Birth Children in the Fostering Setting
A carer’s guide to birth children in the fostering setting
We hear of the most extraordinary birth children and what they have contributed to the foster children in their homes, and whilst it can be challenging they can also gain huge benefits and experiences from being part of a fostering family.
However, there is still much work to be done in terms of recognition and support of birth children within the fostering setting. Birth children can often be seen as a barrier to recruitment as potential carers have preconceived ideas and presumptions about fostering. The key is a full and honest discussion, a free flow of information and a comprehensive support package for birth children.”
Sarah Anderson, Founder FosterWiki
Introduction to birth children in the fostering setting
Kalland and Sinkonnen, 2001; Hojer et al., 2013
Birth children are absolutely the unsung heroes of foster care. The reality is for many birth children it is complex to be part of a foster family and often different to what we are led to believe, there is plenty of research which has found fostering is known to come with both positive and negative effects for birth children.
Foster carers do have concerns for the well-being of their birth children because when they choose to foster, birth children hear, see and encounter behaviour from traumatised children they would not have done otherwise. This can often be a challenging part of being a foster carer, the well-being both emotionally and physically of our own children.
We need to be open, honest and realistic about some changes and challenges there will be for birth children in the fostering family, as well as the positives.
Birth children play a very big part in the care of foster children, however, carers will often find themselves focusing more on helping the foster child, whose needs are higher, and sometimes it can be difficult trying to balance the needs of birth children with the needs of the foster child.
There is a lot of planning and changes to consider when you foster and the changes for birth children are a big part of that.
Education and preparation are key, it is essential that providers and foster carers work closely together to ensure birth children feel safe, protected and included.
Younes and Harp, 2007; Sutton and Stack, 2013
How does it work in practice
- Fostering involves everyone in the family, birth children should be (where age appropriate) included in discussions concerning any decision to foster. This will help them to ask questions and feel confident about the fostering journey together as a family.
“Before we fostered, we sat down as a family and discussed the matter thoroughly. My children were happy to go ahead and they were put under no pressure. Thankfully, despite the inevitable ups and downs, it is been a really positive experience for us all.”
- Birth children need to have as much information, in age-appropriate ways, on what is going to happen, what is likely to change, and how things will work, as fostering significantly impacts the family dynamics. Do some research, find books, read FosterWiki, and help birth children become an integral part of the process, feel included and informed. Things like the foster child’s family and their family time, increased visitors to your home, what is a social worker, meal time discussions, privacy, gender identity, religion, language, disability, different cultures, sharing toys and also a discussion about ‘sharing’ their parents and how that might feel.
- Birth children will need reassurance as they may not always tell you how they are feeling or feel they don’t have the right to complain as the foster children have not had such a good life as them and are not with their own mummy or daddy, don’t be afraid to have all these conversations, it is important that birth children are encouraged to talk about how they feel.
“I remember in the early days, I was only about 12, I felt my mum thought more of this new kid than me, she spent more time fussing over them than me, I knew we had to care for her but began to feel resentful, I couldn’t say anything as I knew she was much worse off than me and I felt guilty or like I was attention seeking. But one day I told Mum, she had no idea that I was feeling like that, and we then had some days out together, then I said we should bring my foster sister too because mum just knowing how I felt made it ok!”
- Birth children should feel they are living in a safe space, and have positive relationships and opportunities. They should be helped to understand what a huge and appreciated part of the fostering process they are, it may be a good idea for your birth child to make a welcome book about themselves as an ice breaker that can help with building their relationship with new children.
- Depending on the type of fostering you do, birth children need to be prepared for the fact that foster children will come and go and each time this will change the dynamics of the household.
- Your birth children will be excited having a foster child coming to live with them, but this could be a very different experience for a foster child, who may not be wanting to leave their own family or previous foster home to live in your home with a new family.
Your birth child will want to help make a foster child feel part of the family, ‘take them under their wing’ but some foster children, they can find this difficult and need time to adjust.
You should talk about this because your birth children can feel rejected when they are just trying to be kind, it is about finding that balance until the foster child is ready.
- Many foster children come into care who have not been shown how to take care of themselves, this could be around hygiene, toileting, sleep, and food and our birth children are good role models which do help foster children in those situations.
TOP TIP: Explain to birth children that foster children have had experiences or difficulties (tell them about trauma where age appropriate) that can affect them in many ways, some may not be friendly straight away, some may seem young for their age, some may be angry, some withdrawn, some sad, help birth children to understand that there is often a ‘hidden’ explanation for a foster child’s behaviour and is not their fault.
