Hi! It’s Tiffany here, creator of In the Write. As many of you know, I am a former foster kid and one of my many passions is bringing awareness to the American foster care epidemic. I spent nearly three years in foster care between the ages of 8-11. Despite every family’s unique situation, my foster care story is far from uncommon in the United States. Right now, there are nearly 433,000 children in foster care. Many of these kids will spend at least two years in foster care and thousands will go unadopted.
Over the years, I have talked with multiple foster youth and I am always shocked at how similar our experiences in care were, despite the drastic differences in our stories. One of the things that we all have been subject to are the ignorant and inappropriate comments and questions we are asked when people learn that we were foster youth. Most times, people don’t know they shouldn’t ask these questions or make these statements. So, I made a list of some of the most common phrases I have been asked and told, on what not to say to a foster kid.
- “You should be on Oprah.”
This is one of the most popular comments I get when someone learns I was in foster care. It usually follows me uncomfortably explaining personal family matters that I was prodded about. Although it may be awkward for you the first time you hear a foster kid’s story, just know that it is likely way more uncomfortable for them, than you. Although your intentions may have been good, it’s better to stay away from phrases like this when talking to anyone who has spent time in foster care.
- “Why are/were you in foster care?”
This question can be asked if you have known the person for a while, but I often got this question when I was in elementary and middle school. At the time, I just didn’t want to talk about it, and in my mind, I was always thinking, “This really isn’t any of your business.” You have to consider that it may be embarrassing or painful for them to talk about, especially to someone they don’t know well. If they want to talk to you, they will. If and when they feel ready.
- “Did your parents die in a car accident?”
This usually follows the “Why are you in foster care” question. A major misconception is that most kids who enter foster care are there because of their parents’ deaths. Although this is the case for a minority of children, most youth placed in care have been subject to abuse or neglect. Many foster kids don’t even know both their parents, so this question will just make them uncomfortable or bring up unpleasant memories. (And in the rare case that their parents did both die in a car crash, this probably isn’t the best way to ask.)
- “Don’t worry, you’ll be going home soon.”
I only ever was told this by friends in elementary school, which is understandable, but a lot of other kids have been told this too. Normally it comes from someone outside the family or foster family who doesn’t really understand the situation, and this phrase can fill a child with false hope. Although the goal of the foster care system is to reunite the child with their family, many kids either will age out of the system or be adopted.
- “Why do you call your parents by their first names?”
After I was adopted, I was asked this question ALL THE TIME at school and whenever we left the house. The first year or so after my adoption, I still called my adoptive parents by their first names and to outsiders this seemed as if I were disrespecting my parents. In reality I was simply calling them what I always had. I would normally answer people as best I could without going into the long story of my adoption, just so they wouldn’t ask any more questions. Unfortunately to many people, this was an invitation for further up questions. So many kids today have adoptive, foster, or stepparents, so if they are calling them by their first names, just leave them be. What children call their parents is up to that family, not strangers making assumptions.
- “Your life is just like a movie!”
This probably sounded good in your head, but for me this phrase is overused. Many of my close friends have said this to me after I first talked to them about my time in foster care. Although their intentions were good, this comment just isn’t. We have already experienced a lot of isolation and rude comments and most of us probably don’t think our family’s pain and heartbreak needs to be gawked at on TV.
- “Don’t you hate your birth parents?”
Yes, many of us are in care due to our parents’ mistakes, but that doesn’t mean every kid is. Many parents of foster kids were in foster care and never properly learned to care for themselves, let alone a child. Some parents struggle with mental illnesses that they have no control over. This doesn’t mean that they aren’t at fault, but it just isn’t your place to be asking a child something like this. Many kids will be reunified with their parents too, so this statement just fills an already confused person with more confusing thoughts.
- “I feel so sorry for you.”
“No, it’s okay! I’m good, really.” That’s normally how I respond to this statement. This comment always comes from a good place, but it is still a tricky statement. “I feel so sorry for you” and “I am sorry you had to go through that” are two different things. But I would recommend that if you are talking to a foster or former foster youth to simply stay away from the “I’m sorry” statements. It’s not your fault for whatever happened, so no need to apologize. And pity never feels nice. Instead, say something like, “I’m always here if you want to talk about it,” or a simple, “I’m glad you are in a better place” will be a lot better.
BONUS PHRASE FOR ADOPTED FOSTER KIDS:
- “There is no way those are your parents!”
I cannot even fathom the number of times my family and I have been told this. A lot of former foster kids get this comment because they don’t “match” their parents. Or sometimes the adoptive parents are young, like in my case, and don’t seem old enough to have kids my age. But this aside, this statement should not be condoned. I have gotten this when I am out in public with my parents from complete strangers. The worst part is, when I repeatedly tell them, “Yes, they are my parents,” they continue to ask inappropriate questions or tell me “No way!” There are many different family dynamics and you never know what has happened to that family. Look at the number of how many young girls are raped and bear children despite them still being kids themselves. They don’t need stark comments about how young they are. And adopted kids don’t need to be told who their parents are or are not. So I would suggest listening to people when they tell you who their parents are. It’s not normally something we lie about.
Thanks for reading “What Not to Say to a Foster Kid.” These are just the most common phrases I have gotten, and I can’t speak for other foster kids, but I think that a majority of us have experienced these same comments and questions.
Please reach out to me if you have any questions on foster care or how you can get involved in helping the foster community. Knowing what to say and what not to say to foster youth is the first step, but there are plenty of ways you can help the foster kids in your community right now. I’d love to give you some ideas or answer your questions, so shoot me a DM or send me an email and I will be in touch!