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While-you-wait support groups for parents

Group of women talking in support group
Group of women talking in support group.

The process of becoming a foster or adoptive parent can be stressful. And it’s often the wait between being licensed and placement that parents report is the most difficult to manage. Often, waiting parents think, “I keep hearing about all these children who need a family. Why is it taking so long for me to have a child in my home?”

While-you-wait support groups can make the wait seem shorter and can keep families from giving up. They can also help parents build their skills and thus result in better outcomes for children and families.

As a group leader, you can host groups specifically for waiting parents or invite prospective parents to join your ongoing parent support group. Attending a group with peers helps prospective parents embrace the idea of ongoing support and see its benefits once they are parenting. Below are some ideas for how support groups can successfully retain, prepare, and support families who don’t yet have a placement.

Create a space for ongoing support networks to develop

Shared experiences, especially those that are difficult, often lead to long-lasting relationships. Knowing that the support of other foster and adoptive parents is a key factor in sustaining committed family relationships, group leaders should use the while-you-wait group to encourage participants to form deeper relationships. These are a few ways to accomplish this.

Create a buddy system

This can encourage participants to interact outside the group. You could match families by location, family make-up, or interests.

Use icebreakers and other activities at each meeting

Learning about each other will help participants feel comfortable interacting. Having these activities at each meeting will help ensure newer participants don’t feel like outsiders in the group, and will encourage existing members to continue to learn new things about each other.

Laugh during every group meeting and take time to celebrate accomplishments

Keep things light even when—perhaps especially when—the discussions have been hard.

This is also a time for you as the group leader to help prospective families understand that their existing support network will likely need to expand. Identifying family, friends, neighbors and cultural guides who may be able to provide support to the new family will be essential to a family’s success. Help participants understand that they must have open and honest conversations with their identified supporters in advance, ensuring that they really are onboard with helping and what that might look like.

You can further prepare participants by helping them build the skills of their support network. One activity that can be very effective for increasing understanding among families and friends is to invite them to hear from a panel of experienced foster and adoptive parents about what their lives are like.

Help prospective parents identify resources they will need

Prospective parents don’t always know what resources will be most helpful to them when they do eventually have a child in their home. Help them compile a comprehensive list of community resources now so that they have them when they need them.

Local medical and mental health clinicians or other providers

Help parents identify providers who understand the complexities of parenting children who have experienced trauma, loss, transitions, and other issues facing children in foster care. For example, you and your members could work to compile a list of all the adoption- and permanency-competent therapists in your area.

Educational supports

Prospective parents will need help navigating the school system, understanding the special education and individualized educational plan processes, and developing strategies to ensure that their future child’s educational needs are met.

Child care services

This can include respite care and informal arrangements.

Crisis management

Information about what to do in a crisis and how to access crisis intervention services.

Advocacy guidance

Prospective parents will need to learn how to advocate for their child in various systems that can be difficult to navigate, including the court system, the school system, the medical system, and the child welfare system itself. Invite experienced parents to share how they advocated for their children.

Cultural competency tools and resources

For white parents who raise Black, Latinx, Asian, and indigenous children, there is even more to learn. This period before placement is an ideal time for prospective parents to immerse themselves in what it would mean to parent transracially. As a group leader, you can help parents gain a deeper understanding on race, culture, identity formation, and maintaining an anti-racist stance in several ways:

  • Host discussions about racial identity, racism, and transracial placements. Navigating this complex conversation as a group leader can be challenging. We recommend using a discussion guide to help keep your discussion on the right track and to rely on group agreements to allow all of your participants to feel safe discussing difficult topics.
  • Invite experienced transracial parents and adult transracial adoptees to share their stories and answer questions. Note: those with lived experience are not obligated to share any part of their story that they do not want to share. Ensure that it’s clear from your invitation that they can say “no,” or that they could share in another way in which they could remain anonymous.
  • Have all members review the same transracial parenting resources. Read books like I’m Chocolate, You’re Vanilla by Marguerite A. White, or Growing Up Black in White by Kevin Hofmann, and then lead a discussion of the resource during your group session.
  • Help members explore how homogeneous or diverse their social circles are. Try this activity from transracial adoptee JaeRan Kim, “What does your world look like?” Exercises like this one will help prospective parents understand what a child of a different race may experience in their family and which areas of their social circles they need to diversify.

