Most foster parents actually care. They want to do better, say the right things, and be there for their foster child.
However unless you are the rare foster carer who was also a foster child, chances are you have no idea of the effects of your words and actions, no matter how much education or training you have.
Here’s my personal list of the top 10 things never to say or do to your foster children, with a short explanation of why. Let’s start with things never to say.
What to NEVER SAY to Your Foster Children
Avoid saying things to a child in your care that will have any of the following effects:
- increase their hurt
- make them cringe
- remind them of how vulnerable (and how unlucky) they are
- make them feel unsafe
- or just feel more like a foster child.
1. “You can call me mom”
Unless this child has been with you for a while do NOT say this. To believe it is your right to say this in the beginning implies you really do not understand foster care at all. Chances are that child has a mom, and it ISN’T you. No matter what that mother has done to them they probably still love her.
By saying something like this you are also saying you don’t understand that this is FOSTER CARE. When a child will probably get bounced around to multiple homes, surely they aren’t suppose to call every foster parent ‘mom’.
2. “So what did you do to land in foster care?”
While the child might have gotten moved out of a placement for doing something wrong, they didn’t ‘land’ in foster care through fault of their own. A very minuscule amount of foster kids are in foster care because of their own actions, but that is literally next to none.
Have respect and compassion for children who have been through far more than they deserve. Do not ask them what they did wrong to get there!
3. “I understand how you feel”
Really, were you abused, thrown into foster care, switched around from home to home, losing all of your stuff, and having grown ups not understand you? Oh, no? Then don’t say you understand. You can not begin to understand but a small portion of the feelings and emotions a foster child goes through.
As a previous foster child, this is the one that really made me angry back then, and still does a little bit. This is never a helpful phrase unless you have really been through it. I went through 32 homes in 4 years, that sticks out in my mind constantly.
Even now at 32, chances are most foster moms still do not understand me. So while you may think you are being kind or caring, what you are really doing is minimizing their pain.
4. “If you don’t behave, you can’t live here”
A child in foster care has not had a good childhood and may even have been beaten their entire lives, so do you think it is fair and realistic to expect good behavior, following all the rules, and following your every command? (If that is the case you shouldn’t be a foster parent.)
A child’s worth is not determine by their behaviour. It is your job to teach them better ways of dealing with their anger. You are to guide them to manners. It is your job to help them understand they can trust you, therefore they don’t need to rebel against you.
If you expect good behavior, manners, and a child who will listen to you, don’t become a foster parent to any child over the age of 1.
Ask yourself, would you kick out your own child for not listening? Would you use this threat on your own 13-year-old for back talking? Foster kids get floated through homes enough. The last thing they need to deal with is a foster parent with a lack of empathy for their situation.
5. “Your mom and dad are bad people”
Other similar phrases are “Your mom and dad don’t love you” or “Your parents must not want you”. Just don’t say any of these things (and remind your birth children never to say them.) Words like these are far too cruel.
No matter how hard it is for you to understand, being an abused child can sometimes become like Stockholm Syndrome. They love their parents no matter how terrible they are. (I’m 32 and I still love my father even though he is a pedophile and a horrible man. I don’t see him, but deep inside I kind of struggle even hearing my husband talk bad about him. That is reserved for me. Only I get to say those bad things out loud.)
So imagine how hard it must be for say, a 9 year old, to hear you talk bad about her parents. While they may have abused her, they also may have fed her, clothed her, helped her when she fell down, or simply were the only people she had ever loved. Do you really need to be the person to remind her that the people who brought her into this world, that she loves, are bad?
The same applies to boys in your care.
6. “You can trust me”
I know you mean well, but the people who brought this child in this world (the only people we are born trusting and expect to be able to trust our entire lives) have failed to be trustworthy.
Foster parents saying, “You can trust me” compounds the problem of people always saying they are trustworthy, yet continuing to fail them. (Even you don’t know if the child can really trust you when they walk through the door. They might be promptly removed from your care by the authorities.)
If you are going to say this, save it for when you have had them 6 months to a year and have actually proven that you are trustworthy. Although you really shouldn’t need to say you can be trusted. Just let your actions prove it.
What to NEVER DO to Your Foster Children
There are obvious things that should never happen in foster care including verbal, physical, emotional and sexual abuse. But there’s also things some foster carers do (perhaps with the best of intentions) that cause immense harm and grief to children with my kind of background.
7. Never restrict food
Food should never be a punishment or a reward, particularly when a child is new to your home.
- Do not lock the fridge! (I know people think this is a myth, but I have seen it, and sadly it is not!)
- Do not lock the food cabinets! (You have no idea if your foster children have been starved in the past.)
- If there’s something special you are saving for later, tell them. Or put a note on it.
- Nominate one source of food they are free to access when they are really hungry and need a snack. Perhaps a fruit bowl. Maybe a cookie jar.
- If you expect your foster child to ask before eating things, be prepared to say ‘Yes’ every time they ask. (Don’t force them to lie or steal to get food.)
It is not uncommon for foster kids to come from homes where food was limited. Food is a necessity. One of your roles as a foster carer is to ensure any child in your care has healthy, nutritious meals – and develops a healthy attitude towards food.
8. Never lock a child’s bedroom door from the outside!
Why would anyone lock a child’s bedroom door from the outside? You have no idea what it feels like to be locked away like that.
Imagine how you, an adult, would feel if you were locked in a room and:
- needed to go to the toilet
- needed a drink
- had a nightmare and needed company
- had a problem and needed a solution
… but your door was locked and you couldn’t get out. Imagine the frustration (and the fear) you’d feel, locked away until someone chose to come and unlock the door.
Then imagine if you hardly knew the person who locked you in. Maybe they’d never come back and let you out. Perhaps you should try climbing out the window.
If you can’t figure out how to keep a foster child ‘safe’ without locking them in a bedroom from the outside, consult with their caseworker or counselor and see what better options you can figure out.
Find another way to keep them safe. There’s never a good enough reason to lock a child in a room.
9. Never discuss how much you are paid in front of foster children
Not even if it is to prove a point that you aren’t in it for the money.
Any foster kid who floats through more than five placements has seen the foster home where NONE of the money is going towards caring for them. Believe it or not there are some bad foster parents out there who manage to profit off their abundance of foster children while doing next to nothing for the children.
So the amount of money you get paid by the state, no matter how little, is a touchy subject for these children. Plus, an amount that you think is small will seem like a lot of money to a youngster. They might actually think you should be rich.
10. Never, Never, NEVER spank or hit a foster child!
And I really mean never. I don’t care how bad their behavior is, you have no right to spank or hit a foster child. Chances are they have been hit enough to last a life time.
Adults who don’t have the mental capacity to find a different form of punishment, or lack the ability to control their anger and think things through, SHOULD NOT BECOME FOSTER CARERS!
I’m truly saddened that so many foster parents think spanking is okay. It isn’t.
Hitting is often a trigger for memories of their past. You hit that child (call it spanking or discipline, but you are HITTING a child) and all it does is make them think of their abuser.
Suddenly you’re no better than the abuser responsible for them being put into foster care in the first place.
Being a Foster Parent
Remember, being a foster parent is WORK. It isn’t easy!
I want you to be aware of the ten important points I listed here because I have experienced them.
Yes, most foster parents mean well, and some are gifted carers with a special way of creating a safe and loving environment for children needing care and shelter. But experience is a great teacher, so even trained professionals would benefit from guidance and advice from former foster kids who have actually lived through the process of being placed to live with strangers.
If you are a foster carer, please be a good one. (And take care never to say or do those 10 things to your foster children!)