As we navigate through these holidays dedicated to family ties, let’s remember that many of our kids may have a different family — a biological family — that they are tied to emotionally. If you and your spouse have custody of your stepchildren, those children will have strong ties to their non-custodial parent. Your foster kids are a part of your family because an adult in the foster care system made that decision for them. This time of year, those losses for both foster children and stepchildren will be particularly hard to navigate.
No matter how wonderful your family, your bonus or foster kids simply may feel a stronger loyalty to their birth parents. This is not the time of year to fight that battle. We can't expect a new relationship, even a positive relationship, to replace the old one. We need to not only stay out of the way of those biological relationships, but affirmatively do what we can to help our kids build good relationships with their biological parents. It's not only the right thing to do, but it's often the best way to strengthen our own relationships with our children.
Why We Need to Encourage Biological Relationships
There are many reasons that we need to help our kids connect with their biological family members this time of year. If yours is a blended family, there’s no doubt that your kids need as good a relationship as they can have with both their biological father and biological mother. Positive relationships with parents create closer family relationships and help avoid many mental health and other problems. For foster children, regular contact with their biological parents can drastically help the kids’ mental health. For our kids’ sake, then, we need to encourage as healthy a relationship as they can have with those biological parents.
We also can’t overlook sibling relationships. Foster kids do much, much better on most measures when they have been able to stay in touch with their siblings. The child welfare system in recent years has learned how to encourage those relationships, but most of the burden will be on us as parents. The same principles hold true for blended families — our kids need to forge strong relationships with the people who will be part of their lives long after we are not involved.
Helping our kids have positive interactions with biological parents, siblings, and even extended family is a difficult task to add to our to-do lists. It is hard work, difficult, messy, and complicated, but still necessary. Being a part of a new family, even a wonderful one, doesn’t erase a child's family history. We need to help our kids, and model for them how, to make room for both families in their lives.
How to Encourage Biological Relationships
Once we decide to encourage the biological relationships, there are a myriad of ways to help our kids. We are limited only by our creativity and their safety. Some important steps for encouraging a workable relationship include setting priorities and using technology.
•Our Priority is Safety. No matter how badly our kids want to stay in touch with biological family, we have to keep their safety, both physical and emotional, as our primary goal. Our stepchildren's biological family situations may involve addictions, physical abuse, domestic violence, or other problems that require supervision for their interactions with their children. Our foster child's parents may have lost custody due to child abuse or mental health issues. Whatever the safety issues, we need to be aware of them and make certain that whatever accommodations we make don't place our children at risk.
We also may be restricted by custody orders or case plans. If we think our child's best interest is served by more frequent contact, we need to advocate for them to have a greater amount of contact. But we have to work within the restrictions, recognizing that while we have an important role in our children's lives, we don't have final authority.
• We Need to Be Proactive. As with so many aspects of raising other people’s children, we likely will have to take the first step. Our foster child's parents or our stepchild's other biological parent may not feel comfortable initiating communication. We can’t wait for biological parents or case workers or our kids to start the process. We need to be willing to make the first moves to help our children stay in contact with the important people in their lives.
At the same time, we don’t want to get ahead of our kids. They may have bad memories of their birth families, or they may have little emotional connection with their original parent. They may still be navigating all of the new adults and new roles in their new family life. They may need our gentle encouragement to get started, and given time, they usually start developing the strong relationships that they need. However, we have to be careful not to push them beyond what they can handle emotionally. We need to respect and support their boundaries, and continue to provide the emotional support and loving home that they need.
Sometimes school events offer a good first step toward building a relationships. A school play or sports event, for example, can allow a parent to see their child's accomplishments without putting pressure on your child to have any particular kind of relationship. If an invitation to a school event is within the case plan or custody order, consider allowing a biological parent to share in your child's victories.
• Encourage Meetings with Siblings. Even if there are safety concerns about contacts with parents, we usually don’t have the same concerns about siblings. We need to make it a priority to help our kids stay in touch with their siblings. If their siblings are part of different families, we need to try to build connection with those families. Whatever their legal relationship, we need to support the biological and emotional relationship that our children have. If we can host dinners or sleep-overs, we should do it. If not, we need to encourage phone calls, emails, and other ways of staying in touch.
If you are a foster parent, find support from other foster parents or organizations. Plan a holiday party with the families where your kids’ siblings live. During the rest of the year, try for picnics or regular get-togethers. Ask your church, synagogue, or civic group to host a periodic birthday party for foster kids and their siblings in the area. Check out nonprofit groups that offer connection services, such as Sib-Link, Royal Family Kids Camp, or Under One Sky. Many groups are now recognizing the need to help foster families keep their kids connected, and there may be one in your area that can help.
• Use Technology. If your kids can’t meet with their family, and between times that they can, leverage technology to encourage the relationship. Encourage kids to write letters and emails to their parents. If you are a foster parent with worries about privacy, send the letters through your child's caseworker. Whether foster parent or stepparent, if you don’t want to hand out your contact information, a separate free account is a great way to handle your child’s communications with family.
Phone and video calls also can help build relationships. Older children may be more comfortable with messaging apps that include videos. Social media is another avenue that your kids may like. To deal with privacy concerns, you can set up a private group or account that’s only accessible to people that you allow into the group. Social media has serious disadvantages for kids, but in this area it can have very positive benefits.
• Encourage Hand-Made Mementos. Your kids’ biological parents generally will appreciate hand-made gifts and notes. Encourage younger children to create pictures and have school-age children write letters so that their parents will have something tangible. Create portfolios for their visits with their parents. The practice will not only give your kids something tangible for their parents, but it will give them an opportunity to develop skills and learn self-confidence. If your kids have crafts or certificates from school, ask their teachers for duplicates so that both sides of the family can keep a record.
• Be Prepared to Help Kids Deal with Disappointment. Sometimes parents don’t respond to these overtures. They may be an absent parent or want to spend only a little time with their biological children. Their personal problems may override their ability to be effective parents. In those cases, be prepared to help your kids deal with their disappointment. Don’t take sides, and don’t say negative things about their parents. Simply explain that parents sometimes have adult problems that are not related to how much they love their kids, Try to help your kids develop healthy expectations about their parent's involvement in their lives. Help them understand that their parents' decisions are not their responsibility. Give your kids love and emotional support, and be available for whatever they want to discuss, or not.
This time of year is very busy for families, and we have a lot to juggle. As we are trying to find time for everything on our lists, however, we need to remember to help our kids stay in touch with their biological families. Those families are an essential part of their history, and we need to help them keep as many healthy ties as they can.