You can find more on transracial fostering and adopting in the AdoptUSKids’ article “Seven Suggestions for a Successful Transracial Adoption.”

Provide ongoing opportunities for prospective parents to develop and evaluate their parenting capacities

The fit between what a child needs and what a prospective parent can provide is another key factor in successful placements. This idea of fit relates not just to parenting strategies and skills, but also to personality, values, interests, and more. Use this time in your group to help families think more deeply about what needs they can meet and where they should develop additional skills and understandings.

Invite guest speakers to talk about the qualities of successful adoptive families

Experienced families, adopted youth and young adults, adoption-competent mental health providers, and well-respected workers can help prospective parents understand what knowledge, skills, and beliefs they have or need to develop. Include families whose ideas about what challenges, behaviors, and ages of children they were open to changed over time and with additional learning and resources.

Provide training on topics relevant to foster and adoptive parents

This can include sessions—or even a curriculum—on topics such as attachment and bonding; the impact of trauma on children’s behavior; fetal alcohol spectrum disorders and other substance-related brain injuries; loss and grief for both children and their families; and effective parenting strategies.

Providing training opportunities helps to communicate to prospective parents that they are never done learning about caring for fostered or adopted children. AdoptUSKids offers discussion guides on many topics that may help you, or you could invite experts to your group to train on topics of interest to all your participants. If cost of the trainer or a curriculum is a barrier, learn more about fundraising for your support group.

Host a session or two on exploring the seven core issues in adoption

Talk with participants about how well they understand each issue and how their understanding has evolved since they first became interested in fostering or adopting. During these discussions, help them to see in what areas they need to develop further, and model that they are never done learning as foster or adoptive parents.

Facilitate a discussion about how things change as children age

Help participants understand how trauma may manifest at each developmental stage, and how trauma and loss may cause children to act older or younger than their chronological age. This could include participants reading the article, “Retrace Developmental Stages to Help Older Children Heal” on the NACAC website and facilitating a discussion around its key points.

Help families embrace a new kind of normal through group discussions

New foster and adoptive families can be blindsided by the very different life they lead once a child joins their family. Children who have had many transitions and losses in their lives have unique ways of developing trust, attachment, and family membership. Help parents prepare by hosting sessions on materials that identify what is normal for foster and adoptive families to experience.

Consider starting with the book Wounded Children, Healing Homes. A book discussion guide is available from the North American Council on Adoptable Children.

Watch and discuss The Difference Between Being Safe and Feeling Safe. The video was developed by the National Childhood Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN). You could ask:

  • Have you had experiences where what you felt was very different from what those around you were feeling? How did that affect you? How can you use those experiences to better support a child new to your home?
  • What are some of the strategies you can try to ensure that the child(ren) who joins your family can truly feel safe?

Read the article “Inducement: Adoption Language We Must Understand.” A discussion about this article could help prepare waiting families for the shift in behaviors and family dynamics as children begin getting close while simultaneously fearing that closeness. Address the following questions in your follow-up conversation:

  • Have you had inducement experiences similar to what Maris describes in the scenario about coming home from a terrible day at work? What were your feelings when you were the one with the terrible day? When it was a partner or colleague who took their day out on you?
  • Can you identify with those feelings of loss, abandonment, and self-preservation or survival that children express in the inducement phase?
  • Can we identify some strategies that can help both parents and children move through inducement to a greater level of felt safety?

Not unlike that period of preparation during the nine months of pregnancy, the waiting period after preservice training and licensure can be one of excitement, preparation, and hopeful possibilities. A while-you-wait support group or participating in an ongoing parent group offers prospective parents a place and a space to experience all of those feelings and truly dive into getting ready for their family to grow. As group leaders, let’s welcome prospective parents with open arms!