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The Role of Foster Parents in Promoting Sibling Mental Health

This mental health awareness month at Fostering People, we’re exploring the key role which you as a foster parent can play in helping siblings in foster care to thrive.

May 3 2024 - 4 min read

The Unique Power of Sibling Bonds

Growing up with siblings can be a wonderful experience. In spite of the natural squabbles and arguments which happen as siblings grow up together, the bond which brothers and sisters share is like no other. There are many mental health benefits when sibling groups are able to stay together while in foster care. Most children adjust to their new living arrangements more easily when their loved ones are close by and they know that they are safe. Siblings in foster care can lean on one another for strength and support during what is oftentimes a difficult time.

If children are able to stay together, they can continue to share experiences with one another and build strong bonds throughout their childhood. Studies have shown that maintaining strong sibling bonds into adulthood can lead to better mental health outcomes throughout a person’s life. Here at Fostering People, we do our best to keep fostered siblings together wherever possible.

The impact of sibling separation

Whether living together or apart, being able to spend time with their siblings is very important to most foster experienced children. Sadly, it is extremely common for siblings to be separated when they enter the fostering service. Unfortunately, almost 40% of children in foster care in the UK are separated from their siblings while in foster care, mostly due to a lack of fostering families who are able to welcome two or more children into their homes.

Separation can be traumatic, and it particularly effects large sibling groups and older children who may be living in supported accommodation rather than with a fostering family. Siblings who are unable to stay together are less likely to settle into their new home and are more likely to act out their frustrations through adverse behaviours. Separated siblings may also find that their relationship suffers long term damage. Children who are separated may be left feeling like strangers to one another.

Supporting the mental health of siblings who live together

One of the most rewarding things you can do in your role as a foster parent is to provide a loving home for a sibling group. Let’s explore some ways in which you can best support the mental health needs of all of the children in your care.

Establish boundaries.

When a pair or group of siblings first comes to live with you, you may find that they seem to be inseparable. While closeness between siblings is a wonderful thing, some children who have lived through adverse childhood experiences may develop trauma bonds with one another. These can manifest in many ways, such as impacting a child’s ability to concentrate and maintain healthy relationships. Often looked after siblings have only ever had one another to rely upon, and may become distressed when expected to do things separately which they are not used to, such as sleeping in different beds. You may find that their emotions seem entangled, and that if one sibling becomes upset, so does the other.

It’s important that clear boundaries are put in place so that children are able to recognise their own individuality and autonomy. You can help siblings who seem overly reliant upon one another by gradually increasing the amount of time they spend apart. You can also help by helping them to learn more about themselves as individuals by encouraging them to try out new interests and hobbies of their own. Spend time with each of your foster children to get to know their unique qualities, and encourage them to pursue their passions and celebrate their individuality.

It is also important that foster carers don’t just assume that each fostered sibling has the same memories and feelings about their life before coming to live with you, or that they need the same kind of support for what they’ve experienced. Some children may have fond memories of home, whereas their siblings may have had a very different experience. Even children who have experienced the same adverse childhood experience can react to these events in very different ways. You can find more information on how to help children effected by trauma here.

Take the lead.

Parentification is a psychological term which describes the impact on a child when they are expected to take on the role of a caregiver. Some children may have come from a home where they were expected to behave like an adult, parenting their siblings and perhaps take care of household duties such as cleaning and cooking. Sibling-focused parentification is especially common among elder siblings, though even younger children can find themselves taking on a parental role.

Because of the nurturing role they have played in their younger sibling’s lives, many older children are extremely protective of their siblings and struggle to trust that their new foster parent knows what’s best for them. They may be very insistent upon their own independence and may be defensive if you attempt to discipline their siblings. It can take time and patience for the young person in your care to learn how to be a child again. You can help them by commending their devotion and love for their siblings, while establishing boundaries around who serves what role in your fostering family. Teach your foster child through consistent and fair parenting that they can rely on you to be the parental figure whose care and attention they and their siblings need.

By being informed of the dynamics which may arise when fostering sibling groups, you’ll be in the best position to help the children in your care to have a safe and healthy future. If you feel that your foster children need additional support with any aspect of their mental health, get in touch with your social worker here at Fostering People. We offer special therapeutic training to our foster parents.

Supporting the mental health of siblings who live apart

Children who are unable to stay with their siblings may deal with difficult emotions including loneliness, anxiety and resentment. Let’s look at some ways in which you can help support the mental health of your foster child if they are unable to live in the same home as their siblings.

Support contact between siblings.

One of the best ways in which you can look out for your foster child’s mental health is by doing all that you can to ensure that they are able to spend quality time with their brothers and sisters, even if they live in separate homes. Each child must have a contact plan which is tailored to their needs and regularly reviewed, and it is the responsibility of everyone involved in a sibling group’s care to ensure that they are able to maintain good contact with one another wherever possible.

Arranging for siblings to be able to get together and enjoy the family time they need can be a challenge. Perhaps your foster child’s siblings live a distance away, meaning that time spent together as a family is less frequent. Your foster child may also come from a large family with some siblings living at home and others living with different foster families, making it difficult for everyone to match up their schedules for a meet-up.

Being flexible in your schedule and building strong working relationships with the siblings’ foster parents can make a huge difference in your ability to provide your foster children with good-quality family time. Here at Fostering People we hold regular family events throughout the year which include days out to theme parks, picnics and a whole host of other activities. These are a great way of getting everyone together.

In some circumstances, it's decided after careful consideration that it is not in the best interests of fostered siblings to live in the same house. This might be for reasons such as if one child has complex care needs, or if one sibling poses a risk to another. In these instances, as always, it is important to carefully follow your child’s contact plan.

On rare occasions, your foster child may decide that they no longer wish to be in contact with a sibling. If they express this need, talk with your supervising social worker to review your contact plan and find the best solution for everyone involved.

Bridge the gap between visits.

Being separated from siblings can be damaging to a child’s sense of belonging and may have an adverse effect on their mental health. Not being able to be with a loved one and not knowing if they are happy or safe can be extremely distressing. Elder children in particular can become very frustrated, as they often see it as their responsibility to care for their younger siblings.

You may find that your foster child’s mood is negatively impacted after a visit, when the reminder of their separation from their sibling is at its most raw. Encourage your foster child to talk with you about their feelings. You can help to ease your foster child’s anxiety around separation outside of visits by making their siblings a daily part of their life, even when they can’t physically be with them. You might suggest making gifts to share with their siblings on their next visit, such as a card or art project. Phone calls and video calls can be a great way to keep in touch, and there are other methods of keeping up contact such as playing online video games together. Talk with your social worker about whether these methods might be suitable.

Looking after the mental health of young people is one of the many important roles and responsibilities of foster parents. By paying special attention to nurturing the relationship between your foster child and their siblings, you can help them to build and maintain an irreplaceable relationship which can last a lifetime and whether any storm.

If you feel that you are in a position to be able to provide a loving environment for more than one child, the team here at Fostering People would love to talk to you about the ways in which you could help keep siblings together by providing them with a loving home. You can learn more about the role of a foster parent here.