Kris’ Corner – Post Visitation Rituals

August 22, 2023

As you probably know by now, most children (there’s always an exception of course) in care have visits with biological family. But one thing that is often not discussed is the reentry into the foster home after a child has a visitation.

Now…you won’t know (often until the child gets back to your home) what transpired at visit, and how those events will have an effect on the child. Did the biological parents make it to the visit? Where they on time or late? What happened at visit? Did the child eat anything? Did the parents engage with the child? There is obviously a multitude of other possibilities about what happened during the visit. To clarify in case you’re new to this scene, visitation could be many things…this may be an hour visit once a week, it may be a three or four hour visit several times a week (like our son had for several months), or it may be overnight. And there are a variety of possibilities in between or beyond. It may include visitation not only with the parents but with siblings who are placed in other foster homes, possibly grandparents or approved aunts or uncles or other people who have been cleared for the visit (this is not common but it IS foster care). One visit each week might be only with mom, and another visit is only with dad. And a third visit is with both parents together (our son had that for a short period of time as well). Truly any combination can happen!

It may include a therapist who is working with the parents and the child during the visit. It may include a visit supervisor, or may not, depending on what the court has ordered. And there may be an entirely different person doing transportation to and from the visit, which can be as little as five minutes or over an hour.

My point being: it would be a lot for us as adults to take in such a situation, but for little bodies who have already suffered neglect and/or abuse, this experience, and being with people whom they may (or may not) know, can be highly dysregulating. And confusing. And scary. And please don’t mistakenly think it’s easy, even if they’re little. Our son was very young during his visits, but it was still incredibly difficult for him. Fortunately, when he came back to our home, I was often able to change his diaper, snuggle him for a few minutes, and then put him down for a nap soon after.

Which brings me to the actual topic I wanted to discuss: post visitation rituals. I know many parents will agree with the theory that giving a bottle, or a cup with a straw…something to facilitate that sucking motion…is very soothing and regulating for a child. (Now we didn’t have this luxury with a g-tube baby, but he would take a pacifier and he had a favorite blanket, which helped; point being: figure out what can soothe the child and use it!) It may also include giving a child a snack and then a nap…because this can be very much like hitting a reset button.

For older kids, simply understanding that they are going to need your attention when they get home; and mentally preparing yourself ahead of time to carve out time to sit and read with them or watch a favorite show…also while they eat a snack. This can help them “re-enter” the foster home well.

Now sometimes the visit may go late into the evening, so you have no choice but to try to get the child to bed, often past his bedtime. But even if it is close to bedtime, I would encourage you to add a bath to the routine (and I highly recommend including Epsom salt), and a snack as well, to help settle him…settle their heart and mind as they prepare to go to sleep, again hoping to reset their internal system, even if this means a later bedtime.

So you might be asking, “But Kris, what if my child has 5 visits a week?” Then you do the same routine for five days in a row…however often they have a visit, you stick to this routine. If nothing else, children often do better with a routine; when they know what is coming next (knowing what to expect at least) this will help with regulation.  Please notice I did NOT say things would be perfect and sometimes your tried and true methods will not work…but keep trying!

If they always get a snack and watch their favorite TV show when they get back from visit, then do that every single time (if possible). That, in and of itself, will help become a self-regulating ritual. Most of us, as adults, function on a higher level if we know what to expect; children are no different in that regard.

But what if something happens and the re-entry doesn’t go well and you, as the foster parent find yourself escalated? What if the child is brought home early? Or late? Or they didn’t do their homework at visit as they were supposed to? What if they were fed tons and tons of junk and now is sick to their stomach? Or even better…my personal experience: what if they just threw up the dinner they ate at visit which included, but was not limited to, a large cup of red pop…oh and this was all over the backseat of my car when I had to do transport for the visit in this particular instance.

None of that matters when you are trying to help the child (ok, it matters, but that doesn’t mean we can fly off the handle because that’s not going to help the child in that moment; those are issues which can be addressed later, once the child is regulated).  And what I mean is: do your best to stay calm and regulated because nothing good will happen if you are flipping your lid too. (This is my experience talking…I’m no where near perfect on this, but I am better because I’ve had multiple opportunities to practice!)

And I know that it’s hard, but that’s one of the things I needed to learn, and it took me a while, so I hope that you will learn it on the back of my mistakes…the ultimate goal is to have the child regulated. So recognizing when they are escalated and how you can help them come back to regulation, and you, as the temporary “homebase”, are going to help provide the system in which that ability to regulate occurs.

So again here is the main takeaway from today: Keep a constant routine EACH TIME (if at all possible) when a child returns from visitation, and if you stay regulated (or can quickly re-regulate yourself) your child will re-regulate and adjust back to your home more quickly. Nothing is obviously fool-proof, but hopefully this encouragement will save you some grief! Believe me, I am not at all saying or implying it is easy to do, especially when a child is losing their mind, but ultimately it’s the tip and trick that works best.