by Katie Biron
Forget the unicorns and rainbows. Let’s embrace the messiness of real life.
Relationships are messy. Yes, they are a beautiful part of the human experience, when we come together, share joy and laughter, and enjoy interacting with one another. But with that beauty comes some hard stuff too – we all have our quirks, fears and strong personalities that make navigating relationships challenging. When we add the complexities of trying to build relationships amidst all the uncertainties in the foster care world, it’s no wonder that relationships between parents whose children are placed in out-of-home care and those who are caring for their children (foster and relative caregivers) can be complex and challenging.
As caregivers, we have A LOT on our plates. Trying to build or navigate relationships with first or birth parents can feel downright hard and overwhelming. Yet, it is so important, not just for the kids we care about, but also for those caring for them.
When caregivers and parents effectively communicate with one another about a child’s needs, preferences and routines, it eliminates the guesswork and it’s easier for caregivers to soothe and care for the child. Caregivers don’t have to guess a child’s favorite story, show or song. They don’t have to guess about food allergies, food preferences or dislikes. They also learn what upsets a child, and how best to comfort them. Building partnerships with parents makes things easier and less stressful for everyone.
When children see their parents and caregivers collaborate and communicate with one another, they benefit in multiple ways. They feel less stress when their caregivers know their routines, likes and dislikes. Plus, children are smart and intuitive. They can sense when there is tension between their parents and caregivers. This makes them feel caught in the middle with divided loyalties, which in turn, increases the trauma they experience. Depending on how long a child has been in care, they may start to experience feelings of love for their caregivers, while also loving their parents, despite circumstances that led to their removal from home. Giving kids permission to love and care about all the important adults in their lives allows a child to relax, and to feel safe and supported. This is the ultimate goal for everyone.
But let’s be real. This kind of relationship-building isn’t easy. These partnerships are likely going to be unlike any other. There are complexities and nuances, boundaries to be navigated, and at the center is a really awkward situation where a caregiver is caring for someone’s child because Child Protective Services decided the parent(s) was/were not able to care for the child, at least for now. This is a very weird way to start a relationship. Add into the mix the possibility the child’s parents may have had very different experiences and made choices that many do not agree with. They may also have different values and beliefs – all of this can make building and navigating such relationships difficult. That’s exactly why building a strong relationship between all those who care for and about the child needs to be a priority. Children in out-of-home care need to know all the adults who love them are working together.
So, where do we start building these partnerships? The first thing to know is there is no “right” way to partner. We need to recognize that each of us is unique, with unique needs, and we’re all at unique places in their lives. No matter what the parent-caregiver relationship/partnership looks like, the collaboration helps the child.
A good starting point for this kind of relationship building is learning how to partner with individuals who come with a variety of experiences, such as partnering with someone who’s experienced (or is experiencing) a substance use disorder, or partnering with those struggling with strong and difficult emotions. We can also share our needs with a trusted friend or mentor who has experience building relationships in the child welfare field. Amara’s Family Connections Program has a wealth of free resources for caregivers and first/birth families. Mini, five-minute “Tidbit Trainings” can also help caregivers strengthen their relationship building skills. Peer mentors are also available to help. For more information, visit www.amarafamily.org/family-connections.
And always try to remember, that while these relationships can be complex and messy, they can also be soul-soothing to a hurting child.
Katie Biron, BSN, RN, is the Family Connections Program Manager at Amara in Washington state. A foster, adoptive and natural mom herself, she offers family coaching to navigate the complexities of creating and maintaining positive connections to a child’s first family. Bironalso supports families through the challenges and successes of caring for children in foster care, adoption or other complicated family dynamics.
For more information about the support Amara offers, visit amarafamily.org/programs-resources/family-connections/.