Kris’ Corner – The first few hours of placement

November 2, 2023

When a child comes into a foster home, whether it’s their first removal or not, each foster home is going to be different…from each other and from the home of origin…so they’re going to need a minute to adjust to this “new life”.

I don’t just mean the obvious things, but let’s think through: what would YOU need to know if you were picked up from your home and brought someplace new to people you’d never met and you had little (or none) of your own things.

Moving, even when it’s planned, is hard enough. And when things are stored in different places (as they presumably would be), it can feel very unsettling. When we moved last fall, it literally took weeks before my middle son (who is 20 by the way) could remember where the napkins were in the new kitchen. So imagine how off-putting it would be if you didn’t plan a move and all of a sudden had to remember a new layout for a house you may or may not even want to be in.

So if it was me, what would I want to know? Well, for me personally, I would probably want to know where the bathroom was and where is the fridge (or at least the glasses and the kitchen sink) in case I got thirsty.

Obviously you are going to take a child on a tour of the house, but you’d point out those kinds of things…in addition to where they are going to be sleeping and how close it is to the bathroom, and where you room is in proximity to theirs in case they needdde you in the middle of the night.

Next up: unpacking. If they brought anything with them and you’ve shown them to their room, you are at a crossroads of sorts, but they can help direct you. This is a chance for you to show your willingness to help and connect by offering to help unpack or to allow them the chance to do it by themselves. The response will vary from child to child, understandably, because each child is different and sometimes there’s no telling what they will do.

One tip from someone who did not handle this unpacking piece well on her first placement: even if things a child has brought look or smell dirty, do NOT offer to wash them right away. A certain scent can go a long way in comforting a child…so even if something doesn’t smell good to you, to the child it might smell like home/biological parents/siblings they might be separated from/etc. And to wash it will take away that opportunity for the child to be comforted.

Pets: also another area where we blew it on our first placement. At the time, we had a dog. He was about 15 pounds and very friendly, but we’d not done well with training so he jumped on people when they came in the house (no judgement please!). Well, the girls placed with us were petrified of him, because he met us at the door when we walked in.

In hindsight, we realized that this was all overwhelming to the girls and to be bum-rushed by a strange dog was NOT helpful. Also we didn’t know what their history was with dogs: were the dogs they were typically around or previously exposed to large, territorially, aggressive, etc? If so, it would make sense that they were afraid of our fluff-ball.

My point in saying all this is that I would encourage you to keep any pets put away until the child has a chance to acclimate a little bit. It IS a big change and even though the animal may end up being therapeutic on some level for the child, you don’t need to expose him to the animal immediately.

Next up: having some sort of fidget or new stuffed animal or blanket for a child can go a long way. Even if the child doesn’t have chronic anxiety, he will more than likely have it in those initial hours/days/weeks. Having something to help keep their hands busy, especially at bedtime when thoughts can really start swirling, can go a long way in helping soothe an anxious brain.

Additionally, having some routine and normalcy before exposing the child to anything “big” can help ease the transition. So here’s another true confession (are you getting the sense we didn’t do well with our first placement? I’m hoping that you can learn from our mistakes on all of this!). We homeschool and the SAME NIGHT the girls came into our home, our homeschool co-op had it’s end of the year program and party. And we took them! Ugh…it’s cringy to think about now. At the time, we didn’t want any of us to miss out, but in hindsight (obviously) one of the parents should have stayed home with them.

Point being: let them get used to the house and your family (at least a little bit) before doing something like that; a couple hours is NOT enough time. Without going into too much detail, let me simply say this: everything after we got home from that party and program probably would have gone much smoother had we heeded this advice.

Food can be another stumbling block. Just because your family eats certain things or eats them a certain way does not, obviously, guarantee that everyone’s family does as well. So instead of asking a child what they like to eat, take them with you to the grocery and let them help pick out some of the foods they’re used to. Or, depending on the age/cognitive ability, allow them to help plan some of the meals. Food is a bit of a universal comforter…and eating food together can help with connection. Wouldn’t is be so much better (especially for the child) if it was food they like and actually got to choose?

Now clearly my family hasn’t done all this well in the past, but having made the mistakes, I can assure you that using even some of these tips and tricks would vastly improve the way a child settles into a new foster home. It’s no guarantee that it will be smooth sailing (because I’ll tell you right now that never happens), but it could be much better than it would be otherwise.

So I implore you: learn from my mistakes because I want to help your family and the child have as easy of a transition as possible.