It goes by many different names: co-parenting, shared parenting, partnership parenting. Whatever it’s called where you are fostering, one of your tasks is to figure out how to co-parent with your foster child’s birth parents. A crucial role of foster parenting is to share the nurturing of a foster child with the birth parents and the child’s caseworker. We know it’s not an easy task. Many big emotions are going around in the early days of a new placement – for you, for the birth parents, and of course, for the child. Your job is to help level out the tensions and be a calm, stable presence for the child and his parents.
Ten Ways to Set Yourself Up for Success in Co-Parenting
Whether you are new to fostering or new to the question of how to co-parent, there are several things you can try to can help you and the birth parents get off on the right foot and stay on track while their child is in your care.
1. Lead with compassion.
You are meeting these parents in the middle of likely the lowest point of their life. Try to lead into this new relationship with compassion and humility. We are all human and fail our kids. These parents failed their kids with much more public consequences than most of us face in our failures. Your foster child’s birth parents are likely to feel fear, confusion, anger, shame, and so much more. Be gentle with their pain.
2. Lower your expectations.
Try to identify what expectations you might be holding for this relationship. Then lower them as much as you can manage. It’s important to remember that with co-parenting, your primary task is to support the family toward stability and reunification. Your feelings and plans for this child cannot get in the way of that. Many foster parents need to do some soul searching about the stereotypes or preconceived ideas they hold of birth families who have lost kids to the system. For the sake of this family’s success, keep lowering your expectations as you identify them – your standards are not the priority here.
3. Reassure the birth parents of your role as co-parent.
As you establish a connection with your foster child’s birth parents, try to reassure them that you are in their lives to support them AND their child. While the goal for this family is reunification, make sure they know that your plan is not to adopt their child but to give them a safe space to get back on their feet and parent again.
4. Help them get a sense of their child’s new space.
With permission from your caseworker, you can tremendously ease a birth parent’s anxiety by showing them how their child is living. If you cannot give specifics, share pictures of the child’s room, your family’s backyard play space, or the local playground. If you don’t have to be careful about specific locations, take photos of the child’s classroom or soccer club. Getting candid shots of their child having fun and feeling safe will also help settle their worries.
5. Don’t take it personally!
We all say and do things we regret when we are in profound pain. We know it’s easier said than done but try to remember that this birth parent is experiencing the worst season of her life. Try to remain calm during your visits and conversations. Consider how you can be a stable, safe presence for the birth parents and the child even in challenging interactions. Give grace liberally for harsh words, big emotions, and misinformation in the heat of the moment.
6. Go the extra mile for the birth parents.
Sometimes, you will need to do more than you think you should for this birth parent and child. It might mean driving more than halfway for a visit (again!). You may give out your parenting books without the expectation of getting them back. Your schedule might get upended or rescheduled frequently. Sometimes, it might mean smoothing over awkward moments in visits or facilitating hard conversations with his child. In these trying moments, try to remember WHY you chose to foster. More importantly, look into the eyes of that precious child and do it for him.
7. Language matters!
When you are talking with a birth parent, always refer to your foster child as her child. Choose your words carefully to emphasize your role as a support and partner in the efforts toward reunification. In early meetings, gather the necessary information and, at the same time, establish her role as the primary parent by asking her about her child. Inquire about her child’s likes, dislikes, habits, bedtime routines, favorite stories, and fears. You will ease her mind about your ability to care for her child and subtly remind her that she is the “expert” on her child.
As the relationship between you grows, find new ways to position her as the primary parent by bringing her into discussions about his schoolwork, hobbies, and activities in the community that he might want to try.
8. Treat birth parents with dignity and respect.
Remember that these are hurting humans who made the worst kind of mistake they could make – and they are paying for it dearly. Again, we all have the capacity for failure, and we all deserve to be treated with decency, care, and respect when we do fail. As the old saying goes, “there but for the grace of God go I.”
9. Keep the birth parents in the loop.
With your caseworker’s permission, try to send your foster child’s drawings, schoolwork, craft projects, and so on to her parents. Tell stories at visitations of the funny things the child has said or new skills the child is learning. If allowed, share the child’s sports schedule or school concert dates. When the child has a success story, ask the birth parents to Facetime so their child can tell them all about it.
10. Communication is the key to success in co-parenting.
Plan your visits or methods of communication with birth parents. Make sure it’s as easy as possible for them to be successful for the sake of their relationship with their child. Some foster families have a designated cell phone just for birth parents to use. Others use Facebook groups or messaging. Whatever type of communication is allowed between you and the child’s family, keep at it. Some creative ways to support the communication of co-parenting include:
- Reading a book together over Facetime
- Meeting at the park for swings and ice cream
- Sending recorded voice messages and silly songs by phone
- Playing board or card games at a supervised visit
- Sending colored pictures by mail
Regardless of the method of communication you choose, remember that facilitating communication between you, your foster child, and his birth parents gives them space to keep building their relationship.
There is No Magic Formula for Co-Parenting
These ten tips are not a magic formula for the perfect co-parenting relationship. Nor are they one-time tasks you check off your foster parent checklist. Instead, use them as tools to help you lay the groundwork for the best relationship with this birth parent that you can create. Give yourself grace and patience as you learn how to relate with these birth parents. And remember, each foster placement will potentially bring new challenges and new opportunities to support a family who needs your commitment to their success.