Casey’s A to Z of Fostering
This is the first post in a regular new series about fostering, based on my experiences at the front line of this singular form of childcare. It will look at, and discuss, many key aspects of a child’s behaviour; what to expect, where it might come from, and some strategies to help deal with it, in what I hope will become a helpful tool for those who are caring for children. And as it’s an A to Z guide, it begins, as you might expect, with:
When a child feels as though they don’t belong anywhere (and what a hugely negative thing that is, don’t you think?), their emotions are understandably all over the place. Where children in happy homes are able to ‘go with the flow’ and take life’s unexpected knocks, such children are living with such heightenend fear and anxiety, that they react negatively to any change in their routine, to other members of a fostering household who might make their lives difficult, and usually to friends and teachers at school as well. This is not usully because they are simply ‘lashing out’, even when they are. It’s a coded message – their way of screaming ‘No one wants me! I don’t fit in!’
Along with managing anger – and you’ll have worked out that the two are connected – this should be the very first thing that a foster carer tries to get right. Every child, whether in care or not, needs to feel accepted, loved, wanted, and needed; I’d go as far as to say that no child can be happy without this simple need met. But a child who feels like this about themselves can be hugely challenging to deal with, so the watch-words here are little-by-little. Don’t expect to achieve great things in a short space of time.
Remember that such children have often been lulled into feeling accepted and loved before, only to have that trust snatched away. It might be because a drug-addicted parent might see-saw between episodes of neglect, due to drug-abuse, and then remorse, when temporarily off drugs – as Mike and I saw first hand with our first foster child, Justin, who trusted no-one to be there for him, or truly love him. It might seem like a mammoth task to tackle such deep-rooted feelings of worthlessness, but small, simple steps are the way to go. The smallest action can be huge to a child who feels they don’t belong.
An example: Simply allow them to be themselves, without censure. Let them dress the way they like. Don’t interfere. Don’t tell them they’d look ‘smarter in…’ or any variant of that. It might mean you’re out and about with them is get-ups you’d not let your own children be seen dead in, but it is part of their identity, and they have already had enough of that stripped away.
Another: be okay about cooking the things that they say they like to eat, however much accepted wisdom is to raise unfussy kids who will, within reason, eat the food you choose to prepare for them. For the first two years (believe it or not ;)) I got this so wrong. Children would come to me, along with the information from the social worker that they’d had years of poor diets and restricted choices. I would then go into overdrive, trying to feed them their ‘five-a-day’, providing endless ‘healthy options’ and cooking fresh, hearty meals. I was wrong. And it was my sister – who doesn’t foster – who pointed it out to me.
‘These kids are used to eating beans on toast and spaghetti hoops!’ she told me one day, in a tone of exasperation, when I bemoaned how the little boy I had in woludn’t eat my worthy meals. ‘It’s their comfort food – the stuff that makes them feel happy, relaxes them, reminds them of home. Of course they won’t thank you for your hunter’s chicken, sweet potato fries and flipping salad!’
It took a while, but I finally conceded that she was right. I felt so silly – and, in the longer term, of course children should be fed healthy food. But with a profoundly damaged, unhappy child, it’s so much more important to tackle their mental health first. Because nothing can be achieved until that’s sorted. So, with that particular child, for a long, long period, it was egg, chips and beans, and ravioli from a tin. The lack of green stuff could be addressed down the line – and it eventually would. In the meantime, it worked mental miracles. It went a long way to make the child feel accepted.
Two of the guiding principles of fostering, and, indeed, raising children generally, are the importance of providing love and boundaries. But also central to the task at hand, particularly with children who have come from a background of neglect and/or abuse, is to take special care to acknowledge and praise a child’s achievements.
We’re all familiar with the lament (more often heard from well-adjusted adults than from children who’ve yet to fully understand what they might be missing) that someone’s mum or dad or other carer missed some important life-event, such as sports day, or a special assembly, or a show. Of course, modern life, with its many pressures, means we often struggle to be perfect parents – not everyone has the time or resources to be able to drop everything, every time.
But in fostering, the children we care for are often starved of the smallest expression of interest in their achievements. These are the kids who never have a parent come to see them in the school play, run their egg and spoon races without a special someone to cheer them on, get awarded their certificate for ‘reader of the week’ or ‘most helpful pupil’ without the warm glow of knowing they’ve made someone proud.
