I grew up in a home with an older sister and with cousins next door - who were really my brothers and sisters. It feels like I come from a big family of kids, though biologically there are only two of us. I think a lot about sibling connection and relationships and the ways in which those are lost and found for kids in foster care.
It has always been our goal to help Mr. Toddler and Tiny forge a stronger relationship with their older brother and sister. There's no real roadmap in foster parent classes that lays out the best way to navigate this. Sibling visits aren't mandated where we live and if we want them to happen outside of visits with Mom, then it's up to us. In trying to protect everyone's privacy, and for the sake of context, I'll say that Tiny never lived with any of his siblings before moving in with us. He was born after the older three were removed and placed with us. All of this took place over a year ago. Tiny has since grown up in a home with just Mr. Toddler. All four of these kiddos have contact once a month at visits with their birth mom, which tend to be chaotic/overwhelming and dysregulating for all involved.
That said, this is not so much a post about our boys and their siblings as much as it is about our thoughts on how we try to forge sibling connection and love for kiddos in care.
1. The Ideal Scenario
In an ideal world, Tiny and Mr. T's older siblings would have a fully invested, nurturing caregiver who would be their secure attachment base. Someone who could help them develop a sense of security and help them feel tethered in their otherwise chaotic and confusing world. In reality, they have a foster mom who is around a Grandma's age, who has been a foster parent for decades and has admitted feeling very done with fostering.
Where to begin.
So that is the backdrop to our family story here. We are fully invested in our boys and their siblings. So one of the first pieces the Artist and I really thought through navigating was about setting up visits outside the once monthly visitation room. We also wanted to be mindful to not overwhelm the kids and confuse them or leave them feeling more alone after their time with us.
We've talked about this before but I want to drive it home here - we take our kids to required appointments on the regular: visits, court, medical, social workers, meetings with the attorney. Whatever it may be - I want to be the one there helping my kids navigate whatever's going on. I wish to be there in the moment to help answer questions and at least in the aftermath be able to help make sense of what transpired or be able to create a narrative that does not feel so confusing or muddled. It's hard to not know what happened precisely when you have a kiddo returning to your home after something upsetting. It's easier to help and prepare for the next round when you know because you were there.
So our first concern in bringing the older two kids over to our house really boiled down to the fact that they would not have any familiar adults here for them to check-in with. We would likely come across as being more connected or attuned to our kids, and I worried they would feel left out or worse, lonely. We are with Tiny and Mr. T day in and day out. We know their routines, favorite games and subtle mood shifts. And the challenge here is that during previous visits the siblings do not connect or really engage with one another. They orbit in separate zones and do not overlap much. We were worried that older brother and sister would come over and feel out of place as they did not connect immediately with one another at this point. We did not want to leave the other two kids feeling on the outs.
So in my ideal world?
The older two would have caregivers that were loving, secure, attentive and would help them if anything felt overwhelming or hard - the same way we would help our kids. That we would all get together and have a happy reunion where everyone has adults, a safe home to return to and the focus is just on helping the kids hang out and connect. The real world, though, is two Mamas and four kids. While they were at our house the older brother was so clingy and desperate to be carried around like I do with Tiny. I could not put him down. Nuzzling into my neck and clinging onto me, whimpering when I put him down. For maybe a half hour he asked me to sit while he just clung onto my neck like a baby Koala. I tried to redirect him, I tried put him down, distract with toys/food/anything. He was not having it. A few times Mr. Toddler just walked up and stared at us while I tried to narrate, "your brother is sleepy and likes snuggles too", "I wonder if your brother feels a little unsure being somewhere and maybe he's feeling shy, what do you think?" Mr. T has historically gotten jealous and upset when we are connecting with other kiddos, I was aware of how confusing this must feel to him. His older brother holding onto me like his baby brother. The older sister wandered around the house a bit ghostlike for the first hour or so, barely talking and not engaging with the other kids much. And all this happening without an adult to help them with this anxiety or the weirdness of being with people you don't know. I'll also add that the oldest sister was a bit weirded out about our being gay, and attends church regularly and has gotten some not-so-helpful messages about same sex relationships, but I'll save how we managed that for another time. Tough stuff.
