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What do children in foster care really need?


In 1943, psychologist Abraham Maslow wrote that humans all have certain needs, and those can be arranged in order of importance. He said that we must have our basic ‘deficiency’ needs met (food, water, safety, love, belonging) before we can meet more advanced ‘growth’ needs like self-esteem, self-actualization, and creativity. We have learned a lot since 1943 and parts of this theory have been changed and refined, but I believe that the premise is still true. All humans have needs, and higher level needs can’t be met until lower level needs are satisfied.

Children enter foster care because their basic needs aren’t being met – either their physiological needs for food, water, and shelter aren’t being met or they are not physically or emotionally safe. When children come into your home for the first time, a good way to introduce yourself and your home is to offer them food or drink and show them around your house, especially their room. It can be helpful to show them the refrigerator and the food inside it. Show them a section of healthy snacks that they will have access to at all times. This will help them realize that their basic need for food will be met and they can be free to be themselves without fear of being hungry. As they are getting used to their new home, allow them the freedom to ask questions and look all around the house. Let them open doors and look in cabinets. This can help them know that where they are living is safe. Without that knowledge, they may lay awake at night wondering what is behind the one door that they didn’t look in or if the cabinets are empty and there won’t be food for breakfast. Thornwell’s foster care family specialists work closely with our families to ensure a smooth transition when a child enters their home.

This is part of what Dr. Karyn Purvis and the TBRI team call ‘felt safety.’ “You provide felt safety when you arrange the environment and adjust your behavior so your children can feel in a profound and basic way that they are truly safe in their home and with you. Until a child experiences safety for his or herself, trust can’t develop, and healing and learning won’t progress” (The Connected Child p48). Trust-Based Relational Intervention (TBRI) recognizes this and emphasizes proper nutrition and hydration before any behavioral problems can be addressed. If a child is hungry or thirsty, they will not be open to connecting with you or hearing teaching from you. Encouraging connection through the freedom to ask questions and explore their environment empowers the child to know that you are a safe person who is providing a safe space for them to live and grow. According to Dr. Purvis, you must empower a child and connect with them before you can begin to correct their behavior.

Felt safety can mean different things to different children. For children who may have been physically safe but neglected or denied access to consistent food and water, food security is most important. For others, physical or emotional safety is more important. Just like it means different things, it can also take different amounts of time for children to feel safe. This can be frustrating for foster parents because we know that our homes are safe places, but it takes some children a long time to adjust to a new environment, and even after they feel safe they have certain triggering events that can make them feel unsafe again.

The principles of TBRI are a big part of our foster parent training. Our family specialists teach these concepts to foster parents to help them understand how a child’s past can affect their present and their future. Training and support are critical to helping foster parents successfully care for children who come from hard places. To learn more about our training, or how you can become a foster parent, contact us below.

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