That’s why as foster carers, we are trained to make a special effort when it comes to such occasions; to plug the steady leak of self-esteem a continued lack of interest in a child’s life outside the home creates. As with so much to do with parenting, it’s basic common sense. In our own lives we thrive on the smallest words of encouragement, respect and congratulation on our achievements – and it’s just the same with children. Not empty praise – an over-inflated sense of entitlement can be equally damaging to their emotional well-being once they enter the less magnanimous wider world – but grabbing as many opportunities as possible to witness a child doing their best and reaping the rewards of their effort will pay huge dividends in terms of their sense of self-worth.
But when we talk about achievement, it’s important to remember that achievement can take all forms. One child’s achievement might be practicing hard to learn a poem, then reciting it faultlessly in school. Another’s – and, again, this is something key to effective fostering – might be something as simple as controlling their temper in a conflict situation, consistently making their bed in the morning, or even cleaning their teeth without being nagged. Once you know a child, you will know what, for them, constitutes achievement. And once you do, make sure it’s rewarded with praise.
Children who feel they have been abandoned, or indeed those who feel that they have been ripped away from their parents for no good reason – which is often how they do feel – will most likely feel very angry. They aren’t angry at you necessarily – though, as the ‘messenger’ you might bear the brunt of it – but at the world at large, at the injustice, and inevitably at social services, for turning their world upside down.
We can’t dissuade them from this idea, not initially. We can only point out that no-one is out to get them, and that everyone has only their best interests at heart. However, reassurance mustn’t bury their emotions. Anger needs to be expressed, so it is vitally important to acknowledge their anger, to accept that it’s valid, and let them know that you understand why they feel this way. It’s in this way that they will come to learn that they’re not alone – that’s it’s not them against the world.
One effective way I’ve found to aid this process is to buy the child a notebook and encourage them to write down exactly how they feel, and what they’d really like to say to certain people and why. I have to warn you in advance that I have had to read a few choice words when doing this, but this is not the time to pull a child up on the intensity of their feelings, and how best to express them. The important thing is that they feel allowed to have those feelings, and a safe space in which to get them off their chest without getting into trouble.
Be warned: working through anger issues can be a lengthy progress, but when it feels hopeless – as if a child will never make progress with their anger – it helps to remember that they are not responsible for the existence of such feelings. Others have made them feel this way, and however much it might sometimes feel as if a child actually enjoys ranting and raging, they don’t. No child enjoys feeling out of control in that way.
So, in summary, persevere when it comes to anger issues. In a fostering household life is so much easier once that anger has lessened. It not only allows a child to concentrate on the nicer emotions they have been unable to allow to be at the forefront of their lives, it also means you can start building a positive relationship with them, which will begin the process of them doing likewise with the wider community.
A lot of foster children will have come from backgrounds where frequent violent arguments are a normal part of life. Parents or siblings may have come to blows (be they verbal or physical) about the smallest things, and this will have a lasting impact on the personality of any child. This is particularly obvious once they are transplanted to an environment where tempers don’t routinely boil over. It’s almost as if they don’t know how to operate efficiently in a calm environment, without being on edge. They may struggle to relax, because they are constantly wondering when the next row might erupt. The only way to handle this is to lead by example. It may sound simple, condescending, even, but the reality is that the slightest thing can take them straight back to chaos mode, so it’s really a case of ‘do as I do’.
An example; I remember once watching the soaps on TV and my husband Mike asked if we could turn over to check on the football scores. I said no, automatically (and perhaps somewhat tersely), as the programme I was watching was just about to finish, and it didn’t seem to matter that he’d have to wait a minute or two. This small exchange was enough to send our then quite new foster child, Sophia, into meltdown. To our shock, she ran, distressed, up to her bedroom, where I found her sobbing. She was convinced (as I eventually established) that our shortness of tone would inevitably lead to a violent row, and that she’d better run for cover. And no matter what I said, I couldn’t convince her that our disagreements were never serious, and were simply a normal part of family life.
Foster children will also often try to create arguments. This is not generally because they are wilful, or naughty, or just fond of trouble. Sadly, it’s usually because, somewhere down the line, they will have learned that it is an efficient way to manipulate a situation to get what they want. Again, the only way to deal with this sort of behaviour is not to reward it by rising to it and joining in. Instead, be calm and consistent. Keep pointing out – even if you get sick of the sound of your own voice – that the best way to get what you want is to ask politely, and to see both sides of every situation.
Always, always, teach by example. As a general rule, and particularly while a child is settling in, my best advice would be to choose wisely about what you will allow a child to witness.