As a newly approved foster carer, I couldn’t understand what was wrong with the first child placed with us. He screamed constantly. He was on high alert, he swung violently between being fearful, and then furiously angry. And this was a baby, a nine month old boy, whose mum was also living with us. How could he be so damaged in such a short period of time? He drove me to distraction. He took me to the brink of my patience and energy. I just couldn’t fathom what was going on behind his eyes.
Nobody had mentioned attachment disorders to me at this stage. We naively agreed to a mother and baby placement for twelve weeks, thinking how lovely it would be. The baby’s mother had no idea about parenting – not her fault, as she had been parented inadequately herself – and I’m being kind by using the word inadequately.
So, about three weeks into the placement, I was pulling my hair out. My husband was flummoxed. We were both stressed. The baby’s mother was far too busy having shouted arguments down her mobile phone with various family members to notice that anything was wrong with her son.
I think another foster carer pointed me towards a book by Dan Hughes. ‘Building the Bonds of Attachment – Awakening Love in Deeply Troubled Children’. Suddenly, this little boy’s needs and behaviours began to make sense. I learnt about the anger, mistrust and terror which neglectful and abusive parenting roots in a child. To be that tiny and feel you can’t rely on anyone for warmth, love, food, safety….anything….it does terrible things to your brain, your development and your sense of self. It leaches into every part of you and shapes you dramatically.
That particular placement ended, and others came and went. To a greater or lesser extent, all of the children we have cared for have had disordered attachments. Their behaviours can seem self destructive, bizarre, aggressive, clingy and cold – and one child could go through that entire range of behaviours in a matter of minutes.
It certainy keeps you on your toes. When you’re fostering every day you get used to dealing with the tantrums, the cold shoulders, the hurtful words and the lies. You can understand where they come from, but it’s hard not to take things personally sometimes. In a way, that’s probably one of the most valuable lessons I have learnt – it’s not really about me. In fact, it’s never about me. These children are not standing on a firm emotional foundation. They are often in freefall, and if I was in freefall, I would be lashing out, shouting, breaking things and wanting others to feel my hurt.
That’s what I keep hold of on the bad days. These children and young people are doing the best they can to survive. The world often doesn’t make sense to them and it must appear to them that everyone else has been given the rule book. They are out in the cold, trying desperately to fit in, never feeling good enough.
So, anyone out there considering becoing a foster carer – go for it, but be prepared to grow a skin as thick as a rhino hide. Learn some breathing techniques, share the burden and expect the unexpected. And read, read, read. Research child psychology and development, attachment disorders, trauma, resilience, bereavement.
And still, however many books you read, you’re never prepared for what the next day might bring. But who wants a boring, routine life anyway?
Fostering is an extraordinary journey and it will bring out extraordinary strengths in you.