Imagine what feelings you might experience if you found yourself in this scenario:
Someone you don’t know has picked you up from your home without notice, and you’ve had to leave your parents, siblings, friends, most of your belongings and beloved pets behind. This stranger has taken you to another community with the explanation that you can’t remain with your own family and so you’re going to live with a new one. Imagine your feelings as you pull into the strange driveway, and walk up to the front door of a home that you don’t recognize. Upon entering, you’re informed that the people inside (who are delighted and excited to see you), are now your “new” family. Someone whisks your belongings out of sight, and you don’t know where they’ve gone.
Empathy is the ability to identify with the thoughts and emotions that another is experiencing from their point of view, rather than your own. The skill of empathy allows foster parents to understand and be sensitive to the rollercoaster of emotions a child is experiencing on that first day, so that they can manage their interactions and respond in a way that lets the children know they understand. Foster parents who anticipate and respond to those thoughts and emotions, create a nurturing and supportive atmosphere to ease the child’s transition.
When supporting Resource Families in the community, we should never underestimate the emphasis of empathy in setting the tone of an out-of-home placement on Day One.
Here are some of the suggestions that KidsPeace offers to our parents and social workers to assist a youth’s transition.
First Day Tip #1: Establish a Warm Welcome
As you welcome the child into what should be a calm and hospitable environment:
- Allow them to hold onto whatever they’ve brought into the house. Many children feel vulnerable or attacked when “their stuff” is taken right away.
- Offer a snack and a trip to the bathroom.
- Sit in a comfortable location without loud and distracting noise.
- Introduce each household member by name, and age (even those not present).
- Ask the child what they’d like to be called.
- Offer suggestions of what they can call you.
- Ask about any allergies, medical issues, special needs, medication, or upcoming appointments (sometimes the child knows more about this than the social workers!).
- In all cases, in the presence of the child, ask the social worker if and when the child can make a phone call to a family member, and how soon they might be able to visit with family members. It’s important for the child to hear this question and the response!
First Day Tip #2: Exploring the Foster Home
Tour the home, paying particular attention to their bedroom, the bathroom, and key details about the kitchen:
- Ensure their room is well-prepared. A basket or drawer containing new pajamas, and age-appropriate personal care products will alleviate the need to ask for those things.
- Discuss their usual bedtime, and let them know about the family’s typical bedtime schedule.
- Identify the bathroom(s) available for their use, (and before the end of that first day, explain the laundry routine, where fresh towels are kept, and where they can find extra toilet paper, soap and shampoo, etc.)
- Note where the snacks are kept and when they can be eaten, the locations of drinking glasses and utensils, the time of daily meals and who prepares them. Ask if they have a favorite food or foods they prefer so they can be provided a comforting meal as soon as possible!
- Point out the location of the home’s phone and emergency numbers and show them where the smoke detector nearest their bedroom is located. From their bedroom doorway, demonstrate the way out of the home if the detector goes off during the night.
- Some houses make frightening sounds at night (creaks, beeping noises, heating system clicks, wind whistling in the pine trees, etc.). Describe what they might hear and their sources.
- Show the child where your bedroom is located, and let them know what do to if they need something during the night. Consider putting a nightlight in the hallway to illuminate safe passage!
- Ask about shower/bath preferences for morning or evening so that a time accordingly can be determined but don’t insist they bathe on that first night if they seem hesitant.
- Introduce the child to any other primary living areas of the home such as the family room, and if age appropriate, the TV and how to use any remote controls.
- Describe the typical evening activities for various family members, and ask if there’s anything in particular that the child would like to do before the day winds down.
- Explain the family’s wakeup and breakfast routines and the time to be ready for school and work.
Any other information about the living space or routines unique to your home that will assist with the adjustment should be offered. These simple steps in acclimating the child to your home will go far in alleviating the fear and uncertainty of the day.
First Day Tip #3: Active Listening and Empathy
In their excitement, foster parents may forget how traumatic this moment is for the child. Often, after the social workers leave, the kids seek out the adults and talk about random things. This is a great time to listen. Remember, they may have faced significant challenges or traumas prior to their arrival, so may not have much to say until they feel more trusting of you and your home. Acknowledging and validating their feelings and being empathetic to their needs will help build trust and create a safe space for them to open up.
- Take the time to invite a conversation on that first day, but don’t press it if the child doesn’t seem talkative.
- Ask if they have any questions about the agency, community, home, or yourself or other family members.
- Above all on the first day, remember to meet the basic needs of food, shelter and safety. Spend a little extra time at bedtime making sure they’re comfortable, (imagine how you would feel if you were in their shoes, and what might help you get through that first night).
The first day in a foster home can be a pivotal moment in a child’s life and sets the tone for their overall experience. By employing empathy and implementing these strategies, foster parents can create a nurturing and supportive environment that facilitates a smoother transition. Remember, patience, empathy, and consistent support are the foundations for helping a child adjust to your home.