Mother’s Day is one of those holidays that always creeps up on me. After my mother passed away, and I had no obligations to anyone, I stopped paying much attention it. It is a holiday that can cause a lot of stress in foster and blended families. I’ve written before about how one of the best ways to lower the stress is for us to not put pressure on our kids to include us in their plans. This year, I’d like for us to remember that an important part of our job is to help our kids stay in touch with their biological parents.
One older research study looked at the correlation between depression or behavior problems in foster children and the kids’ contact with their biological parents. It was a relatively small study, only 362 kids, and pulled data from the 2002 National Survey of Child and Adolescent Well-Being. Because so few of the children reported ever having any contact with their biological father, the study only included contact with biological mothers. The researchers found that more frequent contact was strongly associated with less depression and fewer behavior problems. The study noted the problem of sporadic, rather than consistent, contact with parents, but it did not measure that variable.
A more recent study with a similar sample size (452 children) found fewer problem behaviors in children who had more frequent contact with their biological mothers. The study also noted numerous other articles reaching similar conclusions. I have not found any similar studies for blended families, but I can’t imagine that the dynamics will be any different.
The takeaway from this research is that we need to affirmatively help our kids stay in touch with their biological parents when we can. Of course, we have limits of safety concerns, court orders, and case plans, but maintaining as much contact as we can needs to be one of our top priorities. Most of us have a long to-do list already, and it may be hard to add this responsibility, but it is one of the most important things we can do to help our kids.
Of course, not every parent is a safe person for our kids to be around. Yet, even when our kids can’t visit, we can try to arrange for phone calls, emails, letters, or cards. On Mother’s Day or Father’s Day, for example, we can help our kids send a handwritten card or note expressing their feelings. Certainly we need to stay within whatever court orders or case plans are in place and, for example, not violate any no-contact orders. But if we can help maintain some contact, we should.
It’s true that contact with parents often causes short-term problems. Shifting back and forth from biological parents to our home is a strong reminder to our kids that their world is out of whack. It’s not unusual for them to have trouble making the transition and to act out when they get back with us. We have to find ways to deal with the short-term consequences and understand that, in the long run, it is better for our kids to build as healthy a relationship as they can with their parents.
Finally, we often have to deal with sporadic contact from parents. Sometimes, no contact is better for our kids than broken promises and dashed hopes. In those situations, even the long-term consequences of sporadic contact may be worse than helping our kids deal with rejection and find ways to move forward. That situation is particularly difficult, and we can’t push our kids beyond where they are willing to go. We really can’t protect them from the emotional damages that biological parents can cause; all we can do is help them pick up the pieces.
Contact with biological parents is never easy, sometimes unsafe, and always complicated. We often will feel that the biological parents are holding our kids hostage for their own needs. Yet, the biological ties are so strong that our kids very rarely will cut those ties voluntarily. Our role, then, is to help our kids build as healthy a relationship as they can, and to encourage as much safe contact as we can. Every situation is different, but we need to recognize those goals as important and to pursue them as safely as possible.