By being sensitive to family and cultural differences, you can help a child in care feel valued, respected and at home in your family. You can talk with the child about what they are used to in their previous home, and about anything they may be finding uncomfortable or strange. By being aware of these things, you can make small changes that can help a child feel at home.
Boundaries and routines
All families have different ways of being, different ways of treating each other and different things that are important for family members. It is important that you have clear boundaries about what is OK and not OK. It can take children in care a while to get used to different sorts of boundaries, and it helps if you can clearly explain your household routines and family rules, and involve the child in planning for the day.
It will make it easier for a child to settle in if you talk to them about things like:
- set times for meals, bathroom routines and bedtime
- what time everyone gets home from school and work
- your family rules, like knocking on doors or 'shoes off inside'
- family activities or outings, and involve them in making plans.
Sometimes children who have been harmed or neglected have difficulty with boundaries, and you may need to help and encourage them to develop new behaviour. Some ideas for you to think about are:
- whether children play in the lounge, rather than unsupervised in the bedrooms, until you feel confident the children can play together well
- 'no hitting’ rules for children and adults
- knocking when a door is closed, so that everyone knows their privacy is respected
- telling all children in the family they have a right to say 'no' to hugs and or tickling.
Territory Families wants carers to care and nurture the child, but also to be aware of how you relate to them. Here are some suggestions that may be useful:
- Be careful when helping the child with personal hygiene - some touching that you migth think is normal, may be interpreted by the child as sexual.
- Try to look at your actions as if you were watching them from the outside - are they rational and easily explained? Would they make sense if explained to someone else?
- Be aware of the child’s reactions to you and your family - try to see how things might seem from the child’s perspective.
You might also want to get the child to help out with everyday household chores that are appropriate for their age. Remember that abuse or neglect often results in children having some developmental delays, so you may need to set tasks that are appropriate to their developmental age rather than their actual age. Helping with small chores around the house can encourage children to feel part of the family and learn about taking responsibility.
Talk time or 'one-on-one'
Spending one-on-one time each day with the child or young person can really help you get to know them and build a good relationship.
- Acknowledge their feelings and be reassuring, as this can help the child settle down and relax.
- At dinner time, ask each child to say what their 'high' and 'low' of the day was. Even if they are reluctant at first, it can end up sparking good discussion and help children express their feelings.
- At bedtime, once you’ve tucked the child into bed, spend a few minutes being quietly attentive and reading them a story, or asking them about their day.
- Sit down together for uninterrupted time as a family each day - it can be a great way to bond and help children feel included in family time.
Important note: As with all ideas provided, you need to take into account the child’s background. For example, a child may come from a family where ‘family time’ is very different, and the child’s family may almost never sit together at mealtimes or may not have regular fixed times for meals.
What to call each other
As time passes with a child in care, there may come a time when the child may want to use your name. This is a particularly sensitive matter for family and it is also a matter that has a legal aspect. This is not a decision to make lightly and must be part of the regular discussion you have with your care partners, particularly the Case Manager. In general, the child should use their own family name and not that of the foster family.
Carers need to be careful if the words 'Mum' and 'Dad' are being considered by the child or themselves in relation to the child. These titles should only be used after a thorough discussion with the Case Manager. Issues of sensitivity for the child's family, the possibility of the child being confused, and the wishes of the family make this a very sensitive issue. The child may also not be sure about what to call you and members of your family. This may depend on how old the child is, how long they are staying and how they feel about being looked after by a family other than their own.
You can talk to the Case Manager if you are worried. The key is not to force the child to call you anything they are not comfortable with, and to make sure the decisions about names are made appropriately. Children should only call you 'Mum' and 'Dad' if they choose to, and after this has been discussed with the Case Manager – who will discuss this with the parents or relevant family (after this, a clear decision can be made).
'I am different to you'
Territory Families tries to place all children with carers who share a common cultural background. However, when this is not possible, we ask carers to encourage the child to maintain their own cultural values and identity. There are a number of ways you can do this – such as linking the child into a cultural or social activity, arranging for them to attend religious functions, or helping them make friends with others from their cultural or racial group.
When a child has religious beliefs and cultural practices different from your own, it is important that you and your family can allow for this and find ways of making the child feel comfortable in your home. It is never OK for you to try to impose your own religious beliefs on the child. The child’s Case Manager will work with you to develop a plan that addresses the child’s needs for knowledge of, and participation in, special religious or cultural activities. Remember, a child placed with you may have English as a second, third or even fourth language. It is also entirely possible that the child has no conversational English at all. They may also be used to cultural practices that are very different from your own.
Children have their own special identity and things from their family that are unique and important to them: like their religious or spiritual beliefs, their culture, where they come from and how they look. Acknowledging and celebrating these things will help a child retain their identity, and can build their self-esteem. Ensuring the child’s correct name is used and pronounced properly is a simple but important way the whole family can respect the child's identity. You can also talk to the child about the kind of food they like to eat, and be aware of respecting their language if it’s different from your own. These things will help affirm the child’s identity and self-esteem. If you attend church or some other religious or cultural activity regularly and would like to include the child, you need to let the Case Manager know, so they can discuss this with the child’s parents.