6 Foster Care Skills You Need to Master Before Being a Foster Parent

Basics to Being a Foster Parent

The following 6 statements describe the basic knowledge and skills needed to be a successful foster parent. While there is much more to being a foster parent, these 6 points are a great place to start.

Foster Care Skill #1: Knowing Your Home and Family

Before jumping into foster care, most families spend two or three years just thinking about it. Here are a few points to consider before making the final decision on whether or not to take on foster care.

  • There are a few restrictions on who can become a foster parent and each state has its own guidelines to follow. Research the rules in your locality to make sure your family and home are eligible.
  • There are many skills that successful foster parents need to master, such as patience and the ability to say goodbye.
  • It's important to prepare your children for foster care. All members of your immediate family need to be on board with this decision as adding to the family, even if just temporarily, will shift the natural flow of your home.
  • Know that not all of your family and friends will be supportive of your decision to become a foster family.
  • Understand that fostering can and will have an impact on your marriage, but a healthy dose of humor can ease stressful situations.
  • Understand that providing foster care will have an effect on your children, but the careful preparation of your children and being selective about the foster children you foster, in order to ensure a good match, will help.
  • If after some research you decide that foster care is not for you, there are other ways to support foster children and other foster parents.
  • Perhaps you want to foster, but feel that this is just not the right time. Work on any lacking skills or other impediments now to prepare yourself and your family for becoming foster parents in the future.

Foster Care Skill #2: Effective Communication

You will be communicating with many different people as a foster parent and need to be able to listen, share your point of view, and advocate for your foster child, yourself, and the rest of your family. The list of people you will likely need to be comfortable communicating with may include:

  • The birth family
  • Teachers and other school officials
  • Therapists
  • Doctors
  • Social workers and other agency staff
  • Judges and other court personnel, like a GAL or a CASA worker
  • Other foster parents
  • Your family and friends, who may not understand your role as a foster parent
  • Most importantly, the child

Foster Care Skill #3: Embracing the Challenge

Children in foster care have often endured extreme abuse and neglect. A child's way of communicating and coping can often be through challenging behaviors. The foster care system is often an unfamiliar entity for many foster parents and it can be a very frustrating and confusing system to navigate.

  • Consider the ages, genders, and behavioral issues of the children your home and family will best be suited for.
  • Know that one of the biggest challenges of working with a foster child can be the frustrations of working with an often thwarted foster care system that is unlikely to provide all of the ideal supports your foster child (or your family) would benefit from. The foster care system is also notorious for being mired in red tape.
  • Consider how the first day with your foster child in your home will go and how you will establish your new role as a foster parent. Know that it will take time for your foster child to adjust and feel safe and comfortable with your family.

Foster Care Skill #4: Positive Discipline

You'll want to have a fully stocked toolkit of positive discipline skills. Know that kids are doing their best. Your foster child will need your love and support and to know your rules—and often, they will test your limits through challenging behaviors. Being prepared for how to handle conflict is key to foster parenting success.

Understand that due to past abuse and neglect, corporal punishment is never allowed with children in foster care. If a discipline method causes physical discomfort, it is not OK. For example: going without a meal, withholding bathroom breaks, push-ups, or standing in the corner on tip-toes.

  • Understand that to manage the foster child's behavior, it may be important to learn about why child abuse occurs and the risk factors that play a part in trauma.
  • Remember that your job as a foster parent is to build an attachment with the foster child. Physical discipline would likely destroy the bond that you are trying to create. Even more importantly, your foster child needs to feel safe and supported, physically and emotionally.
  • It's also vital to maintain your cool as a foster parent. This can be tough as, like all children, foster children may push limits, especially when they are first entering your home, which is likely experienced as a traumatic time for the child. It's important to do all we can to never be abusive or harsh toward the child during times of stress.

Foster Care Skill #5: Compassion

Many times a child's grief and loss (grieving the loss of their home and family as well as the past abuse) can result in challenging behavior. Always be kind—to your foster child and to yourself. Understand that a child's grief or negative behaviors may trigger negative feelings for you. Now that the child is in the safe environment of your home, many difficult emotions may come up for the child that they can finally express. Know that any challenging behavior is likely not about you and have compassion for the struggles your foster child has faced.

  • Grief is very personal and each child will go through grief at their own pace. It's important to understand the grief and loss process in children so that we may be better able to meet their needs.
  • There are several factors that may influence a foster child's grief. The length or depth of the grief may be contributed to the type of trauma and the child's developmental age.
  • Part of being a foster parent is helping a child grieve their losses in a healthy way and to teach and model effective coping strategies.
  • Know that you may not be able to complete a foster care adoption of the child you are fostering. Most states will focus on placing a child with relatives first if the child is unable to return home to his birth parents. However, there are thousands of children who are legally-free and ready for adoption from foster care.

Honor your foster child's bravery and aim to partner with them as they cope and thrive in your home.

Foster Care Skill #6: Collaboration

As a foster parent, you will be working with many different professionals to help support your foster child. This collaboration goes hand in hand with effective communication, but there is more to being a good team member.

  • As a foster parent, you may be asked to attend meetings with a group of people. If so, it's important to be prepared to participate. You have valuable insight into the child's needs and the group needs to hear what you have to say.
  • On the flip side, you may also find yourself out of the loop on what's happening with your foster child's case. In these situations, it's important to reach out to your child's caseworker to find out what you can, contribute what you know, and advocate for your foster child's needs.
  • Many new foster parents are nervous about meeting the child's birth family, but in time, you may find that you are fostering or mentoring the whole family. This is important because foster parents are often a big part of the family reunification process.
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Article Sources
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  1. National Conference of State Legislatures. Foster care bill of rights. October 2019.

  2. US Department of Health and Human Services. Home study requirements for prospective foster parents. 2018.

  3. Dorsey S, Burns BJ, Southerland DG, Cox JR, Wagner HR, Farmer EM. Prior Trauma Exposure for Youth in Treatment Foster Care. J Child Fam Stud. 2012;21(5):816-824.  doi:10.1007/s10826-011-9542-4

  4. US Department of Health and Human Services. Definitions of child abuse and neglect. 2019.

  5. National Conference of State Legislatures. Family first prevention services act. January 2020.