Providing a loving and supportive home to one or several of the 80,080 vulnerable children in the UK is undeniably life-affirming. Not only are you keeping them safe, but you’re giving them access to vital resources such as emotional support, healthcare and education.
Nevertheless, fostering can be challenging. You’re working with young people who have been removed from their family homes. Some have experienced trauma, neglect and abuse. More often than not, children in care have behavioural, physical and developmental problems because of their complex histories.
If you want to thrive as a foster carer, you should possess certain qualities and be aware of the reasons why children enter the foster system. You must also thoroughly understand the needs of your foster children so you can build better quality relationships.
What do children in foster care need most?
Understanding the needs of children in care will prepare you and your family for the journey ahead. There will be no surprises, and you can start making provisions before your foster child arrives.
While needs vary from case-to-case, key considerations include:
- Emotional wellbeing
- Structure and familiarity
- Educational support
Children in care have already been through more than most adults. Studies show that 75% of foster children have a family history of mental illness or addiction, and some may have suffered from physical or sexual abuse. While they still need parental guidance and support, sugar-coating the truth of their situation or treating them like children, will only lead to anger.
More than anything, children in care need honesty and transparency. They want you to understand where they came from rather than turning away from their pain. Instead of wishing things were different, let them talk about their past openly. When you hold space for children, they’re more likely to process and eventually come to terms with their circumstances.
Transparency includes answering questions about a child’s birth family and facilitating contact. By doing this, you reassure children that you’re not trying to replace their parents or previous guardians, which leads to a more trusting relationship.
Children in care are more likely to have been physically abused or injured. In many cases, they won’t have received treatment immediately, if at all, resulting in chronic conditions and ongoing illnesses. Additional factors like poverty, family crises and addiction in pregnancy may also have damaged their physical health.
Social workers, agencies and specialist healthcare teams support carers with a child’s physical wellbeing. However, it’s the carer’s responsibility to take children to appointments. If you’re offered a placement for a child with complex physical needs, you’ll need a flexible schedule that works around their healthcare plan.
No matter how loving the home, children in care often struggle with their emotional wellbeing. Early attachment disruptions may have resulted in extreme anxiety or stress. Without consistent positive role models, most lack a healthy template for dealing with everyday decisions or conflict. Consequently, the smallest problems can lead to the biggest tantrums and outbursts.
However, there’s no need to worry. As with physical health, social workers and therapeutic professionals band together to support a child’s emotional wellbeing and development. In other words, they’ll help you to help your foster child.
You don’t have to be a psychiatrist to promote wellbeing at home – all you need is patience, compassion and empathy. Then, implement the practical advice below:
- Keep a diary to identify activities that relax or stress your foster child.
- When you notice your foster child becoming agitated, practise mindfulness and self-regulating exercises like deep breathing, noting and labelling or visualisation. Failing that, fall back on a relaxing activity.
- Let foster children make decisions as many associate powerlessness with danger.
- In the spirit of transparency, encourage children to talk about their feelings without fear of judgement.
- Develop predictable daily routines to help children feel safe and secure.
Structure and familiarity
All children (and adults, for that matter) crave structure because it creates a sense of normalcy and safety. It’s especially crucial for children in care who’ve come from chaotic and changeable environments.
When there is structure, there are boundaries. Children quickly understand that it’s not okay to stay up past 9pm or play video games before school. They know when it’s time to eat, work and relax. There are rules to follow with predictable rewards or repercussions.
Ultimately, this gives children agency. Honouring those boundaries leads to more respect, whereas breaking trust teaches children about consequences and self-responsibility.
Creating structure is a collaborative process that should prioritise continuity and familiarity for foster children. Ask them about their favourite toys, food and hobbies. If they feel comfortable sharing, integrate these into your routine to help them feel more included.
Foster children are the same as all children – they long for success, opportunities and ultimately a rewarding career. However, they often fall behind because of their stressful home lives. They may need to change schools and friendship groups when entering care. Sometimes, they face stigma in the playground for being different.
Supporting a child in their education is as simple as valuing education yourself. Help with homework, go on educational outings and encourage extracurricular activities. If you’re fostering a teenager, explore their options and teach them about CVs, job applications and taxes. Very simply, your excitement about their future is often the motivation they need.
Lastly, make sure you’re communicating with teachers and school administration. They should be aware of your foster child’s circumstances so they can make allowances and provide additional support.
Are you ready to become a foster carer?
You’re never alone as a foster carer. At Olive Branch Fostering, we offer 24-hour telephone support, support groups and ongoing training to help you and your family with the transition, and assist you with meeting the needs of your foster children.
If you’re ready to make an application, contact our friendly team or call us on 01706 558910. There’s no obligation to go any further, and we’re happy to answer any questions you might have.