- Foster children that have had previous foster carers may feel insecure, and unsettled and not invest or want to build a relationship with birth children through fear of moving again.
Your birth children may feel unhappy about this, even resentful, and they might not feel able to talk to you about this so you need to be aware and intuitive, spot any signs that something is worrying them and be responsive.
- It is not unusual for problems to arise in the foster home. As soon as a foster child moves in everything changes from how it was before.
Birth children can find it difficult to understand why there are so many new ways of doing things now in the home, be proactive and talk about it.
- Foster children may continue to display behaviours that birth children find difficult, challenging and unfamiliar, there may be times when it seems to be settled then these issues reappear, this is because trauma resurfaces at different ages, it will also be affected by transitions of all kinds, and factors such as contact with birth family and many outside factors beyond our control.
Birth children will require constant reassurance, and help to understand why behaviours, reactions and relationships may not always be stable and predictable.
- Foster children may make disclosures to birth children, seek support from your supervising social worker and the child’s social worker to have helpful conversations around this and to make them aware.
TOP TIP: Always remember – record, record, record.
Things to know
- Safeguarding is paramount in and out of the fostering home and therefore there are strict rules for fostering households and National Minimum Fostering Standards (NMS) and Statutory regulations to be adhered to.
- Birth children and foster children are not allowed to share bedrooms, each has their own room and space.
Birth children often want to keep their own bedrooms their private space and this can sometimes be difficult and challenging to manage.
This is something that should be included in the care plan and discussed with your social worker. There will also be lots of other safeguarding matters to consider, your provider will guide you.“One of the things that changed the most in our house was the routines and new house rules, we hadn’t really thought about it before, but suddenly we were having to lock things away, make sure we were dressed appropriately, we always cuddled our own kids and walked around with next to nothing on, did play fighting, tickling and got into bed with each other, we realised it’s not always safe and appropriate to do that with foster children.
However we found different ways, our foster children were younger than ours so we would have time for our children when the foster children were in bed, or if we were all together we would all cuddle up on the sofa for story time instead of in bed, it works fine, just differently”
- Some foster children and babies will have drug and alcohol dependence so will have difficulties in regulating their emotions, and anger and be impulsive this can be difficult for birth children, older birth children will be more accepting if they know the underlying reasons for the behaviour.
Similarly, foster children may have ADHD, ASD, disabilities or special needs, and (where age appropriate) conversations around this will help birth children, again encouraging them to talk about anything they don’t understand.
- A foster carer receives an allowance paid for the foster child which includes pocket money, savings and clothing allowance, this might be different from how you manage your birth child’s pocket money, however where possible either talk to them about this and give them the reasons why.
- Explain to birth children that they can not share photos on social media of foster children, this will be really difficult for them to understand at times as it is part of the fabric of children’s lives these days.
- Foster children have their own social worker, and carers have their own supervising social worker, the foster carer social worker should also be there for any issues that birth children have.
- Many foster carers feel their birth child’s feelings are not taken into account by professionals in the team around the foster child.
Talk to the team and highlight any issues birth children are having, ask for support, it’s essential to be having conversations with birth children about their well-being both physically and emotionally.
- Birth children make a huge contribution to the fostering family, they have to accept many changes to their routine and home life to accommodate foster children, so their needs must be taken fully into account and those in the team around you must acknowledge this.
“There are so many boxes for social workers to tick re hobbies, meetings, shopping trips, eating out, cinema, youth club meetings, on top of school, medical and child’s social work visits. That is seen as good care, yet often if feel is like there are no ‘boxes’ into which birth children fit, no one worries about their feelings, and they are often asked to leave the room, even in our own home”“We felt our own children had become invisible and their own needs disregarded, we spoke to our agency about it and they were great and completely got it and agreed, and since then they have made a massive effort to help our children feel important, included and acknowledged, its made the world of difference. I don’t think they had done it on purpose, it just hadn’t occurred to them.”
- When birth children struggle they often don’t want to burden parents with their problems because they know their job can be challenging, so make sure they understand they can talk to you about anything.
- Birth children do feel jealous and can end up resenting your foster child because they may have been used to having your full attention or they may have had to become more responsible in doing more for themselves.
- Having a holiday is fun and exciting for birth children counting down the days, but for many foster children, it can cause anxiety which may impact their behaviour. Explain what’s going on to a birth child and how everyone experiences things differently and at a different pace.
