Children really thrive in a structured environment. Interestingly, foster parents are often fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind of people. Indeed, foster parents need to be willing to cope with uncertainties in order to do the job of foster parenting at all. Despite foster parents tendency to be very flexible, foster children need to experience the foster home as a structured place. How do you strike a balance between your own flexibility in order to create feelings of security for foster children that only structure can provide?
First of all, in order to answer this question, it helps to think about what it means to be “structured”. When my husband and I first started doing foster parenting, I was concerned about our ability to provide “structure” to foster children. Our lifestyle was filled with a lot of flexibility. We had moved 22 times over 10 years, which made us amenable to changing locations abruptly. Our biological daughter was home schooled, which made us immune to a lot of social restrictions and structure that other families had to adhere to. My husband and I are both creative and so we tended to approach life with a very “go with the flow” kind of attitude.
When I thought of structure, I was actually thinking of what it means to be “strict” (which I’m not). Once we had a few placement under our belt, I started to realize that structure didn’t require a strict adherence to a schedule as much as it required consistency. Flexibility in the way we do things in our home is something that is consistent, for example. But we are consistent in the belief that our foster children need to wake on time for school because education is important. We tend to be somewhat flexible about what time of the day we eat, but we always eat our meals together as a family and typically we cook together too. Our family sits together in the evening and watches TV or we read and my husband I are available all day, every day to our children because we work from home. These things are consistent. They make up the structure of our family.
But our flexibility is what makes room for our foster children in our lives. Flexibility keeps me patient when visitations interrupt dinner or when I’m laying carpet and the caseworker calls to let me know that there is a family meeting that will happen in five minutes that she forgot to tell me about before. There is definitely a consistent ebb and flow in our family that I never really tuned into before we started doing foster care, but the structure is softened by flexibility.
That being said, foster children really need structure in order to be able to integrate into the foster family. Without keeping to a consistent routine, foster children can feel utterly lost in the new environment. Structure and consistency make it possible for your foster child to feel safe and security in an alien environment and begin to learn the comings and goings of your family. Eventually, once your foster child gets more comfortable in the home, it will be easier to be flexible, but structure gives your foster child the ability to wrap her head around what will go on in your foster home each night when she gets home from school.
Foster children may have had some truly horrific after-school experiences and their imagination can run wild. Structure helps your foster child to get the gist of what happens in the foster home and begin to have faith in the whole process. Even though the time of the day may vary for lunch or dinner, your foster child should know after a week or two in your home that there will be lunch and dinner at your house. Lunch and dinner rituals, for example, should be fairly consistent to keep your foster child in the know about how things work in your home. Most foster parents have this kind of structure already built into their home without even realizing it. Foster children need that kind of structure to figure out their role in the lunch or dinner ritual. Perhaps (in this example) you can have them set the table which will help them discover how they fit into your family.
Being structured doesn’t necessarily mean being strict, but it does mean that you should be consistent with things like meal times and rituals, bed times and rituals, bath time, etc. These various rituals will help your foster child feel safe because she will know what to expect in your home. Without a feeling of safety, it can be difficult for your foster child to let her guard down. Without an idea of how your meal and bed time rituals are performed, it can be hard for her to do the right thing in your eyes and integrate into your family. By creating a structured environment you can help bring feelings of security and safety into your foster child’s life for the first time.