Becoming a relative caregiver can seem daunting – especially if you were not expecting to take on the responsibility. Whether you are a first-time caregiver or brushing up on your parenting skills, it is important to know what to expect when welcoming a child into your home. Here are five tips to help you prepare for the change in your home’s dynamic.
Prepare Your Home
We understand that not every new relative caregiver is expecting to transition into this position. The situation can feel even more overwhelming when it feels like you’ve had no time to prepare. Setting up your living space is a good place to start.
As soon as possible, evaluate your home – even if the child is already there. Do you have enough room to accommodate an additional person (or more)? Is moving an option? If moving is simply not possible, how might you need to reorganize or clear out an area meant solely for the child?
Here are a few questions that may help you figure this step out:
- Does my home have enough room for the child to have their own space? Personal space is especially important for a child going through a traumatic situation. Giving them a room of their own or a designated space they can call their own will help maintain their sense of stability and identity. Additionally, they will have somewhere to go when they need time to themselves.
- Is my home secure and/or safe? While feeling emotionally secure is important, making the child feel physically safe will relieve the stress of entering a potentially unfamiliar environment.
- Is my home close to the child’s school district? If the child is enrolled in school, removing them from their daily routine may cause unnecessary stress.
- How expensive of a house can I afford while supporting the child? Between unexpected trips to the doctor, an extra plate on the table, and more, raising a child is costly. If you are exploring your moving options, be sure to take into consideration childcare costs when calculating your expected mortgage payment.
- Is my home cluttered? Organize any clutter, deep-clean your rooms, and create a space that will specifically belong to the child. This transition is stressful for both you and the child; the less chaos, the better.
- Do I need to child-proof? If you are welcoming a small child into your home, remember to make areas safe by child-proofing.
Considering the above steps, and making what changes you can, will help you create and maintain a welcoming, supportive environment.
Rely on Support Networks and Resources
Although the sudden responsibility of becoming a relative caregiver can feel overwhelming and isolating, you do not have to do it alone. When the child enters your household, you will no longer be an extended family member or family friend – you will be a parent. To help navigate this change in dynamic, it is important to familiarize yourself with your support networks. These are family members, friends, other caregivers, online support groups, your case manager, and more.
You can lean on your support networks by:
- Accepting offers for help and communicating ways others can support you
- Connecting with other caregivers for advice and a listening ear
- Maintaining a strong relationship with your partner
- Communicating openly with teachers so they can better support the child in the classroom
Not only do support networks supply emotional support, but they can also provide insight into being a better relative caregiver. Some resources your support network can provide include:
- Financial assistance programs to help pay for things like housing, clothing, food, and schooling expenses
- Case management to maintain organization and advocate for your needs
- Tips and guides to help you orient yourself as a new relative caregiver
- Organization of legal, medical, and education-related paperwork
To learn more about how to navigate changes in family dynamics as a relative caregiver, read this Coalition’s tip sheet.
Know Your Rights
Knowing your legal rights as a relative caregiver will help you anticipate how you can best care for the child – and who you need to rely on for help. The type of relative caregiver you are greatly influences your level of rights. Has there been a court order naming you as a caregiver? Is there an informal agreement between you and the child’s parents outside of court?
Once you know what type of relative caregiver you are, some other areas to consider include:
- Are you allowed to approve or deny medical care?
- Are you allowed to approve or deny visitation with a parent?
- Are you required to meet with a case manager, lawyer, or another figure on a regular basis?
- Are you allowed to speak with the child’s school regarding performance, extracurriculars, and designated pick-up or drop-off persons?
- Are you allowed to claim the child as a dependent on your taxes?
If you have questions about your rights, your legal representative or case manager can provide further clarification.
Learn About Acceptable Behavior
Even if you have children of your own, educate yourself on caring for a child in a traumatic situation. Knowing how to communicate and having age-appropriate expectations will help you stick to and adjust your parenting plan as needed.
Here are some areas to read up on:
- Developmental milestones by age (typical and under traumatic circumstances). Every child is different – especially when they are going through a stressful or traumatic event.
- How to help the child process grief and anger. While you are experiencing stress, the child has big emotions to process, too. Help them understand why they feel the way they do using grief processing tactics.
- Why the child may misbehave and how to respond. Every child tests limits and misbehaves. However, some children may act out more frequently due to increased levels of stress or trauma. Staying calm when the child pushes your buttons and responding with compassion and empathy will foster their communication skills and emotional maturity as well as help you begin to understand what’s behind the behaviors and what disciplinary actions may be most effective (link the what’s behind the behavior tip sheet here).
- How to help the child seamlessly assimilate into your family’s routines and dynamics. Even if you are a close family member, your day-to-day routine is different from what the child is used to. Learning ways to help the child feel involved can make them feel supported and loved.
When taking on the role of a caregiver, it is easy to forget to care for yourself. Carving out time for self-care will help you be in the best mindset to care for someone else. Whether you talk to a therapist, meditate, or get your endorphins up with a daily run, prioritizing your mental and physical health is key to being a successful caregiver. Some self-care ideas include:
- Look for signs of caregiver burnout or depression. Jumping headfirst into being a full-time caregiver is a high-stress situation. Reserve time to mentally recharge every day and keep track of your emotions. If you start to notice symptoms of burnout, such as sudden irritability, changes in sleep patterns, or withdrawal from loved ones, talk to a mental health professional or lean on your support systems for help.
- Be sure to communicate with the child about your boundaries and needs. Although it is important to make the child feel comfortable in your home, boundaries should still be in place. Set expectations early on, but feel free to adjust them as you see fit.
- Positive self-affirmations to build confidence. Even if you are a close relative or family friend, the child may not be able to express gratitude for your care and support. They may even lash out or take the frustration out on you. In this situation, positive affirmations can help remind you that what you are doing is important, needed, and valuable. If you are unsure about how you are doing as a relative caregiver, check in with your support networks for advice.
All in all, being a relative caregiver can be stressful but rewarding. Whether or not you expected to take on this responsibility, being prepared, relying on support systems, and remembering to prioritize yourself are imperative to your success. To learn more about being a relative caregiver, explore the Coalition’s lending library of helpful resources.
- Getting Started as a Relative or Kinship Caregiver
- The Changing Role of Caregivers: Grandparents
- The Emotional Journey of Relative Caregiving
Additional Coalition Resource
Training & Resources From Champion Classrooms
- Kids Matter, Inc.
- Phone: (414) 344-1220
- Wisconsin Kinship Navigator Portal
- Wisconsin Kinship Navigator Guide
- Kinship Care Resource Center