Vol. 11, No. 2 • May 2007

Helping Your Birth Children and Other Children Get Along

by Mellicent Blythe

Little research has been done on interactions between birth children and children placed in foster care. Yet as any foster parent will attest, smoothly integrating children in foster care into a family’s life is crucial for the well-being of everyone in the home.

It is also crucial for retaining foster parents. If conflict develops among children in a home, it could easily tip the scales for overwhelmed foster parents. Not only is the placement more likely to fail, but the family could potentially be lost as a safe haven for future children (Rhodes, et al. 2003).

One study, however, has just been published which considers the interactions of birth children, foster parents, and children in care (Denuwelaere & Bracke, 2007). The findings offer interesting considerations for foster parents striving to create a supportive and cohesive family for all the children in their home. Here is some of what the study found and possible implications:

  • Kids in care and birth children had the same overall levels of self-worth and perceived the same amount of support from foster parents, each other, and their friends. This suggests many foster parents are already doing a good job creating an equitable atmosphere of support both within and outside of the family.

  • Children in care described their foster parents as an important source of support, which confirms what other studies have found—that many children in care have positive views of their foster parents and of their placements.

  • The support children in care received from their foster parents had a significant impact on their self-esteem. Taken together, these findings might offer some reinforcement for foster parents who may not hear thanks or acknowledgment of the help they’ve provided directly from children in their care.

  • The level of support provided by foster fathers had the strongest influence on the child’s self-esteem. The authors suggest this may be because the majority of children in care came from single-mother families, and the foster father may be the first father figure they’ve had. Another study (Gilligan, 2000) found that foster fathers are more often the ones to provide access to hobbies and outside activities, which can boost a child’s sense of self-worth and confidence.

  • Interestingly, the level of support that birth children received from their parents did not influence their self-esteem. The authors say this might be because birth children on some level expect to receive support from their parents. For many children in care, however, it is a new and unexpected experience to have a supportive parental figure.

  • As for relationships between the two groups of children, they received more support from each other when they were the same age. If they were of different ages, the younger child received more support from the older child, regardless of which was birth and which was in foster care.

  • Children in care in this study showed more withdrawal, aggression, and delinquent behavior than the birth children. This is probably not surprising, considering the maltreatment they have experienced. It certainly reinforces the challenges faced by foster parents who want to welcome children into their family, but also prevent their birth children from adopting the behaviors of a potential peer or role-model.

  • Children in foster care and foster parents reported having more conflict with each other than did parents and birth children. The level of this conflict was directly related both to the child in care’s feeling of self-worth and to his or her level of behavioral problems. In other words, the less they fought with the foster parents, the better their behavior and the better they felt about themselves and their abilities. This reinforces the importance of outside support to help foster families manage problematic behaviors and reduce conflict.

Mellicent Blythe is an Educational Specialist with the Jordan Institute for Families at the UNC Chapel Hill School of Social Work.

References for this and other articles in this issue

Copyright 2007 Jordan Institute for Families