A traditional “family tree” doesn’t really represent a foster child’s network of loved ones. It’s more accurate to think of them as having a family forest made up of the different people and family members that have helped them along the way. This family forest includes not only parents and siblings, but also extended family members such as grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. It can also include residents and staff of group homes, social workers, former foster parents, teachers and coaches. Every person’s family forest looks a little different. It is the job of an organization like Plummer Youth Promise to work with a young person to figure out who is in their network of support so that we can help the young person build and maintain these relationships.
That’s a lot of people! What does this mean for you as a foster parent? Here are some things you can do to help your foster child understand and be proud of their role as a member of their family forest:
- Remember that even when they don’t talk much about their other families, they are likely thinking about them a lot. You can give them permission to talk about other people they have lived with and who remain important to them by asking them about the other people they have lived with. Encourage them to share their memories. Be open to accepting their ties to other families and their concerns for them.
- Help them stay connected to important people. Having safe contact with other family members can help your foster child worry less and feel supported. Even as Covid-19 makes in-person contact more challenging, help them stay in touch through use of social media such as Zoom.
- Be ready to step in if a school assignment puts them in a difficult position. Being asked to draw a family tree can be very problematic for someone who has more of a family forest than a singular family tree. Most teachers are willing to make necessary accommodations to fit the special needs of a foster child. Talk with your youth about how you might help work this out with their teacher.
- Keep in mind that their feelings toward family members are likely to be very conflicted. Even though they might feel anger towards a birth parent or relative for not being able to care for them, they may also long for connection with that person. Understand that these conflicted feelings are entirely normal. You can’t protect them from these feelings, but you can acknowledge that they exist and support your child’s struggle with them.
- Your acceptance of their family forest will help your foster child in countless ways. It will give them the message that they can care for all of the important people in their life and that they don’t have to pick and choose who is safe to love. You can help them learn to navigate the sometimes difficult world of having more than one family. For example, you can help them celebrate Mother’s Day with more than one maternal figure. Or, you can make efforts to include other important people in events such as special school activities.
- Remember that you and your family are a tree in that family forest. You are an important part of their life and the experiences you have together will make their family forest grow stronger.
by Diane Kindler, MSW, LCSW