Childhood and Youth

Kelly on Experiences of Foster Care

In this article Wendy Kelly, author of Understanding Children in Foster Care, explores experiences of foster care and her development of the Relational Learning Framework.

I recently attended a conference presentation by a foster parent about the struggles he and his wife were having in managing their two foster children. They had fostered the boys for over ten years, since they were 3 and 4 years old. As he was talking I was struck by the difference between the story of the parents’ struggles and the slides on the screen. The exasperated father told us about the children waking extremely early, fighting with each other, being constantly on the go all day, seldom being settled, swearing and yelling at each other and their parents, and the heroic effort it took to keep the boys at school. As he was talking slides kept appearing on the screen of two boys laughing, smiling, playing, running, swimming and generally having fun together and with their foster parents. There were two parallel stories. One was of foster parents being unable to live a normal life and yet continuing to care for these boys day after day, sacrificing their own enjoyment of life. The other story was of two boys who were having a different experience of life. They were learning things like that you can cooperate with others, have shared experiences, that parents can care for you and that life can be fun.

The difficulties the foster parent described were very similar to the foster families I have worked with. For various reasons, including the impacts of child abuse and neglect, many children in foster care are not able to fully benefit from the nurturing care provided. To help foster parents understand some of the reasons behind this I developed the Relational Learning Framework. This framework considers what children learn from abuse and neglect and how this changes their expectations of how their caregivers will respond to them.

In foster care training around the world, foster parents are trained to provide stable, safe and nurturing care. Foster parents are usually highly motivated to provide a different type of care from what the child received in an adverse environment and particularly from maltreatment. However, foster parents receive less help with two crucial aspects of caring:

  • How to work out the impact of the child’s early experiences on their response to their current caregivers, that is understanding what is underneath the child’s behavior; and
  • How to put words to the child’s new experiences in foster care.

For example, foster parents are advised never to hit the child in their care and to provide safe care. However, if the child does not hear the words that go with this e.g. “we won’t hit you or hurt you, even if you are really naughty”, then the child may wait to be hit, and some may attempt to provoke hitting to avoid the anxiety of waiting for it to happen.

The Relational Learning Framework I have developed helps us to consider what the child needs to learn from new caregivers and how foster parents might put their insights into words to help the child understand themselves and others better. Children benefit from words to go with their new experiences in foster care. Take a child who always needs to be in the centre of any gathering and seems to need her foster parents’ eyes on her 24/7. In this situation the foster parents can think about why a child who has been abused and neglected might need to be the centre of attention. How does it help the child? For example, the child may feel like something bad will happen or she will be forgotten if she does not have the carergivers’ eyes on her all the time. The foster parents can let the child know that she doesn’t need to be the centre of the parents’ attention all the time. They could say “we don’t forget you when you are in the next room, we are still here” or “nothing bad will happen when you are quiet”. Similarly when a child is constantly fighting with siblings or caregivers, parents can think about what need does this fill for the child? How does it help the child? The answers may be around the child’s thinking from early deprivation that resources are scarce and they will never have enough. The parent can then put this into words, for example, “we have everything you need here, you don’t have to fight for it”.

The parent can then talk to the child in quiet reflective moments, often when focused on something else such as chores or doing something together, to let the child know they are thinking about them, want to understand and have empathy for their situation.

Wendy Kelly is a Clinical Psychologist who has worked in the field of maltreatment and foster care for 30 years.  She has taught seminars on early relationships, maltreatment and foster care to over 2,000 practitioners in New Zealand and Australia. Having worked at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand as a Clinical Practice Advisor for 14 years she was awarded her doctorate in July 2015.