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The Social Worker or case manager has left and now it’s just your family and this new foster child in the living room, looking at one another. This is an important moment. Remember that this child has left a probably horrible situation caused by people who are loved and cared for by him. This situation is at the least confusing, scary, and devastating.
We all go through things personally that could be considered devastating; take a moment to remember what helped you through. Someone talked to you, someone just sat with you, someone cooked you a meal, you had a higher power, someone cleaned your house for you—in most cases you made it through because someone else was genuinely there for you in some form. How can you be there for this child?
There are lots of things you can do to ease the awkwardness and help in this transition. For instance, during introductions have everyone in the family state their name and tell three things about themselves, ending with the new member. If you take older children you could schedule a trip to the store and take him or her with you to pick up a few things they would like to have, use the drive time to talk. Discuss favorite foods and let the child help plan the next meal. Host a family meeting the same night as the child arrives to talk about important things going on and to provide some insight into the family. Leave their room or their part of the room as bare as possible and allow the child to decorate as they wish. Show him where the sheets are and let him pick out which sheets he wants, help him put the sheets on the bed.
In some cases the child will come to your home with no clothes which will provide a wonderful opportunity to get to know likes and dislikes and to test some boundaries. If possible, give the option of including other children in the shopping trip. In case the child comes with clothes, put a load in the wash, have a load on deck and say it is wash day (every day is actually wash day in my home) and happily include the clothes in the washing.
Silence can be an important asset but not always, it’s alright to talk to your new foster child; to provide the canvas so she can paint the picture of her life with as much or as little detail as she wishes. She will have time to fill it in later. Make sure you have important questions answered at the outset such as: parental contact, visitation, school information, and the like so you don’t inadvertently promise something you that is not possible. Ask general, open ended questions about benign subjects such as pets, school, hobbies, etc. Awkward silences won’t do in this situation and even though you are new to this child’s family, he will still need you to be the adult and take control of the situation.
The examples above will help the transition; however, the most important help you can provide is to be genuine. Fake smiles and plastic movements will not give this child what she needs; pity won’t either. This is not a competition and you will never win a child’s love and loyalty by providing more than the family of origin. Open the door to a welcoming house, don’t flaunt what you have, offer what is available. You will never know what he actually needs until you get to know him, building rapport starts the first day and being genuine will take you farthest down the road.