The shock and trauma a child faces when they are moved into a foster home can be very hard for them to process. They might be extremely sad, anxious, and angry because of the loss they are experiencing. On top of all of this emotion, they have to adjust their everyday habits to fit their new foster family. While our rules might feel well-intentioned to us, they can trigger strong reactions from foster children. The rules can seem arbitrary and unfair to them and feel like another negative aspect of not getting to live with their parents.
Be prepared to set rules related to the areas below but also understand the child could struggle to adapt to them and might push back out of frustration. It’s ok for them to feel this way. Don’t judge and blame the parents for not having the same house rules as you but have patience and grace for the child as they adjust to your home.
Bedtime is typically a pretty tricky time because all the emotions bottled up through the day (and during removal from their family) might come out as they are lying in bed alone with their thoughts. Don’t be surprised if there are multiple wake-ups a night early on. Many children may have lacked structure in their previous bedtime routine so they could be used to staying up late at night, falling asleep while watching TV, having the lights on at night, or sharing their bed with a parent or sibling.
Depending on the child’s background they could have very different previous sleeping habits like sleeping on the floor or sleeping in a common area of the house so make sure you connect with your caseworker to understand their history and adjust your expectations for them.
Their new bedtime routine may feel weird to them and they might need to gradually get used to their new set-up. As you introduce them to the rules ask for their reaction try to create solutions that work for them. See if there is something that could help them (maybe a special stuffed animal or adding a brighter nightlight). In the near-term, you can negotiate a set-up that works for both of you (maybe bedtime starts at 9pm the first week instead of 8pm) until they are ready for an earlier bedtime.
Kids aren’t always super jazzed about taking showers and brushing teeth but if they haven’t had to do this before they can really put up a fight. Take some extra time during the first few days of a placement to make sure they are taking proper showers: are they washing long enough, did they use soap on their body, did they use shampoo for their hair, are they drying off with a towel? They might not have had access to all of these things before so do a quick check with them so they know what each item is and how to use it.
Brushing their teeth can be a big change as well so doing the activity together can normalize the task and give you a chance to watch them to note if they aren’t doing anything correctly. It’s also a great way to be a role model and show them that these activities are normal.
Both the amount of time and the content they watched on screens previously could be very different than what you allow in your home. When you set boundaries in this area it might make a child feel their hobbies and comfort activity is being taken away from them after already losing so much. Having alternative activity recommendations that fit their interests on hand can help dull this pain for them (playing outside, group or solo board games, going to the park, etc.). Investing in helping the child get used to entertaining themselves without screens and doing activities together can make this change feel less traumatic.
Setting unrealistic academic goals on day 1 is not a fair approach for the children. They have enough to worry about outside of school performance and adding more areas for them to fail at can overburden them. However, building good behaviors and a positive attitude about school can still be accomplished and rules around participation and completing their work can help the child long-term.
Some children may have a lot of anxiety about school and could be used to skipping their homework, not reading outside of school, and only giving the minimum effort. If strict rules are set, make sure you’re available to help them along the way and can assist with remedial knowledge they might have skipped over along the way (if they never learned multiplication then algebra is going to be very hard…). Focus on building their confidence and keeping the attention on effort instead of grades.
All of these adjustments may feel overwhelming for a foster child, so be patient and consider introducing new routines one at a time. Eventually, these routines will get easier!