“When our foster daughter was first with us we just automatically presumed she’d be as excited as us all about going on holiday, but it wasn’t the case, she was really anxious and quiet, and our own children found that hard as they were so excited and wanted to share it with their foster sister.
However with lots of care and help and despite the initial anxiety, the first holiday turned out brilliantly and now, many years down the line, she’s probably more excited to go on holidays than the rest of us put together!”
- Birthdays and other celebrations can also be the same. Your birth children are excited, and they want the foster child to share their excitement, and it can put a dampener on it if they are not feeling the same. It’s important to discuss with your birth child why they may be feeling and behaving this way and what everyone can do to help.
- Christmas can be a time when the fostering family faces challenges, as families have their own traditions that birth children are used to, and many foster children are not, it can often be a difficult time for them with memories of home, missing family, triggers, different cultures or religion. Christmas will have to be well-planned, it may look different, but can still be special.
It’s another area where it is important to talk to your birth child and include them, let them help in the new plans and encourage their ideas.
Fostering can often lead to friendships between birth children and foster children, it can help birth children develop empathy, emotional maturity, and a caring and kind outlook and can help develop their independence.
However, I guess looking back then I was a bit put out that my bedroom was going to be used to foster children and when I came home now have a spare room.
I am close to my parents so I did wonder if this would change our relationship suddenly having other children to focus all their attention on and I might feel jealous about sharing them.
Looking back, it wasn’t a problem, my parents loved me the same and the room didn’t actually matter, I didn’t feel jealous at all in fact I liked having others that I could be like a big sister to”
They now mix with all sorts at university, from the very privileged to the not so much, oldest daughter was part of a team promoting uni for young people from poorer backgrounds and former children in care.
Both got A‘s in psychology A levels, lots of practice at home! ‘Ours both say they loved I was a stay-at-home mum and yes I missed some things due to meetings but not as many had I been working full time away from home full time.
All 4 girls had the same pocket money, clothing allowance, and activities (no one had designer trainers). We all share hilarious stories of former foster children’s antics (good and bad!) and had fun-filled family holidays.”
Foster carers need to ensure that a foster child is treated as you would your own children, this is a very difficult balance to achieve, and can sometimes impact the birth child. There is a very different set of ‘rules’ and requirements for a looked-after child, there is a detailed care plan and foster children will have a social worker and other professionals around them.
There will be lots of meetings training and other admin which birth children will have to get used to different people in the home and a lot of your time taken up with fostering duties.
Foster carers will find it easier to follow fostering procedures and policy by having the same fostering family rules for birth children and the foster child, but this can be challenging, birth children may perhaps see things change as a result.
Birth children can find it challenging when parents seem to tolerate behaviour in the foster child that would never be acceptable for them to do, this goes back to helping them understand the reasons why. Also, one of the most difficult things for a birth child is witnessing challenging behaviours towards their Mum or Dad and feeling powerless to intervene.
Birth children can also struggle when their parents are showing affection to a foster child or if a foster child is seen to be taking a lot more of a parent’s time and attention.
Most foster children see their birth family and this is called contact or family time, this could be face-to-face, by phone, or online on a social platform. Foster children can become distressed and even regress before or after sometimes resulting in behavioural challenges which are difficult for our birth children to see.
Acknowledge loss when children move on
We need to prepare birth children for the reality of foster care, some children may stay for a few weeks, some a few months, some may stay forever, some are adopted, some will be reunified with family and some may be moved by providers.
Birth children are not professionals, our birth children build good relationships and get used to sharing their daily lives with foster children, who become foster siblings. If the day comes for them to move on our birth children can grieve and may need time to process this.
We can provide ways to do this, perhaps having a book of memories with pictures, places and holidays that they spent together for them to look at.
It’s important to have these discussions about birth children with your supporting social worker. If possible, think about how your birth child and foster child can stay in touch if they want to, because endings do matter to all children.
Allegations are a reality of fostering, this can be very hard for birth children, especially if they see their parents upset. Foster carers can mitigate this by making sure they have full protection from allegations and feel secure in the knowledge they have the best support possible themselves, they can then reassure their children.
See the FosterWiki “Help and Support” link at the bottom of the page to make an independent assessment and make sure you have the right level of support and representation should an allegation occur.
- The fostering system in England; Evidence review, research report 2017 birth children Twigg and Swan 2007 and Sutton and stack 2013
- The Fostering Network
- Fosterline (Kalland and Sinkonnen, 2001; Hojer et al., 2013)
- Fitzy Needs a Family: explaining Foster Care to Children by Kait Isaak
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