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May 12, 2014 03:35 PM EDT

Bonding Exercises Could Help Foster Families Connect

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Video stories and other bonding exercises could help improve communication between teenagers and their foster families, according to a recent study.

Researchers affiliated with the University of Washington's School of Social Work tailored a parenting program known to improve communication in non-foster families for use in foster families.

"Every family has its own unique dynamics, such as different rules or expectations. When teens are placed into a foster home, they may experience this as a kind of cultural divide and many need help building a connection to their new caregivers," Susan Barkan, lead author and associate research director for Partners for Our Children, said in a statement.

The newly developed program, called "Connecting," is intended to guide foster families through exercises that will bring them closer together.

It delves into helping caregivers see where their foster teen is coming from. Each of the 10 chapters has materials and suggested activities intended to help families bond, such as Short videos of former foster youth describing their experiences in child welfare, Creating "brag boards" to share basic information like favorite color and what they're proud of, and teens telling their caregivers about the people who matter most in their lives.

They tested the program on a group of nine foster teens and their caregivers; they learned that watching the videos was a particularly helpful exercise. One family called it "a crack-open moment where they could talk about things they couldn't in the year they had been together," Barkan recalled.

Barkan said many children enter the child welfare system due to neglect. Their biological parents may be consumed by substance abuse, mental health issues, tenuous housing situations and other challenges.

"Such a chaotic environment makes it hard for anyone to grow and thrive in. But taking kids out of their home - even if it is to protect them - can also be a traumatic experience," she added.

Barkan said foster parents have the potential to help children in the child welfare system process the trauma they have been through and to make them less vulnerable to risky behaviors, including substance abuse and violence.

The findings were will be published in the June issue of Children and Youth Services Review.

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