Children in the U.S. foster care system experience trauma and adversity at higher rates than their peers. While significant research has established that Adverse Childhood Experiences(ACEs) cause negative impacts throughout the lifespan, a growing body of literature is identifying ways Positive Childhood Experiences(PCEs) can reduce mental health and relational difficulties, “even in the concurrent presence of ACEs.” Foster care is often conceptualized as a temporary emergency shelter; however, experiences during foster care may result in lifelong positive outcomes. As foster parents are the stakeholders directly responsible for the daily care and parenting of children in foster care, this qualitative study aims to better understand the types of Positive Childhood Experiences foster parents strive to build for the children in their care.
Data was collected from current foster parents in one southeastern U.S. state through semi-structured phone interviews(n=20). Foster parents were mean 54.00 years old(SD=12.29 years), predominately white (65% white, 30% Black, 5% other race) and primarily identified as female(85%). At the time of the interview, participants reported mean 11.0 years(SD=10.76 years) of experience serving as foster parents. A codebook was developed using inductive thematic analysis. Our qualitative team iteratively analyzed each transcript, revising codebooks thematically until no new themes emerged. Coding was conducted in NVivo 12.
Four primary themes and twelve subthemes emerged related to foster parents’ efforts to construct Positive Childhood Experiences for the children in their care. The primary themes were: 1)stability, 2)relationships, 3)special experiences and 4)personal growth. Under stability, foster parents discussed working to create feelings of calm, comfort and predictability by “getting things settled” in critical areas of children’s lives, including subthemes of: a)environment, b)medical, c)educational. Under relationships, foster parents thoughtfully facilitate situations in which children will have opportunities to build meaningful social connections to others including: a)with their foster family, b)with their family of origin, c)with friends. Under special experiences, foster parents describe working to intentionally create moments and memories in which the children in their care will experience feelings of “normalcy,” “feeling loved” and “being part of” a family/community. Special experience subthemes include: a)social foster family activities, b)social friend activities, c)artistic/athletic/club extracurriculars. Under personal growth, foster parents use coaching and motivation to positively support the children in their care to understand their potential: pursuing dreams and aspirations. Personal growth subthemes include a)confidence, b)following rules, c)success.
Although PCEs represent a relatively new area of research, our study finds that long-term foster parents have been prioritizing positive childhood experiences for many years; some for over thirty years. Key findings support the seven PCEs identified by Bethell et al.(2019), including 1)felt able to talk to their family about feelings (relationships), 2)felt their family stood by them in difficult times(relationships), 3)enjoyed participating in community traditions(special experiences), 4)felt a sense of belonging(special experiences), 5)felt supported by friends(relationships), 6)had adults who stood by them in difficult times(relationships) and 7)felt safe and protected in their home(stability). Findings from this study establish the need for a systematic evaluation of PCEs within this population at high risk for ACEs.