Vol. 16, No. 1 • November 2011

Shared Parenting Can Reduce Disruptive Behaviors

By Donna Foster

During my early years as a foster parent, the child welfare system believed children needed time without contact with their parents so they could adjust to the foster family. Most contact occurred only during supervised visits at the agency. Foster parents had little or no contact with birth families: their job was to take care of the children.

I regret the way we used to do things. I feel that when we fail to keep children close to their birth parents, we add to the trauma that led to foster care in the first place.

We cannot redo what’s in the past. But we can learn from our mistakes and do better in the future. Today North Carolina and other states require and strongly support shared parenting, which involves foster parents and birth parents coming together to parent children in foster care. Because shared parenting is good for children, it can also help us address and reduce their difficult behaviors. Following are some common situations where shared parenting can help.

What I Have Learned

When foster parents and birth parents participate in shared parenting, the child wins! This relationship can continue when the child goes home. I was surprised that I became friends with my children’s birth parents. I was welcomed in their homes after their families were reunited.

When I showed them respect for being their child’s parents and looked for shared parenting opportunities, the fight in them moved into doing what was required to get their family back together. I was not the enemy, but the advocate.

The negative behaviors of the parents and the children changed.

Placement
When children enter your home, everyone and everything is strange to them. They are wondering what they did wrong to make them leave their parents. They are afraid and confused. In this situation, possible child behaviors can include crying, screaming, shaking, running away, cursing, defiance, silence, bed-wetting, and fear (e.g., of the dark, the bathroom, people in the home). Here’s what foster parents can do in this situation:

Call. Before the social worker leaves your home, get the birth parent’s phone number and permission to make phone contact. If permission is denied for the child to talk to the birth parent, get permission to talk to the parents yourself.

Have empathy. When they enter your home, children don’t need to see smiles and hear they are going to the zoo tomorrow. They need to hear you say that all of their feelings are okay here. You might say, “It must be scary being here. What can we do to make you less scared? You can ask us anything.” Then, listen. Most children will ask about their parents and when they will go home.

Make it clear you care about the child’s parents. Tell the child you will try and call his parents. “Your mom is upset too because she didn’t want you to leave her. You are here with us while other people are helping your mom so she can take care of you again. I am going to let her know that you miss her. I bet your mama knows what you need at bedtime to help you sleep and she knows your favorite food. You want me to ask her? Tell me about your mom. What does she do to make you laugh?”

Get permission for the child to talk to the birth parent. Hearing a parent’s voice will calm the child. True, the child may cry during or after the call, but the more he feels he can talk to his parent, the less upset he will be. In time, he won’t need to make as many calls because he knows he can contact her. The more he hears his birth and foster parents having calm discussions concerning him, the sooner he will feel secure and safe.

Offer comfort items. These can include a nightlight, sleeping bags, their own toiletries, a tour of the house. Prepare an album about your family, with photos listing names and descriptions of rooms, people, and other helpful information for the child to review.

School and Elsewhere
At school, in the home, or elsewhere the child may be resistant, acting out, disoriented, defiant, withdrawn, fearful, etc. Although these behaviors can have many different causes, doing the following may help.

Hold a shared parenting meeting. At this meeting the social worker brings the foster and birth parents face-to-face. It will be easier if they have talked by phone first. The foster parent should ask the birth parent, “What questions do you have for me?” This will let the birth parent know you aren’t there just to gain information, you are willing to give it, too. If the questions are too personal, look at the social worker. The social worker should say he is not comfortable giving out that information at this time. If the questions are not about the child, focus needs to be re-established.

Involve birth parents. Keep them informed about the child’s positive and negative behaviors. Ask them for advice. Make a decision with them about what to do. If the child knows the birth and foster parents are united, he will not try to manipulate them into taking his side.

Mentor the birth parents. Do all you can to help the birth parents be stronger and healthier parents for their child. Ask them to come to meetings about the child. For instance, at school ask the teacher or counselor to talk to the child’s parents. Be there to support and record the discussion. If you care about the child, you should care about his parents’ ability to learn parenting skills.

Visits
Visits can be very emotional for children. Before and after visits you may find that children are defiant, crying, withdrawn, confused about which parents to align with, aggressive, disrupted in their eating and sleeping, etc. Here are some things that can help:

Before and during visits:

  • Make a “Mama Box” with the child. The child puts in items he wants to share with his parent. When the visit is over, the parent encourages the child to find more things to bring to the next visit. The birth parent can bring to the visit a “Visit Box” with items from home. (Thanks to Judy Calloway for this idea!)
  • Take photos of the birth family with the child. Make a copy for the birth parent. The child’s copies can be placed in his life book and a copy framed for his room.
  • With the birth parent, use a calendar to show the child when the next visit will be. The child can put a sticker on the calendar each day until the visit day.
  • If the birth parent sends clothes, dress the child for the visit in those clothes.

After visits:

  • Arrange for the child to talk to his parent by phone.
  • The birth parent can share with the foster parent and social worker any of the close relationships the child has so they can be contacted. These people can continue their relationships with the child. Examples: extended family members, teachers, and neighbors.
  • Ask the child to share his favorite parts of the visit.
  • Be understanding. If the child doesn’t want to eat the next meal, have a light snack instead. The child may have eaten snacks at the visit or the child’s emotions may make him unable to eat.

Donna Foster is an author, national trainer, and consultant who lives in Marshville, NC.

Copyright 2011 Jordan Institute for Families