One of the primary goals of being a foster parent is to provide a safe and nurturing home and help a child prepare to go back home. Reunification is an exciting time and is often the culmination of many people working very hard for the sake of a child. It can be heart-filling and joyous to watch a child that you have cared for and nurtured be able to reunify with his family. At the same time, as a foster parent, it’s common to feel anxious about reunification, even if you know in your heart it is what is best for the child.
Feeling anxious about the plan for the child in your care to reunify with her birth family can be the result of several things. Maybe you are concerned that it is not the right time for reunification to occur. After all, the changes that people have to make are often big ones and it can seem that the process is moving too fast. Sometimes, due to confidentiality, foster parents may not get all the information about a birth parent’s progress and that can be scary. When people don’t know all of the facts, they tend to make up the worst possible scenario.
Or perhaps you are anxious because you know you will grieve the loss of that child and you aren’t quite sure how to care for yourself. Grieving is ok and, in fact, is common when a child leaves your home. Grief and loss can be tough to go through for anyone. And, it is important to note everyone’s grieving process is different and there are no timelines assigned to grief.
You may also be worried about how the other children in your care – whether they are birth children, children who you have adopted, or other children you provide foster care for – will react when this child returns to her birth home. This could vary for children, as it does for adults. Not only do children lack certain brain development to assist in grief and loss, depending on their past, the process may bring up old wounds for them, too.
No matter where the anxiety you are feeling comes from, it can make day-to-day parenting more challenging when you are trying to navigate through these complex emotions. Kelly, a foster parent of six years, shared how she copes with feelings of anxiety: “Personally, I manage my anxiety by reminding myself that there is nothing I can do about it right now and try to refocus on something that I can do. Some days I have to repeat this every minute.” Some other techniques that may be helpful are focused breathing, meditation, exercise, or talking to a close friend or a therapist.
It can be helpful to remind yourself that you aren’t the only one feeling anxious about reunification; it may be that the child in your care may be feeling nervous about returning to her birth parent(s) full time. Even if she truly wishes to return to her birth home, she may also be feeling uneasy and uncertain about the move. And the child’s birth parent(s) may also be feeling anxious about the reunification, as well. They may wonder if they truly are ready to return to the role of full-time parent and they may have lingering fears that, should everything not turn out perfectly, their child will be removed once again.
Abby, a foster parent in Wisconsin, shared how she helps ease the anxiety of the children she cares for: “I try to validate their feelings. I also refocus them on the moment and what we know will happen,” she explained. She also said, “I advocate for them by sharing their concerns and behaviors with the other adults involved in their case.” Even if the child doesn’t know that you are advocating on her behalf, you will be helping all of the children in your care get the services they need which could, in turn, help with any anxiety they may be feeling.
Though it can feel like a cloud following you around, reunification anxiety is a normal and common feeling – and you can work through it. You might find comfort in talking with other foster parents or your worker. You can also call us and speak with a Resource Specialist when you need someone to listen to your worries and concerns. You may also find comfort in reminding yourself that everyone is working for the common goal of what’s best for the child. Saying goodbye to a child who you have come to care about and love will never be an easy task; however, knowing that, together with the case workers and the birth parent(s), you have helped achieve was is the best outcome for that child can maybe lessen those feelings of loss and sadness. Finding ways to work through your feelings of anxiety will help you refocus on enjoying the time you spend with the child in your care; and those everyday moments are powerful, important, and meaningful for you both.