3 Phases of integrating a child in foster care into your family
There are many parenting books for women who are expecting that are filled with tips and strategies for integrating a little newborn into the family and lifestyle. We expect to be up in the night and expect the first year to be filled with exciting milestones and exhausting phases. While there may be some sleep deprived moments when we question our ability to endure the parenting journey, we never really seriously consider giving up.
Bringing a child from foster care into a family will have phases, too. If our expectations are reasonable and we and our family have some advance education and preparation, we can make these phases more comfortable and predictable.
Integration is a little like making a pot of rice. (Hint: It must come to a boil and it takes time.)
Phase 1: The early phase (some call it honeymoon phase):
In cooking a pot of rice, this is the time where the water and the rice are two separate things dwelling in the same pot. This phase is where children are figuring out how they can still be individuals without completely combining with you. During this phase, children need some items of their own and maybe even some time of their own. They need basic security needs met and some fun activities to begin building attachment. This is the shortest of the phases, usually only a few weeks.
Phase 2: The Acute Phase: In cooking a pot of rice, this is the time when the water comes to a boil and the rice begins to change. This is a very volatile stage. The pot could boil over, if it is not watched carefully. The rice and water are still separate but are beginning to form a whole new entity.
For children in foster care and foster parents, this can be a time when frustration and contention can become really challenging. Just like the pot that could boil over, this is the time when disruption may be considered by the child and the foster parents.
If foster parents know that this phase is a normal part of the fostering integration, they can take actions to support the child and themselves through this time period. Having reasonable expectations, planning for stress management and reducing time commitments, making easy meals, simplifying routines, are essential strategies. This phase can catch us off guard because we think that we should be integrating much faster. Remember, there are no shortcuts. This phase is as necessary for integration as bringing the pot to a boil is for the rice. This phase can last a few weeks to a few months. Don’t give up or panic, it will calm down to a simmer, if we are patient and take the extra time and use stress reducing strategies to get through it. This may be difficult, if we used up most of our time off during the first phase, then we may not have enough for phase 2, when we need it most.
During this phase, you should use as many bonding activities as possible. You need to create and practice bonding experiences. This will not start off comfortable or easy and there will be resistance. Keep trying. Don’t overdo it with complicated or expensive activities. Bonding happens in the quiet everyday life and love of a family, such as, preparing meals, playing games, walking, storytelling, scrapbooking, joking, exercising and doing chores together. (It is o.k. to help a child clean their room, even after they are “old enough” to do it themselves. You will learn many things as you talk and fold clothes together and they won’t need your help forever.) Most of our energy in this phase is spent trying to keep the pot from boiling over or avoiding the temptation of giving up. Seek support and keep hanging on. The next phase will come.
Phase 3: The integration phase: This phase is when we put the lid on the pot and turn it down to simmer. The rice and the water combine to become something completely new and better than they were separately. This is what happens when we welcome children into our family through foster care. Our family and the child become something completely new and better than we were before.
This phase is when normalcy begins to happen. We begin to have new routines and trust begins to form. This phase takes many months to years to establish. (Even longer when children and families are coping with Reactive Attachment Disorder.) Be patient, just like cooking rice, the process is happening, even if we can’t recognize it from minute to minute.
This is the phase where the extended family and community begin to change, too. It becomes apparent that this child is part of our family and our family is a part of the child. Getting through Phase 3 happens over a lifetime. It becomes harder and harder to remember what life was like before the child joined the family. Our family would not be who we are without the addition of the children who have blessed our home. We are so much better than we ever could have become without them.
Recruiter/Trainer – Louisville Metro Office