Whether you are a new foster family or you have had the blessing of several children in your home over the years, be encouraged. Although a meaningful connection won’t likely happen like it would in a cute, family movie about foster care, it is possible to move toward healthy connections, no matter what the age of the child or the circumstances that brought them to you.
The following tips are crucial because they meet basic human needs while considering the tender hearts and unique personalities of each individual child.
Get To Know the Child
Before making any assumptions, remember that every child comes with their own character, background, and way of seeing the world and people around them. Each child will respond differently to various strategies you might try in order to connect with them, so it is important to get to know and appreciate who they are. Your sincerity will go a long way in developing a connection. This goes beyond asking,”What’s your favorite color?” and includes watching what makes your foster child smile, noticing what makes him sad or fearful or angry, and listening to what she wants to talk about.
Non-Verbal Affection: Hugs and Smiles
Babies and younger children may respond differently than a teen if you reach out to them in a loving way. You can’t go wrong with a sincere, happy smile for a baby or toddler, at just about any time or place! Older children definitely need smiles to remind them that they are liked and even admired, but there are times that a child may be struggling emotionally, and better than a lighthearted smile might be a gentle touch of their hand with a more sober facial expression that demonstrates a respect for their sadness or anger. A similar discernment is important when considering the physical/emotional needs of children with different backgrounds and trauma. Generally, babies love to be hugged and cuddled for much of the day, young children typically respond with joy when a trusted person holds their hand or gives them a big hug, and older children will often long for a hug or a kind hand on their shoulder even though they may roll their eyes or shrink away. They might respond negatively at first to certain types of affection because of previous trauma, so be sensitive to their responses as you help them learn to trust again.
Verbal Affection: Listening and Conversation
If an older child seems to consistently resist hugs, eye contact is a beautiful way to make a connection, and it is easiest to make eye contact while in conversation with a child. Conversations are too often cheapened because of the distraction of a task or a phone, so be intentional with your eyes during conversation. Setting aside a phone while listening to your foster child is a gesture that informs them that they are important, more important than whatever is on your phone. Young children are often willing to talk about anything silly, but sometimes it can be difficult to have a conversation with a teenager. Consider letting them into your world and sharing with them something you may be struggling with or happy about. Ask them open-ended questions that reveal care and interest in what they are going through. Demonstrate ongoing love and care by having open communication about the little things: what’s for lunch, weekend plans, something you notice along the way as you drive them to an appointment. Be willing to talk about the bigger things when they are ready: why they seemed upset when they came home from school Thursday, or memories they have with their biological family.
Connecting with another human, no matter what age, requires some vulnerability. Fostering is not a job for perfect people, so be prepared to show love, and have to try again the next day. Making healthy connections can take time, as trust is built. Remember to be sensitive to the age and possible history of each child as you demonstrate love in verbal and non-verbal ways, including your facial expressions, body language, physical touch, and tone of voice. Reach out to us at TFI Family Services for any support you need or questions you may have! And enjoy the process of getting to know the unique personality of your foster child and forming healthy connections!