How to Communicate with Children in Foster Care About Their Birth Family
In 2022, KVC Health Systems was able to safely reunite 609 children with their birth families! Our goal is always to help foster families and birth families work together to stabilize and strengthen relationships with one another.
Because safe reunification is always the intention when a child enters the foster care system, it’s essential for foster parents to understand how to communicate with children about their birth family. If you are a foster parent or are considering becoming one, here are some things to consider when discussing your foster child’s birth family, and ideas to keep the reunification objective at the forefront.
1. Be Sensitive to the Child’s Feelings
Children experience many complex emotions when they are removed from their birth home, and it’s important to be very sensitive to their experiences. They need permission to feel loss, grief, anger, relief, frustration, love and any other emotions they have.
As a caregiver, you can be a listening ear for children in your care, supporting them without imposing your own opinions. Even if you may have mixed feelings towards the birth family or know the situation to be particularly volatile, take care to respond with sensitivity, as the child’s wellbeing is ultimately the most important.
2. Always Be Honest
Honesty is essential for children and caregivers. Don’t make promises that can’t be kept, or promises built on your own hopes and aspirations for the situation without any solid arrangements behind them.
If a child in your care asks when they will see their birth family again, be honest if you aren’t sure of the answer. But do so with sensitivity and tenderness. Don’t promise reunification any more than you promise adoption. Your goal may be for the child to feel stable, but if you promise something that doesn’t come true, you may leave them feeling very vulnerable and unstable.
3. Be Age-Appropriate
When discussing a child’s birth family, keep in mind the age and understanding of the child in your care. How you speak to a toddler or young child will be very different from how you speak with an older adolescent.
When a child in your care asks a question about their birth family, always consider age-appropriateness when formulating your response. For example, an older foster child may have a better grasp on why they’re with you, and it’s important to be respectful of that context.
It’s okay (and even necessary at times) to discuss complex topics with children in your care, such as the circumstances surrounding their placement in foster care. And sometimes, the child in your care may know more about what led to their foster care than you may think. However, it’s important to allow them to guide this conversation while providing a satisfactory explanation for the reason they are now in your home.
4. Engage in Relationships Where Possible
If it is safe and encouraged by your social worker, be sure to maintain relationships with the birth family. This isn’t just for the child in your care, but for you as well! Getting to know the child’s birth family can help you understand them even better and communicate in a healthy way. It can also aid your own experience in the foster care process and help you feel greater peace as you champion the birth family in safe reunification if and when it becomes the right next step.
Where safe and encouraged by your social worker, foster caregivers can include birth family members in important appointments and events, such as medical appointments, sporting activities and educational events. These, and other meaningful moments, can help keep lines of communication strong.
5. Take Care in Communicating
When you first connect with a child in your care, it’s normal to experience a wide spectrum of emotions. At the same time, it’s important to be cautious in communicating with others in your circle. Remember that children are aware of how we communicate, even if they’re not part of the conversation. So empathy and respect are crucial. Balance your own need to share with validating the child in your care’s needs, too.
Language to Use and Avoid
To put the child’s needs first and be sensitive to their situation and experience, here are a few practical tips on the language you might consider using and avoiding in discussing their birth family:
- Refer to the birth family with the terms the child uses (i.e. mom, dad), rather than referring to them as “your birth mom/dad”
- Use correct pronouns
- Value all types of family members (for example, if a child in your care is close to an aunt or uncle)
- Never require children in your care to call you by parental titles, such as mom or dad
- Use person-first language (i.e. children in your care are not “foster children,” they are “children in foster care”)
- Avoid comparison language that can potentially create tension or complication, especially “better” or “worse”
- For questions you’re not sure about, assure the child in your care that you’ll help to get that question answered
We’re With You Every Step of the Way
KVC Missouri is here to help foster caregivers every step of the way. We support Missouri foster parents with all the training, support and resources they need to successfully care for and transition children in and out of their care. You are opening your home to a young person who may be dealing with serious family challenges, providing the love and care they deserve.
More than 13,000 Missouri children are in foster care due to child abuse, neglect or other serious family challenges. The state is currently experiencing a shortage of adults willing to care for youth with these challenges.
Becoming a foster parent can give you a greater purpose as you help children to grow emotionally, mentally and spiritually, teaching them life skills and giving them support in what is likely a challenging time for them. KVC Missouri is here to help with communication between foster parents and birth families, making transitions in and out of foster care easier for everyone involved.
Click here to learn more about becoming a foster parent in Missouri!