Tamarie and Angelique wrote this article as part of their work on CORE: Teen, a federally funded project to develop training for current and prospective resource parents of children who are older and who have more substantial needs. In this first year of the project, one of CORE: Teen’s goals is to identify skills and characteristics of successful foster, adoptive, and guardianship families. Tamarie is a PhD student in the School of Social Work at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. Angelique is an Assistant Professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Washington Seattle. For more information, contact Angelique Day at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Being an effective foster, adoptive, or kinship parent can be challenging, especially if you are caring for older youth or those with higher needs. Many teens in care have been through traumatic experiences and this past experience affects both their behaviors and physical, emotional, and mental health. If parents cannot care for these young people effectively, it can lead to the breakdown of the foster family and result in an unnecessary placement change for the youth (Dorsey, Farmer, Barth, Greene, Reid, & Landsverk, 2008). The challenging behaviors displayed by youth in foster care can increase caregiver stress and, consequently, negatively affect placement stability (Cavazzi, Guilfoyle & Sims, 2010).
Placement stability is the most commonly agreed upon prerequisite for success for young people in foster care. Placement stability is considered a significant predictor of social, emotional, and educational well-being for youth in care, and fewer placement moves correlate with increased chances of achieving permanency. Research has shown that placement instability impedes the ability of older youth to build sufficient relationships needed to successfully transition to adulthood (Keller, Cusick, & Courtney, 2007; Buehler et al. 2000; Harden 2004). In addition to reducing the ability of children to develop secure attachments (Gauthier, Fortin, & Jeliu, 2004), placement instability has been associated with greater emotional and behavioral problems (Leathers, 2002).
One of the ways to improve placement stability is to ensure that caregivers have the capacity to meet the needs of children in foster care. Numerous studies have attempted to capture the skills and attributes that contribute to becoming and being a good resource parent. We recently reviewed 838 documents and articles on foster caregiving to determine the characteristics of successful resource parents who were able to support the youth in their home with stable placements and permanency.
By reviewing and thinking about these characteristics and skills, parents can think about areas where they already excel, and where they may need to focus more attention. Agency staff can think about their training and support programs to determine if those programs are designed to build and enhance these elements in their caregivers.
Of course, just as there is no one right way to be a good parent, there is no one-size-fits-all recipe for how to be a good resource parent. Every child is different and each situation is unique. However, research has shown that there are certain characteristics or qualities that successful resource parents possess that led to greater placement stability and permanency for youth in care.
Personal Characteristics and Attributes
Among the personal characteristics of resource parents identified in the research, the ones that promoted permanency for youth in care included:
- Tolerance for rejection and negative feelings — Ability to depersonalize a child’s behavior and understand rewards of fostering are not immediate (for example, the reward may come after youth leaves the home and comes back for a visit); a caregiver’s ability to expect powerful and negative feelings in themselves and understand that those feelings are normal and transient.
- Flexible expectations — Willingness to celebrate incremental improvements in a child’s functioning; being ok with a child who may always face challenges.
- Sense of humor — Is able to use humor to cope with stress and diffuse emotions.
- Belief in a higher power — Being religious or spiritually attuned.
- Self-efficacy — Belief in one’s ability to effectively parent.
- Having a higher level of education — Has higher educational attainment. Foster parents with higher education levels tend to be more flexible, which promotes stronger relationships.
- Sufficient economic resources — Access to income or other resources available to meet the needs of the foster, adoptive, or kinship family.
- Healthy marriage and marital functioning — Is part of a mutually enriching relationship where both spouses/partners have a deep respect for each other. Factors such as commitment, satisfaction, communication, and conflict resolution skills, were identified as integral components of a healthy marriage.
- Access to support systems — Is connected to a network of support such as spouse/partner, foster care agency, extended family, other foster parents, respite, child’s teacher, their own or a child’s therapist.
- Motivation to foster/adopt — The motivations that correlate with higher permanency outcomes included having an altruistic desire to help children in need of a home; a desire for a sibling for another child or the betterment of both children; a desire to stay home with other children; a desire to eventually adopt; having experiences (abuse, neglect, dependency) similar to those of children in foster care.
The most frequently mentioned personal characteristics that promoted permanency for children in care were having a tolerance for rejection, having flexible expectations, and being motivated to foster or adopt.
Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities
The knowledge, skills, and abilities that successful resource families acquired through training and experience that were linked to the promotion of permanency included:
- Attentiveness to the parent/child relationship — Ability to:
- define boundaries, set rules (chores, curfews, study habits), and instill structure in the home; maintain quality in the physical environment.
- use verbal praise, positive consequences, social praise, hugs, and smiles.
- be consistent.
- advocate for the child to ensure his or her needs are being met (medical and mental health care needs, school, youth employment searches, organizing visits with siblings).
- Self-care — Willingness to seek help for themselves, as well as the children in their care, by routinely accessing services (including counseling, respite care, support groups) to maintain perspective, relieve tension, and remain strong and healthy.
- Socio-emotional health — Ability to understand the effects of trauma and teach socio-emotional health.
- Connection to birth family — Willingness to promote continuity of relationships (that is, encourages contact between child and birth family, arranges visits with relatives and former foster parents); is able to help youth process feelings after visits.
