One of the primary goals for all parents is to keep children safe. As foster/adoptive/relative care parents, you empower and guide children in your care on ways to establish and maintain healthy boundaries. They rely on you to help, guide, and support them throughout the time that they are in your home. When you welcome a child into your care, you become an essential part of their life. You provide that child with love, warmth, care, compassion, resources, stability, guidance, and unconditional love and support. Often, the children in your care will be asked a plethora of personal questions about their experience with and involvement in foster care. Those questions can come from friends, family members, and others. A few examples include:
- Why are you in foster care?
- How long will you have to live with your grandma?
- What did you do to end up in your situation?
- What did your parents do (or not do)?
Sometimes these questions are well-intentioned. Sometimes they are inquisitive, and, at other times, the questions can be downright intrusive. You can help the youth in your care understand different ways they can respond when asked personal questions about their lives, their families, or their experiences.
One of the most beneficial things you can do is to provide a safe environment for the children in your care to practice what and how much personal information they are comfortable and willing to share with others. Ask them some questions that others might ask and discuss their answers together. You might also consider switching roles with the child—have them play the caregiver while you put yourself into their shoes. This type of exercise can help the child learn various ways to respond to personal questions from others. Setting and establishing privacy boundaries are essential life skills for children and youth to carry over into their adult lives.
To Share or Not to Share
Children and youth in care have the absolute right to keep their personal information private. Given the prevalence of social media in all of our lives, it is vitally important to educate and remind the youth in your care that what is shared on the internet is there forever.
Privacy is about respecting oneself enough to set personal and appropriate boundaries. Therefore, teach the child in your care that they have no obligation to tell someone else their personal story or information either in person or online. Reinforce that they have the right to decide how much or how little they feel comfortable sharing—even if that means sharing nothing at all. Teach them that it is okay not to answer any questions about their personal lives or the lives of their family. Encourage them to talk with you and their caseworker when they are unsure if they should or should not share their personal information. You and the child’s caseworker can also discuss potential ways to respond by sharing some info without oversharing. Sometimes, it is best to change the topic, refuse to answer the question, or simply walk away.
The National Resource Center for Youth Development recommends a green light, yellow light, red light lens to think about how and when to answer questions. Green light items are things you can tell anyone. Yellow light experiences are those you want to be cautious about and perhaps talk over with others before sharing. Red light means don’t share.
Potential Green Light Questions
- Do you like being in foster care?
- Are your foster parents nice?
- Do you like living with your aunt and cousins?
- Do you get to spend time with your siblings/parents?
- Can you have friends over to your foster home?
Potential Yellow Light Questions
- When are you going to be able to go back home?
- What did you do to end up in your situation?
- I’ve heard foster parents can be mean. What about your foster parents?
- Why can’t you live with other family members?
- Do your parents have to go to parenting classes?
Potential Red Light Questions
- Why don’t you live with your REAL parents?
- Did your parents abuse you?
- Don’t your parents love you anymore?
- How much do your caregivers get paid for taking care of you?
- I heard your grandparents are your foster parents. Are you one of those BAD Kids?
In addition to this system, you might consider learning more about the Center for Adoption Support and Education’s W.I.S.E. Up! ® Tool. The W.I.S.E. Up! ® Tool teaches children that they have the power to respond to unwanted questions through the four W.I.S.E. choices:
- Walk away
- “It’s private”
- Share something about their relative care, foster care, or adoption story
- Educate with general information about foster care or adoption
To learn more, please visit the website listed in the resource section of this newsletter. You can also check out the W.I.S.E. Up! ® Powerbook for Children in Foster Care in the Coalition’s Lending Library. Both of these response strategies and resources can be helpful for you to share with the child in your care. You might also consider planning and scheduling regular family meetings to discuss these strategies. Talking about this topic often can help the child in your care feel more prepared and comfortable with answering potentially personal questions.
Establishing Healthy Boundaries
A child’s story is their story to either share or keep confidential. When kids are forming friendships, they tend to share family information and other personal information. The key is to avoid oversharing. After all, once personal information has been shared, it is no longer private. Moreover, those who we shared with may re-share that information with others—both in-person and online.
Empower the youth in your care to set healthy personal boundaries to protect themselves, as well as to protect their family’s privacy. Teach them that they get to decide what they want to share and control how much or how little they want to share with others. Remember that this can be a delicate and difficult decision. How much they feel comfortable sharing may change at various times and with various people. Encourage the kids in your care to share their questions and feelings with you, their caseworker, or another trusted adult whenever they need to.