HOME >Fall 2009 - Volume 54 - Number 4

How to Foster a Sense of Belonging for Foster Children
By Theresa Fraser

The biggest issue that we struggle with in our role as foster parents is how to create a milieu that fosters attachment and a sense of belonging. We attempt to do this while also being reminded that we can love these children placed in our care but they aren‘t our children. Additionally, we try to honour a child‘s cultural and spiritual identity as well as their biological family while sharing or modeling our own. So here are a few ideas that may help you in your foster family role.

Take pictures
Take pictures and lots of them. Take pictures of the Popsicle stick bridge that you helped to build for homework. Take pictures of first days of school, lessons, special events etc. Then take pictures of family activities, your home and the child‘s room. If the child has visitation with biological family sharing these photos can go a long way in helping the child feel that all the adults in his life are working for him/her. Hopefully such "joining" gestures can help decrease the child‘s ambivalence about having feelings both for biological and foster family members. We often give our kids the message you are increasing your family connections, not replacing them.

We know that Lifebooks are important but it is hard to put all of these pictures in the Lifebook. Therefore, keep the special ones like birthday and school photos for the Lifebook and put all the rest on a DVD. Create a yearly one so each child has their own photos but also a yearly one that has all family members on it. (This way if a child goes home you are not breaching another foster child‘s confidentiality. These DVD‘s can then be watched on your computer as a slide show. We recently were able to purchase a digital media player for about $100. This hooks up directly to our television. You can then attach a USB memory stick or hard drive directly to the media player. If you know how to add music to your USB hard drive you are set. This technology becomes really wonderful as the kids love to watch themselves. After a few complaints of we don‘t do anything, without drawing any connections to the statements, put on the picture show. Without you even reinforcing the message verbally, you are reinforcing the wonderful times that have happened over the last year. The kids will start to recognize the family traditions that they have experienced.

It is also clear in my role, as both a foster parent and a Therapist, that often the kids who have experienced trauma and neglect especially during early development (when their brain is organizing) often depend on visual sensory input more often than auditory input. Hence what you are saying does not compute as quickly as what is visualized. So when you say , please wash your hands for dinner with dinner plates and cutlery in hand, these kids likely just come and sit at the table instead of following through on what was asked.

This is because language is processed by the neocortex, top and front part of the brain, whereas, the occipital lobe (located at the back of the brain) controls processing of visual stimuli. Additionally the occipital lobe matches the sensory outcomes of visual processing with previously gained cognitive associations and/or memories. "During development, these children often spend so much time in a low-level state of fear mediated by brainstem and diencehpalic areas, they consistently are focusing on non-verbal instead of verbal cues (Perry, 2000.p.1)". This means that visual input often computes more quickly for our foster kids because this part of their brain has developed. Therefore, you can use this knowledge to help your foster kids create new cognitive associations and memories.

Family photos
Make sure you take a family portrait at least once yearly and proudly display it in your home. The old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words is at work here. Kids are then getting a daily reminder that they are part of this family by their very presence in the family. When this photo is honored by those who visit your home, the message is being reinforced time and time again.

A place for everything
Anything labeled with the child‘s name speaks to permanency. His/her shoe shelf, coat hook, special drawer etc. will communicate the important message that not only are you important but your things are also valued here too! The same rule applies to bedroom signs and toothbrushes. We name our special items and spaces and keep them in places that are safe. So having household rules around respecting each other‘s privacy and belongings is especially important modeling for kids who may struggle with enjoying the moment instead of focusing on what will be purchased for them next.

Take a car trip
Nothing creates bonding like a car trip. Our best and worst comes out with getting lost, finding bathrooms and a place to eat. I don‘t suggest it to newly created families unless both adults are really comfortable with noise and small spaces. However, after you have been a family for a while, give a two hour trip a try and so on. Then come prepared with car games, some kid music and perhaps a DVD player. The kids will never forget it. After you do it once you may say, "never again" and then another year rolls around and you are already planning your next one. These experiences help the child to see that this family likes to have fun and spend time together. The repetition of these events reinforces the family culture and creates an expectation that vacations are shared family times.

Our foster kids over the years have enjoyed crossing the border which all workers and foster parents know involves getting a CAS Director‘s letter and now a Passport.

We have, however, experienced many rude border guards who inquire why our kids have different last names to which I have responded (to our kid‘s amusement) because they all have different fathers! One guard asked why I would want to foster when everyone knows the kids are trouble and move anyway to which we responded that we love children and these kids are our family not visitors. The kids are always watching and listening and seeing their foster parents both love and advocate on their behalf does not go unnoticed.

Pet Names
They will say that they hate it but they don‘t have the skills to ask for it. So make a point of calling the child something positive (not in front of their friends) but a cute name once in a while like angel, cutie, smarty pants, oh funny one. Build on their successes with positive affirmations. They often are accustomed to hearing derogatory names so positive affirming names provide a corrective experience.

They will make faces and complain with what often turns into a smile later. Kids who have an abuse history (both physical, sexual and neglect) may be triggered so know their history and discuss with the treatment team what is appropriate. Also: – be attuned to their responses to your nurturing and act accordingly. In many ways you are providing replacement experiences that should have taken place during their infancy – but you are doing this when their brains are harder to modify and change. Therefore they will need even more bonding experiences to help develop attachments (Perry, B. 2001).