- Recognizes the need to express and process grief — Ability to help child cope with separation and loss, and develop and build self-esteem.
- Provision of culturally competent care — Ability to promote cultural identity, understanding and sensitivity. This is especially important for resource families engaging in transracial fostering/adoption and those caring for youth who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning (LGBTQ).
- Participation in training and education — Values and supports education; willingness to be a life-long learner.
- Effective communication — Has open communication with the child; listens to child’s opinions and feelings; uses active listening; ability to communicate effectively with child welfare workers; is an active participant in a service delivery team.
The most frequently identified knowledge, skills, and abilities were the ability to maintain attentiveness to the parent/child relationship, taking care of oneself, and being able to recognize, express, and process grief.
Successful Foster Parenting
Foster parents often find themselves needing to parent children in care differently than they may have parented their biological children, if they had any. They achieve success most often by adopting a more realistic and flexible approach. Many foster parents express high levels of personal satisfaction from helping children learn and grow. This level of satisfaction can be achieved when parents are consistent with their expectations for the children in their care. The best foster parents seek and accept help. They learn how to identify and access the help that they need, and they become good advocates for the youth as well as themselves.
In “Meeting the Challenges of Contemporary Foster Care,” the article’s authors argue that most individuals become foster parents out of a sense of social obligation and a desire to enhance a child’s life (2004). Successful carergivers are committed to caring for the child and are determined in their efforts to reach positive outcomes despite the challenges children go through during different developmental stages. A genuine commitment to enduring the difficulties is important. The understanding of what the child has been through and not judging them or their parents for circumstances that led to them to being care is fueled by this genuineness.
Considering the above lengthy list of characteristics and attributes reminds all of us in child welfare that we need to focus on finding—and helping create—caregivers who possess them. Fostering takes dedication, flexibility, and a willingness to invest in the lives of the children in care. Although it is an individual’s choice to foster or adopt, it is the job of placement agencies to find a good parent for the children in their care. This is done by evaluating the skill set of each individual who desires to foster, developing those skills through training and support, and appropriately matching prospective parents with children whose needs they are able to meet.
Training of Foster Parents Is Key
A good outcome is made more likely when placement agencies can provide support, including the provision of training where resource families have the opportunity to gain new knowledge, skills, and capacities as the needs of the children in their care shift over time.
Training for foster parents is mandated by federal law and reinforced by statutes in nearly every state. Providing training in successful parenting techniques for all foster parents is an effective strategy to maximize placement stability by reducing placement disruptions and helping to respond to child behavior problems. Effective training should include:
- information that addresses the unique parenting demands of children in foster care
- strategies on how to effectively integrate children into the existing family system
- other information that helps build caregivers’ capacities in the areas above
It has been shown that foster parents who complete training have an enhanced sense of well-being, increased satisfaction with their role as resource parents, and greater willingness to foster (Fees et al., 1998; Cooley, et al., 2011). Proper training allows potential and current caregivers to evaluate their existing strengths and characteristics, while teaching them how to develop in areas they lack.
Trained and supported foster parents are fundamental to ensuring placement stability for children in foster care, and investments in training can help us develop individuals who are able to be the best possible parents for children who have experienced abuse and neglect. As researchers Chipungu and Bent-Goodley (2004) affirmed, supporting and strengthening families is essential if we are to protect and nurture this nation’s most vulnerable children.
Cavazzi, T., Guilfoyle, A., & Sims, M. (2010). A phenomenological study of foster caregivers’ experiences of formal and informal support. Illinois Child Welfare, 5(1), 125-141.
Chipungu, S. S., & Bent-Goodley, T. B. (2004). Meeting the challenges of contemporary foster care. The Future of Children, 75-93.
Cooley, M. E., & Petren, R. E. (2011). Foster parent perceptions of competency: Implications for foster parent training. Children and Youth Services Review, 33(10), 1968-1974.
Dorsey, S., Farmer, E. M., Barth, R. P., Greene, K. M., Reid, J., & Landsverk, J. (2008). Current status and evidence base of training for foster and treatment foster parents. Children and Youth Services Review, 30(12), 1403-1416.
Fees, B. S., Stockdale, D. F., Crase, S. J., Riggins-Caspers, K., Yates, A. M., Lekies, K. S., & Gillis-Arnold, R. (1998). Satisfaction with foster parenting: Assessment one year after training. Children and Youth Services Review, 20(4), 347-363.
Gauthier, Y., Fortin, G., & Jeliu, G. (2004). Clinical application of attachment theory in permanency planning for children in foster care: The importance of continuity of care. Infant Mental Health Journal. 25(4), 379-396.
Harden, B.D. (2004). Safety and stability for foster children: A developmental perspective. The Future of Children. 14(1), 31-47.
Keller, T.E., Cusick, G.R., & Courtney, M.E. (2007). Approaching the transition to adulthood: Distinctive profiles of adolescents aging out of the child welfare system. Social Service Review, 81(3), 453-484.
Leathers, S.J. (2002). Foster children’s behavioral disturbance and detachment from caregivers and community institutions. Children and Youth Services Review. 24(4), 239-268.
Stott, T., & Gustavsson, N. (2010). Balancing permanency and stability for youth in foster care. Children and Youth Services Review, 32(4), 619-625. B