Ask AF: What to Do the First Time a Foster Child Comes to Stay with Us?

"We are preparing for our first overnight visit with sisters we hope to adopt from foster care, and are nervous. What are we supposed to do for 24 hours with two children who are essentially strangers?"

Q: We have been tentatively matched with 5- and 8-year-old sisters in foster care. We’ve met them a few times with a social worker, and the next step will be for them to come stay with us overnight or for the weekend. The girls seem sweet, but are extremely shy and have not been talkative during our meetings, so we still don’t know much about them. My husband and I don’t have nieces or nephews and haven’t been around many kids over the years, so we really just don’t have any practice talking to children. What are we supposed to do for 24 hours with two children whom we already like and want to be parents to, but who are essentially strangers?? Will they be scared? What should we do that first night? What will they call us? What do we tell neighbors who suddenly see these children staying with us and ask who they are? What if the kids don’t like the food we cook, or the sheets and blankets we picked out for their rooms, etc.? I know I’m probably overthinking this, but even if we felt we knew them well by now, I think these home visits would still feel awkward to me.

A: You are correct that the first overnight in a prospective foster-adoption is an awkward situation. The late Gregory Keck, Ph.D., with whom I wrote several books, used to say that it was like going on a blind date when the wedding was already planned. I’d recommend that you and your partner watch the movie Instant Family. It’s a comedy, but with many true-to-life moments.

Of course the children will be scared. Aren’t you? They have no idea what is going on and what kind of people you are. They may be sad to be leaving their foster home and about their birth family. Even if this was their first foster placement, counting the birth family, you are family number three in a few years.

While there’s no way to predict what will happen on your visit, and no guidebook to follow, here are some recommendations and responses to your concerns:

  • They may not call you anything on this first stay, and this will be fine for a while. If and when they are actually placed, you could say, “You can call me Sue, Mom, or Mommy Sue.” It usually evolves.
  • I would suspect the older one will try to mother the little one. That is OK. You are in the honeymoon stage, and they will test you in order to be sure they will be safe.
  • I would put protection on the mattresses in case of a bedwetting accident; it’s common for children to revert a little socially and emotionally when they are moving.
  • If a neighbor you know well asks who these children are, you could tell them you’ll talk about it later. For neighbors you don’t know as well, you could just say they are visiting. But I doubt anyone will ask.
  • As for meals, ask the girls’ foster mom about allergies and what they like to eat, then buy that. Or take them to a grocery store and have them help you pick out food.
  • Other than that, I would say to do whatever you typically do on weekends. If you clean or do yard work, have them help. Go to a nearby park or for a walk around your neighborhood. You might select a movie for them to watch, have books to read, and a simple board game and jigsaw puzzle (only 50 pieces). You could also get supplies to make a craft they can bring back to their foster mom. Do not assume anything, including that they have ever played a board game or done a puzzle or made a craft before. The following getting-to-know-you game can also be fun: Write questions on index cards (i.e., What is your favorite color? What do you like on pizza? What’s your favorite ice cream flavor? Can you stand on one foot for 30 seconds? Have you ever been on a merry-go-round?) If two people match, they get to shout “same/same!”
  • You may feel the urge to buy the girls things, but don’t. During these visits, just be with them. Keep the emphasis on bonding and experiences. I would also stop buying things for their rooms. There’s always a chance the placement won’t happen, and your next match might be two boys who prefer different sheets. If these girls do move in, decorating their new rooms together can help build bonds.
is a co-author of Parenting the Hurt Child: Helping Adoptive Families Heal and Grow, Adopting the Hurt Child: Hope for Families with Special-Needs Kids – A Guide for Parents and Professionals, and therapeutic workbook series The Adoption Club. Kupecky also co-authored The Mystery of the Multiple Mothers: A Cub County Caper, a mystery novel with an adoption theme, with her brother. She has been working with adoptive families and children for more than 35 years, and recently retired as a therapist at Adoption & Attachment Therapy Partners, in Broadview Heights, Ohio.

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