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Extended family, friends and neighbors, teachers, children, even foster parents can sometimes find it difficult to know what to say to a foster child in some situations. It’s important to realize your approach can impact how a child thinks and feels. These hints and tips are designed to give guidance on things you should and shouldn’t say to foster children, based on feedback from kids who have experienced fostering.

Things you shouldn’t say to a foster youth

It must be awful being a foster child/I’d hate to be a foster child.
Whether a child is new to fostering or has been in care for a longer period of time, there’s no reason to suggest to them that fostering is unpleasant. Indeed, for some children, this may be the most stable home environment they have experienced. Insinuating that being a foster child is undesirable may be confusing or add to feelings of rejection.

Why are you in care?
Often children have no idea why they are in care. If they do know some of the reasons behind their being placed in foster care, talking about it is likely to be upsetting and confusing. Even worse, depending on how the question is presented to them, this could leave the child feeling that they are to blame for being in foster care.

Negative things about the child’s parents/family.
Sometimes a child will want to talk about their parents and family and other times they will avoid it completely. Foster children respond in different ways to their situations – they may feel loyalty towards their family or resentment because they are in care. Even if you know a little or think you know a little about their situation and comment upon their parents or family, this can be a dangerous thing.

What’s it like having a ‘new’ family?
Children, in particular, can be inquisitive about family situations that do not exactly mirror their own but adults can also ask questions such as this without considering the potential ramifications. While some fostering is long term and leads to adoption, other placements are temporary and foster children may return to their former living arrangements. You may also say something like “I’m sure you’ll get to go home soon” in an attempt to comfort or reassure a child. Again, this can be confusing and set up false expectations.

I know how you must feel.
Even if you’ve been fostered yourself, it’s very difficult to understand the unique set of circumstances experienced by a child and the results they’ve had on how the children feel. Often how they feel is not black and white and while you may have had times where you felt sad, lonely or confused, sharing examples with a child may make them feel as if their problems are trivial or unimportant.

Things you should say to a foster child

Foster children should be treated as individuals with interests, hopes and dreams the same as any other child. Ask them about what they like to do, what they like to study, what they want to be when they grow up. Get them to talk about their favorite color, animal or cartoon character. Putting them at ease by encouraging them to talk about things they enjoy can help build their confidence and help you find common ground. Here are a few other things that foster children may like to hear:

I’m proud of you, you should be proud of yourself.
As a foster child, it can be difficult to take pleasure in your own achievements or to feel that they are recognized or valued. Take time to praise children for accomplishments at home and school and to show they are appreciated.

You are loved and people care about you.
While saying “I love you” may not be appropriate for the circumstances, it’s important for foster children to know they are cared about and that people are thinking of them.

Would you say you did your best?
Motivating children can be a complex thing, particularly if they’ve encountered lots of situations in the past where they’ve been told they’ve done things wrong or they feel like they or their efforts are not good enough. Rather than offering comments on how the performance of particular activities can be improved, encourage children to give you their own feedback. This can help the child realize that you appreciate their views and efforts.

What do you think?
Asking a foster child for their opinion is a very simple thing that can help them feel valued and build their confidence. If the question is directed in order to generate ideas such as what to have for a treat, or what to do during a day trip etc., it can help the child to feel that their input is important.

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Melinda Stutler, TVN foster parent and artist, stands with a custom piece on the hallway wall of the Uhrichsville office.

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