Feathering your nest for fostering

Welcoming a foster child into your family may seem thrilling but daunting for those yet to take the first steps on their foster care journey. So, imagine what it must feel like for a young person walking into an unfamiliar environment and wondering what to expect in their new home.

When a child first enters care, they meet a minimum of 12 to 18 adults – all strangers – in the first 30 days. To say they are overwhelmed and frightened is an understatement.

That’s why we’re calling on you, our wonderful carers, to share with us how you create a warm, welcoming space for the children and young people who enter your home and your heart. Fellow CareSouth carers will incredibly appreciate your advice.     

Here are five top tips we’ve received from carers over the years:

  1. Introduce them to your home before they arrive

Children and young people will be curious (and probably a little apprehensive) about their new living arrangements before they arrive, so photos or videos of your home can be an effective form of communication to ease their concerns. One carer suggests putting together a photo book, slide show or email filled with pictures of you and your family, your house, your pets and the room the child or young person will call their own. That way, the young person knows what to expect when they arrive.

  1. Create a safe, nurturing environment

You can create a sense of safety for the child or young person by ensuring they have appropriate privacy and the environment around them feels secure and nurturing. Give them the opportunity to choose their room furnishings, such as pillows, bed covers and wall hangings. No matter their age, they will have a favourite colour. And while you can draw the line at painting walls, soft furnishings can be easily purchased together. This not only gives a young person creative licence over their personal space but also creates a positive bonding experience between the young person and the carer. One CareSouth carer even made a wall of love – a photo gallery featuring the 73 children she had welcomed into her home.

  1. Guide them through everyday experiences

It’s important to remember that young people in care may have different life experiences to your family, and they will look to you as their carer to guide them through any new learnings. So once the child or young person has settled into your home, sit down with them, write a list of favourite foods and invite them to go shopping with you to purchase them. This is another opportunity to bond, but also a teachable moment, where you share budgeting and shopping tips and have a conversation about healthy food choices and ‘sometimes food’ choices such as chips, chocolate, processed snacks and lollies. Allow children and young people to easily access their favourite foods (in moderation if they are treats) to avoid food hoarding behaviours, a common trait for young people with trauma who don’t know when or where their next meal is coming from.

  1. Communication, expectations and boundaries are key

Establishing routines, expectations and boundaries early on helps create positive, respectful relationships, no matter the child’s or young person’s age coming into your home. For example, use charts, pictures or lists to explain daily routines, family chore rosters, homework and sport schedules. On that note, CareSouth’s Head of Clinical Services and psychologist, Christine Gregory, recommends avoiding reward charts because they can create additional shame for children and young people with trauma. Instead, you can write a list of what you expect from them (this is a good chance to set up some rules around technology, such as no devices after a specific time at night) and what they can expect from you. “It’s really about building relationships and understanding who they are as individuals,” said one carer. 

  1. Be inclusive with the child’s family, where possible

Include the child or young person in your family celebrations and holidays, and try to be inclusive of the child’s family. “Kids are quite perceptive, so a good relationship between carers and the young person’s family (where possible) can help create close, stable relationships with the children in our care,” one carer pointed out. For example, another carer bakes biscuits with the young children in her care and labels each box for their mum and dad, so they have a homemade gift to give them during Family Time visits.

One young person who had been in CareSouth’s foster care program for a decade told us: “What I wanted from my carers was love and support, knowing I had someone to talk to if I ever had any worries or concerns. That’s the thing I craved the most.”

Providing patience, love and understanding and promoting safety, healing and connection are key foundations for a positive care experience for children, young people and their carers.

So, if you are new to the foster care journey or are a carer who continues to open your heart and home to young people, we hope this has been helpful.

If you would like to share any of your own tips, please email info@caresouth.org.au, and we’ll be sure to share them with fellow carers.