Thus far, Rent-a-dad and I have been supportive of the reunification process in the cases we have received. This has put us in a unique position where we are being asked questions by, and giving advice to birth parents. If you are a foster parent who is also working towards reunification in positive ways you may find yourself in a similar situation.
Giving advice to birth parents is a little tricky. First you want to make sure they are actually asking for advice and not making an off-hand remark. Since they are literally dealing with everyone telling them what to do (so they can get their children back) it isn’t very useful to also have the foster parents doing the same thing. Giving unsolicited advice may put the birth parents off and do damage to your budding relationship. Second, if asked to give advice, give some thought to your answer before you give it. Sometimes being asked to give advice feels a little bit like a double edged sword: you have to be careful how you handle the situation.
When Rent-a-Dad and I have been asked to give advice to birth parents it has been when the parents are seeing that their journey through the foster system has an ending point. They know reunification is an attainable goal. By this point you, as a foster parent, have had a chance to build a relationship with the birth parents. The birth parents should feel secure enough to ask for some help/advice.
Here are 5 things to keep in mind as you are helping your foster children to transition back home and ideas of advice to birth parents that you can feel safe giving:
5) Keep a journal or folder with information
Going through foster training foster parents receive basic information on keeping scrapbooks or photo journals for each foster child. I also kept a huge file folder filled with medical and legal documents for the children. When it was time to transition the kids back home I created a smaller version of this to give to the parents.
In the front of the folder there is a cheat sheet packed with information. The quick list contains medication information (when and how much to give); allergy information (some parents honestly don’t know their child’s allergies); doctor information including appointments; and emergency contact information. The rest of the folder has copies of paperwork needed for appointments; medical files/notes; and more.
Give this folder to the birth parents prior to the first full overnight or weekend visit, which is the start of the transition period. It is important to cull out some time to sit one on one with the birth parents, minus the kids if possible, so they can ask questions pertaining to the care of their children. This is important because you are showing how much you trust the birth parents and care about their children.
Even if you have reservations about the children returning home you need to show the birth parents that you are rooting for them to succeed. They need to know there are people out there who believe in them because often their own families are skeptical and may be waiting for them to fail. Knowing that the people who have been taking care of their children believe they can do it does matter to them and to your foster children.
4) Share recipes
Often birth parents don’t have positive role models in their life who have shown them how to succeed. In many cases birth parents have come from broken homes. Things like homemade meals can often be distant or non-existent memories.
As the children are transitioning home try to cook a homemade meal. Ask the birth family if they would like to be involved. The answer you receive may shock you. They don’t know how to cook and are even afraid to try and fail at something else.
So far Rent-a-dad and I have not housed a transition meal in our home but rather in each case it has been in the birth parents’ home. If the birth parents were unsure of their cooking skills I would make a simple meal to bring and share as well as the recipe. If the birth parents have shown an interest in learning I have offered to teach and have provided basic recipes for meals I know their children have enjoyed.
Providing recipes or a meal may seem simple but to these families it means the world. I have seen some birth parents blossom with their confidence that they can work and provide a home cooked meal that the whole family will like.
When sharing recipes, make the first recipe you share something easy to make that the children have loved like a favorite dessert. One of our family favorites has been Peanut Butter Crispy Treats.
3) Share daily routines
This is something that can be added as a section in the medical binder or it can be a quick email in preparation of an overnight visit. Some birth parents want to know this information from the moment their kids are placed in care and ask for weekly progress reports that include information like baby feeding or sleeping schedules. No matter the situation, most birth parents appreciate this kind of information as the transition period gets closer. This way they know how to plan their first unsupervised visit from meals to bedtime.
2) Share tips/pointers
As the transition period gets closer I have found that a note with words of encouragement is welcome. Birth parents typically worry about the transition period and trial home-stay not going well. A note sometimes eases these worries and reminds them we are all human. If you have a strong relationship with mutual respect you can try to give harder advice but be careful as this is still a slippery slope.
The most recent note provided a reminder that in life there are successes and challenges, much the same can be said about raising children. Rent-a-Dad and I are open to being sounding boards when this parenting thing feels crazy hard because we all have been there.
The one tip I have given to parents of infants/toddlers is to find a balance between being strict (disciplining) and spoiling. I have to remind myself that my job is to parent the kids and guide them, not to be their best friend. Once they reach adulthood that is the time to be their best friend.
The reason I provide this piece of advice is from experiences with birth parents of infants and toddlers. Often they feel horrible because they have missed a lot of their child’s first moments. They want to atone for this feeling by overcompensating. They do this through co-sleeping in the parent’s bed, providing lots of candy/goodies, and giving big rewards for every kind of behavior. Once these habits are formed they are very hard to break. Months after reunification, I have received requests for advice on how to alter a toddler’s behavior. The action could be sneaking candy now that the parent has decided to limit candy consumption. Or the parents have grown tired of the toddler sleeping in their bed every night.
1) Be sincere and humble
This is probably the most important bit of information I can give advice on. As a foster parent you have been given a special privilege to take care of a child you are not related to or have known existed prior to their placement in your home. For months, or years, this child has resided in your home under your care and protection. Now it is time to turn all of those responsibilities over to their birth parents.
Even if you agree 100% that this is the right time and the right action to take, your parental instincts are screaming in your subconscious that this is your child. Part of you is going to want to speak from a place on high because you haven’t done anything wrong to have this child taken from you. That kind of action is not what you need.
Speak from your heart with sincerity and care. Put love in your words so the birth family can feel the warmth and want to reciprocate. Be humble. None of us are perfect. Foster parents are just lucky to have had families that are supportive, loving and caring to help them in positive ways through troubled times.
Keep in Mind:
Not every birth parent will want advice. Many will fight and buck you every inch of the way. They are acting out of self preservation and do not know a better way to act.
One of the most difficult things to do is to be calm in the face of anger and insecurities. But being calm and showing your support is what you need to do. Why? Because being a foster parent is not about us, it is about the children in care. While the goal is reunification, the foster parents must be supportive of the birth family’s success as that is a success for the foster child. Be as supportive as you feel you can if your goal is to be involved in that child’s life beyond reunification. Finding a common ground with the birth parents is an important step in this process. This is no easy task but one well worth all the hard work.
End Note: Giving Advice to Birth Parents
Giving advice to birth parents is one of those multi-faceted topics. There are the general things you can do, they point behind it, and the topics you should always try to avoid. This article covered the things you can do. Check out the next two installments: