Foster children usually have regular visits with their birth family and these visits are a huge part of the reunification process within the foster care system. Visits give foster children hope, bring a bit of peace to birth family that their children are okay, and let social workers on the case see the dynamics of the birth family.
However, visits can be very challenging for foster parents. Emotions usually run high, especially during the beginning first visits. But, there are times when a child just has an especially hard time with a visit as maybe something was said that caused hurt feelings or promises were broken.
Here are a few tips to help you prepare your child for visits with birth family.
To Announce Visits or Not Announce Visits. That is the question and only you the best answer. Some children need to know when visits are and function better daily with a secure knowledge of family visitation. Other children are too full of anxiety and worry. This is sometimes caused by parents not routinely showing up for visits or the visits are often chaotic or traumatic in some way. Here are a couple ways to keep kids informed of visits.
Calendar. Post a calendar on the refrigerator, or even in the child's room. Place a special sticker or draw a star or heart on visitation days. Make it a routine to mark off days each night before bed. This way children have a visual of when they next get to see their mom or dad.
Verbal reminders. Some children, especially older children, do well with simple verbal reminders such as, "visits are next Monday," for example.
Again, for children who struggle, it is often best to let visits be a 'surprise' that you process on your way there.
Process on the road. If you get to drive your foster children to visitation, this is a great time to talk about the visit. It is often easier for kids to openly discuss their feelings when they don't have to look you in the eye. Let your kids just openly share as they feel comfortable. Don't pry with questions, they have enough people in their lives doing that. Just listen and validate their feelings. Remember, reflective listening is listening for the emotion or feeling behind a statement. Affirming, reflective statements such as - "You sound excited!", "Sounds like you're a bit nervous.", or "It's okay to be angry." go a long way in opening up conversation with any child. Avoid saying, "I understand," "Don't be mad/sad/angry/worried.", "I agree." or even "I disagree." The latter statements tend to shut down communication.
Keep connections during the week. Help children maintain their connections with birth family in-between visits. This can be accomplished through more involvement with birth parents - with social worker approval - to a simple weekly sharing journal entry or visit backpack addition. The sharing journal or visit backpack allows a child to slip into the backpack or write in the journal anything they want to share with their birth parent at the next visit. I believe that this not only helps keep birth family involved, but it also helps the child feel that their birth family is a part of daily life at the foster home, even if in a small way.
Avoid hunger if possible. It's tough to have a successful visit if a child is irritable due to hunger. Be sure to ask the worker if you should send a snack with the child. Workers often want the child's birth family to provide dinner or a snack. This gives the workers a chance to see how the parent does in supplying a basic need, but is also a way to help the parents maintain a bit of that day-to-day care giving that is a part of parenting.