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How to talk with kids about foster care

Dad and young teen having serious conversation

Kids often come to parents with questions we aren’t prepared to answer. We may panic and shut down the conversation, put them to sleep with a wordy monologue, or tell them to ask another parent. But those aren’t our only options for talking about complicated topics like foster care. We’ve gathered a few tips based on our experience to help you and your child have a productive conversation you can feel good about.  

1. Start with what they know 

The best way to start a conversation with kids (especially about a complex topic like foster care) is to ask what they already know. Find out what understanding or misunderstanding they might have. Get curious about their specific questions and why they are asking. Have they met someone in foster care? Did they hear someone talking about it? Did they see something about it in a show? 

2. Grow their empathy 

Many kids have the experience of temporarily being cared for by adults other than their own parents. Whether they are watched by a sitter or a family member, kids know that sometimes their parents need to be gone for a while to take care of other things. Explain that, for a child in foster care, other adults are caring for them while their parents are getting the help they need. Keep it simple and don’t make any assumptions or judgements about why a kid is in foster care. 

3. Help them understand the temporary nature of foster care 

Explain to your child that, just like when a grandparent or sitter watches them, that time doesn’t last forever. They are reunited with their parents. It is the same in many cases with foster care. Kids may only be in a temporary placement, as they often go back to their parents or sometimes stay with a family member or a new family long term. 

That said, encourage them not to ask a child in foster care how long they will be living where they are, where they are going next, what their summer plans are, or any questions about the longer-term future. Oftentimes, a kid in foster care doesn’t know the answer to those questions. It is best to focus on the present and enjoy the connection they have now. 

4. Practice sensitivity

Share with your child that one way to show care is to use language that feels authentic to the person we care about. Instead of assuming someone identifies as a foster kid or that they refer to their caregivers a certain way, it’s best to ask. If it comes up, they could ask “What do you call the person or people you’re living with right now?” They might not even need to ask. It’s best to let the other child lead the conversation. 
Kids are curious and it’s natural for them to want to know more about their peers. Still, help them manage their curiosity by understanding their friends will share about themselves if and when they feel safe. It’s best not to ask why someone is in foster care. We don’t need to know everything about a person’s life to care about them and treat them well. 
Remember, too, many kids in foster care have had a lot of transitions, so they might be new to the school or in a new home. That might make it a little scary for them to have a playdate at a new friend’s house. Help your child manage their emotions and expectations with these realities in mind. 

5. Help them understand trauma (in an age-appropriate way) 

In a kid-friendly way, talk about the stress response and how we all react to scary things. You can talk about the instinct to fight, flee, freeze or fawn if it feels appropriate for your child. We also recommend giving them an example they can relate to, like being nervous for the first day of school. They can remember feeling stressed or scared, and you can let them know some kids have experienced those feelings regularly enough that they may have reactions we wouldn’t expect. If they see another child having a big reaction to something that feels confusing or startling, you can help them understand we don’t always know what that child has been through.  

6. Empower them to be helpful 

If your younger child comes to you wanting to help a kid they know who is in foster care, check in with that kid’s caregivers. It’s best to ask what kind of help they may want and not to assume. If you’re unable to help a family you know directly, connect with an organization in Kansas City that supports children in foster care. They will let you know what kind of help they need most. 

7. Leave room for questions 

Don’t feel like you need to cover everything about the topic all at once. Pause and give your child plenty of room to ask questions. Let the conversation unfold over time. 

To learn more about how Children’s Mercy supports children in foster care, visit our Foundations Foster Care Clinic page 

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