The siblings foster mom would not drive them to our home for the visit, so we were happy to drive the kiddos both ways. Gave me some time to connect with them and help them learn little things like our names and prepare for what we might be doing together.
2. Structure, structure, structure.
Broken record with this, I get it. For the visit we set up stations around the house so the kids could be doing things together without needing to really negotiate rules or work out rules for games to play together. Within this group we have some cognitive challenges, behavior challenges and a baby. To help it feel as successful as possible we had the train table set up, the under-the-stairs fort set up so there was a quiet den area to read or look at books, the kiddie pool filled with pillows, Yogibos and puffy bedding with the slide for gross motor play. We tried to have a mix of things; exciting stuff, quiet stuff, and fun (hopefully fun) stuff. We wanted to be purposeful in trying to help everybody feel connected and part of the play. And the kids really just did circuits around the house going from station to station playing mostly together, sometimes solo. During monthly visits there is minimal interaction between the kids, With other kiddos we've fostered, I've been at some visits where kids connect easily and excitedly. Not so much here, they act as if they are alone in the room, each one selecting a corner and keeping to themselves. There's a lot of trauma-bond, neglect and other complications at work here. That's what we are trying to shift - learning how to play together is the real hope of this time together. And our hope was to set up areas where everyone can just play. All together. If I were to try to put into words the greatest hope I have for kiddos living in our home it would be to help them learn to play. Play is lost when you're fearful, confused or alone. Playfulness is one of the most genuine experiences of childhood, and one we often take for granted - assuming all kids get to have it. Most kiddos I know in foster care have to learn to play again as their development has been so based around safety and survival, playful curiosity and laughter has taken a backseat to more necessary tasks. So the sibling relationship here is one based on survival and the levity and laughter and playfulness is on the light side. We want to help that heal.
As time went on, after about a half-hour or so I'd say, it was really amazing. The oldest sister held Tiny for the first time in her life, she tried to carry him and spoke softly him, and tried to feed him a hundred grapes (!). But was so sweet and engaged when I showed her how to carry him, and then we praised her like crazy for how hard she was working at caring for him and how into it Tiny was. It was so incredibly sweet. When I dropped her off at the end of the day she very quietly asked me if I could send pictures to her of "my day with you guys." I told her absolutely we could.
My heart was just so full, y'all.
The older brother played trains with Mr. Toddler for awhile and they needed some help "taking turns" and using "gentle hands" but they were great. I have so many pictures of these moments I want framed and plastered around our house. We ate, went crazy in the "snuggle pool" as the kids called it and then did some Christmas gifts before we had to separate and head home. I picked up pajamas of the Spiderman and Disney Princess variety along with other toys and you would think I gave them the gift of the Sun and Moon. It was sweet to see them so happy and Mr. Toddler so into them being happy.
3. Don't start what you can't keep-on with.
Our hope is that we can do this once a month in addition to their other monthly visit. We wanted to start visits when we knew there would be a reliable or regular schedule - that no matter what, we could be responsible for transport, have our family schedule open and no work related travel and the kids could count on us. So all told, we will have half of the weeks of the month having visit days and half without. We are looking to build a schedule that's the same date every month so that everyone knows what to expect. I'm hopeful that the kiddos will find a good pre-adoptive home soon so they have adults they are connecting to and we can figure out how to do even more often, all together. The Artist and I have talked about trying to figure out how to do brother and sister dates with just Mr. Toddler and his older brother or sister, or Tiny and his sister to help everybody create memories and more importantly have time together. We have a few potential dates lined up and I cannot even tell you how excited I am to have a girl around. I mean, I love (*loathe*) playing trucks as much as the next guy, but tea parties and lunches at the American Girl Cafe are more my jam.
And this is how we are headed off into the New Year. Moving along with new hopes, new plans and in some ways it feels like a new chance at a big, beautiful family.
Heartfelt wishes for a season of love and hope.
-Foster Mom (the Therapist)