Vol. 16, No. 1 • November 2011

Foster Parent Perspectives on Establishing Trust

by Mellicent Blythe

As Manny’s story illustrates, children may come into a new placement with a complicated and unspoken set of fears, expectations, and unmet needs. In many cases, they have developed emotional or behavioral coping mechanisms to protect themselves and survive in an insecure or unsafe world.

How can foster parents welcome and integrate children into their family in a way that overcomes the protective barriers children have erected? We talked with two experienced foster parents to get some ideas: Cindy Meyers (Carteret County, NC) and Robin Cuellar (Buncombe County, NC).

1. How do you build trust when children come to your home?

Cindy: Consistency and stability. They know that after dinner, we’re going to read a book, and then we’re going to take a bath, and then I’m going to sing this song. Things don’t always have to be exactly the same. But in the beginning it’s really important to be consistent.

Robin: When a child arrives at our home, they are welcomed like family. We try to have a little “get to know you time” so we can make sure they know what our rules and expectations are. We do not assume they have been used to the same rules we have, because many have had NO rules.

We also give them time to settle in and get to know us a little and start picking up on the routine. I always ask if their room is okay, if they like sheets tucked in, etc. I show them around the house, so they know they have access to whatever they need.

We go about our normal routines, making sure to include them. For example, we make a dinner menu each week. We let any child in our home add to that menu. Our daughter has the same rules, no matter what.

2. What behaviors have you seen before children establish trust?

Cindy: Kids are going to test you. They’re going to throw food on the floor, they’re going to pee on the floor. All kids do that, but these kids are new, so obviously they’re really going to push the envelope to see what the consequences are going to be. Be calm, consistent: “That’s not how we do things, this is how we do things.” But it’s very repetitive. Depending on the age they will try and try and try!

We had a situation where a child was treated as a baby. He was 6 and was barely potty trained. He was in kindergarten but was really like a toddler. He would crawl up into anyone’s lap for hours.

Robin: One little one (19 months) would cry when her 13-year-old sister was out of her sight. We would take her in another room and hold her so her sister could eat. We comforted the sister and told her the little one is fine, she just needs to adjust to us. Within a week, she was sitting next to her sister and no crying! Both were more comfortable; the older one was relieved not to be the caretaker.

We also had a first grader who had not had homework time with his biological family. He was in the habit of not doing it until the next morning with the teacher’s assistance. The worst part with this child was that he was so smart, he could have done the work in 20 minutes.

3. How were you able to manage the behaviors while building the relationship?

Cindy: The 6-year-old who was treated like a baby had to learn to trust himself, to understand that he was capable. We had to treat him like we wanted him to be, so he could see that in himself. We said to him, “OK, buddy, I need to you to slice up this banana, or give everybody some grapes.” He didn’t think he was able to do that, but he was.

Another aspect of the trust is about being in public: what you say about that child, and how you interact with that child. If you take cupcakes to the school and they say, “Are you Johnny’s mommy?” you say, “Yes I am,” even if you know he’s leaving next week. In that moment they need a mommy, and that’s you, regardless of how long you’ve had them or how long you will have them. We are a family, even if the family is just for now.

Robin: Consistency is the key. Also, the way we explain the rules is not to put them on the spot. We say, “We do this” or “We don’t do that,” not “You will do this.” We, as the adults, also follow the rules, which reinforces the expectations.

4. Have you experienced a honeymoon phase? How can you set the stage for dealing with future problems?

Cindy: With older children, they’ve created a shell around themselves, and they have figured out how to fit into whatever family they’re in. But you can only keep that up for so long. Then other behaviors come out. They’re testing: Are you going to keep me? How hard can I push you? Again, structure and consistency and not taking it personally are key. They’ve had a hard life and they’re struggling to make sense of it all. It’s a lot more about them than about you.

Incorporating them is important—we’re a family, we’re a team, we all help with the running of the house. I think we do a disservice to our children, particularly our boys, when we don’t teach them basic things about taking care of a house.

Robin: We had a 7-year-old who was good as gold for a few days and then started pushing boundaries. He didn’t respect for women, so he would not listen to, or believe, anything I said. He had to hear it from my husband. After a month or so of being told by my husband that I was right, he started to trust what I was saying.

We have dealt with some dangerous behaviors as well. The same boy was choking our daughter, and it scared her too much to tell us right away. She finally said something a day or two later. We helped him see his behavior was wrong and dangerous. He was upset and did not want his biological family to learn about it.

On another occasion, he was putting a pillow over our daughter’s face, and I happened to walk in and stopped it immediately. She thought it was a game, but he was not really playing. We talked with our social workers and they talked with him. They were not allowed to play unsupervised anymore. We also made clear to our daughter that those behaviors were not allowed, and to let us know immediately if they happened. We had no further problems, thank goodness.

We had to learn to trust him as much as he had to trust us. I believe there were things he had seen and did not understand that were at the root of those behaviors. We still gave him the same care and encouragement, and it did not take long for him to see we were not giving up on him. He settled in and accepted us as part of his life. He still calls us. To us, that says it all. We have a familial bond, and he knows we are here for him.

5. What would you say to new foster parents?

Robin: Be willing to be second fiddle for a long time, because nobody is “Mommy” or “Daddy” immediately and sometimes not at all. Seeing families work to reunite can be beautiful—and gut-wrenching. Don’t be afraid to have your heart broken. If your heart cannot break, you are in this for the wrong reasons. The most important thing you can offer a child coming to you from what may be a horrible situation is time, security, consistency, and love. Also, if you get a child you just cannot manage, PLEASE ask for help. You will not help the child if you feel helpless. There are always people to provide respite or other assistance.

Seize any opportunity to be with other foster parents. Sometimes you just need someone to vent to, and you can bet there is a foster parent out there who is having, or has had, a similar situation.

Use your social workers. Always call them with any concern you have. It is better to be safe than sorry. Know you are never alone.

Copyright 2011 Jordan Institute for Families