One of your biggest challenges as a foster parent will be to remain patient with your foster child’s progress as you teach him or her the kind of behavior you expect in your home, and not insist upon it all at once. If you do demand the type of behavior that you expect from your own family, you may push your foster child even further away. Work on the behaviors first that you find most important. When your foster child has improved with one expectation, then it is time to begin focusing on another. All children enjoy praise from the adults in their lives. Sadly, your foster child may never have received praise before, nor had the opportunity to be successful in a given task. Praise is essential for all foster children, and a little praise from the foster parent will go a long way in building a healthy relationship. When a foster child is first placed into a home, do not insist that your new child call you mom or dad. In fact, it is wise that you never insist upon this. The word “mom” may refer to the person who beat the child. “Dad” may be the person who left the family. Allow your foster child to call you by your first names, if you feel comfortable with this, or by whatever name he or she feels comfortable in calling you. As the child may be scared, do not insist that he or she react to you right away. This is a time of extreme difficulty, and your foster child may be in a state of shock. As you help the child inside with his or her possessions, take the child by the hand, if he or she is a little one, or place a soft hand upon his or her shoulder, if the child is a teenager. Actions like these can be reassuring that all will be OK, that the

child is in a safe and caring home. Do not insist upon hugging, as the child may be too embarrassed or hurt to do so. As your foster child will probably not trust you when first entering placement, he or she will require time and patience from you. To the child, everything is new — home, food, “parent, brothers and sisters,” rules and expectations. Perhaps, even a new school, along with students and teachers, as well, if he or she has moved from another school system. As a result, the child may act out in a variety of ways. You may find that the child exhibits sudden outbursts of anger and aggressive behavior, extreme bouts of sadness and depression or even imaginative stories about the child’s birth family. He or she may even express no emotions, at all. It is important that you do not take the child’s behavior personally, as he or she attempts to understand feelings, and cope the best way possible. Again, this may take time, but it is important when trying to build the foundation of a healthy relationship. As soon as possible, take some time to sit down with your new foster child. Listen, and encourage him or her to ask questions. This is an important time for your family, as you begin to form a relationship with your foster child. Spend time with him or her, and try to get to know the child’s likes and dislikes, fears and concerns, hopes and dreams. If the child wants, allow him or her to speak about his or her family. The child may wish to brag about them to you. Do not judge the biological parents; instead, listen with an open ear and open heart, allowing the child to see this, as it will encourage trust in you. Encourage the child to put up pictures of his or her biological parents, birth family members, previous foster parents, and other important people in his or her life. Let the child know that you understand how important these people are in his or her life. If you have a positive relationship with the birth parents, ask them to help you. They may

be able to reassure their child that it is OK to develop a healthy relationship with you, and that it would not be an act of disloyalty to the birth family. By granting this permission, it may allow the foster child to open his or her emotions to you, and begin a relationship of trust, as the child sees his or her own birth parents engage in a trusting relationship with you, as well. Indeed, it is important for foster parents to never criticize the actions or parenting styles of the birth parents, and certainly not in front of the foster child. This will only build up resentment on behalf of the child toward the foster home. Furthermore, allow the child to bring in some family traditions into your own home, as well. This simple action will go a long way in showing your foster child that he or she is important, that you respect who he or she is as a person, and that his or her previous life before you is indeed important and honored. While it may be a most difficult challenge trying to build a healthy relationship with a foster child, perhaps with a child who has never experienced one before, it can be done. With patience, time, compassion, love and understanding, along with the other strategies discussed, a positive relationship can be formed, and this might just be the best gift a foster parent can give a child. ❁

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BY JOHN DeGARMO, ED.D.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dr. John DeGarmo has been a foster parent for 11 years, now, and he and his wife have had more than 30 children come through their home. DeGarmo wrote his dissertation on the challenges that foster children face in public schools. DeGarmo is the author of “Fostering Love: One Foster Parent’s Story,” and “The Foster Parenting Manual: A Practical Guide to Creating a Loving, Safe and Stable Home.” He supplies a database of resources, news and information on his Facebook page, Dr. John DeGarmo, and at his website at www.drejohndegarmo.com. In his spare time, DeGarmo enjoys gardening, traveling the world and performing. He can be contacted at drjohndegarmo@gmail.com.

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