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Loyalty Issues in Foster Care
posted on March 29, 2012 11:13
Helping children in need is the primary motivator for fostering. When a foster child enters your home, it is usually an intense experience, both wonderful and trying at times; one you never could have imaged. One common misconception resource parents often have is the expectation that the child placed in their home will be instantly grateful. At the start of their experience, many resource parents embrace a rescue fantasy that they are taking a child out of a negative and sometimes dangerous situation and providing the child with a safe and loving environment. However, resource parents quickly find themselves bewildered as the child speaks positively about their birth family and wondering why the child does not appreciate all they have been given. Accepting a child’s loyalty to their birth family and addressing these issues with respectful and effective strategies, can help children to build relationship and adjust to their current situation in a healthy manner.
In order to better understand your foster child’s experience, let’s take a moment to reflect on your own childhood and who you are today. Think of how you speak, act, laugh, respond to crises, handle conflict, work, relax and play. Many of those qualities came from your relationships, observations and interactions with your own family. The family is the first place that children are socialized. Even if the family situation included abuse or neglect, how you see yourself as a person starts in your family of origin. When we speak about our birth families, we are talking about a significant part of who we are as individuals. It is important to remember that even children raised in an environment of abuse or neglect have positive memories and experiences with their family. We certainly want children to hold onto those memories of happy times and create an atmosphere in the resource family home where they will feel safe enough to share their memories with us.
When children come into foster care they often struggle with loyalty issues. According to permanency and placement expert, Vera Fahlberg, “The child may believe that if he is accepting of the placement and becomes emotionally close to his subsequent caregivers that he is being disloyal to the birth parents. Likewise he may subsequently believe that positive feelings about the birth family indicate disloyalty to the foster family.
Loyalty issues are normal for children placed in foster care. In trying to address these issues, many questions come up for resource parents:
How can we honor our foster child’s birth family?
How can we let our foster child know that it is okay to love and care for both their birth family and their resource or adoptive family?
If we sense that a child’s behavior or emotions are related to loyalty issues, what are appropriate responses?
When loyalty issues arise, how do we deal with our own intense emotions as resource parents?
The following are some suggestions to help address loyalty issues and encourage healthy relationships between everyone - children, resource parents and birth parents.
When a child first arrives in your home, tell the child that you are not there to replace their parents. Give them permission to continue to love their parents and offer your support to both the child and the parents. Let the child know that you will be there for the child and keep them safe until they are ready to home, if that is the permanency goal.
It is also helpful to let the child’s birth parents know this same information and offer the same support. If birth parents feel your support, they can be instrumental in giving their child permission to form a healthy relationship with you as resource parents, as well as maintain their own relationship with their child.
Be aware that not all birth parents will be accepting of your support and may even act hostile towards you. Some birth parents might question your parenting methods or actually instigate loyalty issues with their children. Remember not to vent to the child, as they are struggling with their own emotions and loyalty issues. Recognize that the birth parent is grieving and might be transferring their anger regarding the situation onto you. Use your social worker to get support in dealing with these difficult situations.
Remember that both you as resource parents and the child’s birth parents are important in the child’s life.
Make sure not to criticize a child’s birth parents, including the way they parent. It is certainly appropriate to teach a child about parenting, safety, boundaries etc; however, you can do this through positive learning opportunities instead of at the expense of the birth family. A child will be must more receptive to information if they do not have to focus on defending their family or themselves.
It is okay to discuss the birth parents’ responsibilities including why the child is in foster care and their responsibility to work through the necessary steps for the child to return home. Teaching about responsibility is not the same as finding fault or placing blame.
Recognize your own feelings towards a child’s birth parents. There might be times when you find yourself angered, saddened, or horrified by a birth parent’s actions; however, it is not the child’s role to be your emotional support for these issues. Contact an appropriate support network to provide you with emotional support and to help explore your feelings.
Do not throw out items a child brings with them from their birth family. Many of these items hold special meaning to a child and although we may not understand, we need to respect their value to the child. Allow a child to decide if they want to part with an item. If certain belongings are inappropriate for your household, you can have the child design a special box to store these items in that they can take with them when they leave your home. In addition, you and the child can use it as an ongoing memory box to add special mementos to during their time in your care.
Allow the child to share their own family experiences. Remember to listen openly and without judgment.
Most importantly, find ways of honoring the child’s family traditions. Ask a child how they would celebrate holidays, what activities they did during family time, their family routines, and what they miss about being with their family. Try to incorporate some of their traditions into your own family’s activities.
This article was accessed through
Focus on Youth, Inc. is a non-profit, 501(C)(3), faith-based foster care and adoption agency founded on Christian principles. Article written by Tracy Krebs, MSW, LSW for Adoption ’98 Networking for Children. Edited by K. Morris, Ph.D. Idaho Child and Family Services. March 2012.
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