By Douglas Waite, MD, FAAP and Anu Partap, MD, MPH, FAAP
Children and youth in foster care have often survived a lifetime of uncertainty and change, both before entering foster care and during foster care. For these children, changes like
physical distancing during
COVID-19, can trigger traumatic memories or symptoms.
Specific concerns for children in foster care
During the coronavirus pandemic, caring for children in foster care can be even more challenging than the usual day-to-day care given by parents, foster and kinship caregivers, and child welfare professionals. Many of these children have experienced adversity and trauma, leaving them more vulnerable to the changes that come with school closings, lack of daily contact with friends and mentors, and other forms of social distancing.
Here are some ways you can help your child through this difficult time.
Stay connected. Social distancing can re-awaken feelings of loneliness and isolation that many children in foster care have experienced. They may be afraid of being separated from parents, foster parents, and other family members. Help your child feel connected, even if virtually, through video calls or texts with parents, siblings, other relatives, friends, child welfare workers, and other advocates.
Note: While media time limits are still important, it's understandable that under these stressful circumstances, kids' screen time may increase. Do the best you can to prevent technology use from replacing time needed for sleep, physical activity, reading, or family connection. Creating a Family Media Plan can help.
Have routines. Daily routines help children feel safe and secure. Create a daily schedule that includes:
Reassure them. Limit what your children see and hear on the news about the pandemic. Talk about the situation in a way that your child can understand. Remind them staying home is the best way to keep everyone safe.
Watch for regression. If your child starts to regress, or act like a younger child, this may be their way of coping with stress. Help your child feel safe and secure by reassuring them that the pandemic will pass. Help them look forward to the day they can return to their favorite activities like going to school and playing outside with their friends.
Seek extra help if needed. If your child shows signs of serious emotional or behavioral problems (such as excessive worry or anxiety, increased aggression, disruptive regressive behaviors, or self-harm), professional help may be needed. Many mental health providers are doing virtual visits by phone or video. You can also reach out to your foster care agency for help and support.
Have a back-up plan. Have a plan in place for who will take care of your child in the event of illness, quarantine, or isolation. Explain the plan in simple terms your child will understand. Be sure to also communicate with your foster care agency to make sure the designated back-ups are able to serve in that emergency role.
Ensure safety and security. An increase in family stress and isolation places children at risk for child abuse and exposure to violence and parental substance use. Stay in touch with supportive friends and family and keep 24-hour hotline numbers available to reach out if you need help or support. Check with your agency, pediatrician, or friends for local hotlines.
Maintain family connections. Family visits help families stay connected and contribute to child and parent well-being, especially during times of crisis. Your child welfare worker will reach out to you and your child's parents to talk about the best way to continue these visits during the pandemic. While in-person visits are preferred, they may not always be possible right now. Check with your child welfare agency or guardian ad litem to select safe, approved options such as video visits. If video calls are allowed, they should be monitored as if they were in-person visitations.
If family visits are not possible during the pandemic, reach out to other foster parents, child welfare advocates or your pediatrician for other ways families can engage. Talk to your child about why visits are not possible right now. Be the supportive, caring adult you have always been for your child or the child in your foster home. Your empathy will help your child feel safe, secure, and positive about the present and the future.
Take care of yourself. It is normal and expected for you to feel stressed. Reach out to friends, replace activities you've lost with new ones, and celebrate even small successes each day. Remember, what is good for your well-being will help relieve the stress of your children who recognize when you feel stress and worry about you. The care you are providing each day will last a lifetime.