Please remember that it is important to be affectionate in common rooms with others in the room, demonstrating that affection in our home is not a secret. A "Hollywood" hug is good, (which in our house is a hug given when we are standing side by side with the child). Kids who struggle with attachment and touch need both a corrective experience and appropriate and safe modeling and practice with affection.

Referential conversations
Our kids are often hypervigilent with their environments. They are accustomed to meeting their own needs which means that they don‘t trust adults to meet their needs or share communication. This means that they often listen in, or put their ear to the floor vents. So make a point of talking to your partner when they are in ear shot about how proud you are of them. Even better, tell someone on the phone. It also doesn‘t hurt to encourage the child to call their worker with good news. Bad news travels fast, make the good news travel faster. Also, if the child has visitation with biological family, ( with your CAS worker‘s permission) create a communication log listing all the things you are proud of that the child is trying. Our kids often are unable to begin conversations and share important information so helping biological families know what questions to ask provides your foster child with the opportunity to have a meaningful interaction with family members.

One to one time
Every child in your home deserves even ten minutes of your undivided attention when you are not giving them direction. Sit, look into their eyes, and truly listen to what is being said without criticism. Take an interest in their interests, hopes and dreams. When you know they are looking forward to a new movie coming out, take them. If time is limited make a point of inviting kids with you while you do errands. Car talks can be meaningful and memorable. They need to know that you spend time with them because you want to. One of our foster sons would be invited for errands and he would always ask what are you going to buy me? To which we answered nothing, we just wanted to spend time with you. His response reflected his internal working model of relationships which was they are only worth what you get out of them. However, after five years of placement he actually asked if he could go with foster dad to buy ice cream for the planned make your own sundaes activity, knowing that there was no additional material gain he was going to get from the experience. Both my husband and I almost cried.

Fostering belonging and attachment can be a slow process involving many baby steps.

Try not to take rejection personally
It is so easy to feel rejected and hurt as well as wonder is it worth all of the effort it takes. The answer is of course it is worth it but the steps are baby ones. So it is important to have good peer support. Family members may start out commenting how patient you must be and then inquire why you would experience all that you do at what can appear to outsiders to be at such a high cost. Despite the important service that foster parents provide, they are not always well supported and are sometimes scorned and labeled as saints or martyrs (Molin. 1994).

Ongoing training is important, especially training that focuses on the understanding of early neglect and trauma on the child‘s development and ability to attach. Peer support with other foster parents is key as well as a relationship with the Children‘s Aid Society that is the guardian of your foster children. Let the worker know how the child reacts to visits, plan of care meetings and OnLAC (Looking After Children in care) surveys. My experience is that for many children these necessary and Ministry mandated processes affect the child which can be observed in their behaviour immediately following these interviews. Workers want to support you but sometimes need you to be clear about what the issues and possible solutions are. Last but not least, talk in the future.

If your home is supposed to be a long term placement for this child, then talk about the future. Make comments like next summer I hope we go to the Drive-in again, but we will have to remember to bring lawn chairs next time. Or, the high school has the same course that your older brothers loved. I am sure that you will too. Or when I am old, I expect all of you to bring your children (and maybe even biological parents) around for holidays. Christmas or Ramadan or summer picnics will be that much more fun with all of the little ones running around. Try hard to mention these things matter of factly but also periodically so the child gets the message that you expect that he/she will be around for a long time or at least until they are able to return to their biological parents.

Before you know it, you too will look at some of the early family pictures created and wonder where has the time gone? Baby steps can be over oh too quickly.


Molin, R. (1994). Foster families and larger systems: image identity. Community Alternatives..7. 44-57as noted in Whiting,J.B.,Huher,M.(2007) Significant stress and real rewards: the ecological and ambiguous experience of foster parents. Relational child and youth practice.Vol.20.Issue 2 , p9-20.

Perry,B.(2000)The cost of child maltreatment: who pays? We all do. The Neurodevelopment Costs of Adverse Childhood Events. Retrieved June 1, 2009 from http://www.childtrauma.org/CTAMATERIALS/

Neuroarcheology.asp m: Westmoreland, B.et al.(1994).
Medical Neurosciences: An Approach to Anatomy, Pathology, and Physiology by Systems and Levels. New York: NY. Little, Brown and Company.

About the Author

Theresa Fraser and her husband have fostered for over 20 years. They are currently the parents of six bio/adopted and long-term foster boys. She is also a Practicing Play Therapist with a program known as Branching Out that provides Therapy, foster/adoptive/kinship parent training, Trauma Assessments as well as Parent Capacity Assessments. Theresa facilitates a monthly group entitled 'Loving Our Attachment Challenged Kids‘ and has published a book entitled, Billy Had to Move, available at Amazon.ca. She is a regular contributor to Playground, the national magazine published by the Canadian Association for Child and Play Therapists.

Theresa is also a part time professor at Mohawk College in the Child and Youth Worker Program. Theresa can be contacted at theresafraser@rogers.com or you can find more information at www.theresafraser.com, www.branchingout1.com

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