When we interviewed Tony*, a youth formerly in foster care, he shared what it means to just be a “normal” kid. “Just doing things kids my age would be doing, just hanging out and just doing fun things. All the friends that I have now, they know my situation, and they’re not judging. They know what I’m going through, but they don’t treat me like there’s anything out of the ordinary.”
Normalcy in child welfare means the ability for children and teens to live as normal of a life as possible while in foster care. Normalcy can be seen as access to everyday age-appropriate social activities, such as extracurriculars and sleepovers. The findings from our 2021 study suggest that normalcy relates to overall wellbeing, positive relationships with caregivers and peers, placement stability, and social development.
Normalcy and Friendships
Child welfare largely looks at extracurriculars and other social activities as the focal point of normalcy, but activities also help build relationships. For many of the youth we interviewed, normalcy activities like extracurriculars serve as the starting point for important friendships. These friendships extend from the activity and lead to connections with peers.
“It’s really, really difficult to build a relationship with someone—especially when you go to a school and you know that these people have been in a relationship with each other since elementary school up until high school,” Alejandra* explained in an interview. “I try to talk to people in certain classes or certain clubs or certain extracurricular activities. I try to make my own little friends and then just stick to that.”
Caregivers Supporting Normalcy in Child Welfare
Normalcy connects with trusting relationships with caregivers and placement stability. Many of the participants who described strong and stable relationships with caregivers also participated in normalcy activities. In our interviews with TYPS participants, several reported earning their caregivers’ trust so they could participate in activities like visiting friends or going on dates.
Caregivers who commit to broadening youths’ social and emotional wellbeing through normalcy activities are viewed by the youth as someone who cares about them. In turn, strong relationships with caregivers often lead to more stable placements and ultimately benefit the youth’s life trajectory.
Evelyn explained she built a relationship with her foster parent based on honesty and trust. “She takes me to friend’s house, picks me up from friend’s house. She lets me go to games and go places with them. As long as I’m honest with her and I don’t lie about what I’m doing.”
A lack of normalcy can have consequences for relationships between caregivers and youth. Youth whose caregivers prevent them from participating in normalcy activities often have negative views of the caregiver. This can lead to strained relationships and placement deterioration.
“They don’t even give me an explanation,” Alex* shared. “They just say no. It’s really hard. [Once] I told them I’m just gonna go to the skate park, and then they were like we’ll take you. And when they went, they were like ‘so I want to meet all of them. I wanna write down their names, their phone number, their address’ and I’m like ‘what the hell. What do you mean?’ And I was like ‘whoa, that’s too much. You’re not even like my parent.’ That’s when I was like yeah, I can’t do that.”
Effects of Social Isolation
Although many study participants reported getting along with their peers and socializing well, others struggled in this area. Some participants who experienced limitations to normalcy and placement instability expressed a sense of isolation. These participants often described themselves as socially awkward and uncomfortable with social interactions.
“I don’t keep in contact with very many people or like anybody,” Katrina* shared. “It’s easier for me to just let go of people that I’ve had in my life because I’ve had to do that my entire life. I’d never see any of those people again. I have a lot of people tell me that I need to learn how to make friends. Unless I really do see somebody being a part of my life for years to come, I really just try to avoid it completely. So, I’ve never had any friends.”
Participants in this study shared their experiences with peers and caregivers and broadened our understanding of normalcy. From interviews, we learned that normalcy goes beyond participation in activities. Although social enrichment activities are important in their own right, they also help relationships take root and flourish.
Our findings show that normalcy may enrich the lives of youth in foster care. More research on this topic is needed, but providing normalcy in an intentional way can support youth and shape their life trajectory in a positive way.
*We use pseudonyms in this blog to protect the privacy of Texas Youth Permanency Study participants.