How fostering changes your parenting style

My husband and I were pretty laid back parents to our birth child. There were boundaries and expectations and rules, but we all tended to go with the flow to some extent. There was an inbuilt, unspoken trust and understanding which grew naturally between us as our daughter grew.

So there was me, thinking I had the parenting lark all sewn up. Show by example rather than being a dictator, always be emotionally available and open, explain things in a rational way, be slow to get angry, be physically demonstrative and close to your child, tell them you love them, fill their days with exciting challenges and new experiences.

Then we started fostering. All the assumptions I had made about what good parenting was went flying out of the window, along with a fair dose of smugness.

Show by example – this idea falls down flat on its face unless you are fostering a baby, who hasn’t had a chance to attach itself to someone abusive or neglectful or incapable. Alfie and Rose were aged 2 and 3 when they arrived in our house. After months of trying to ‘show by example’ – about everything from eating, to dressing, to sharing, to empathising about others and allowing people personal space – I gave up. Alfie and Rose’s parents had subjected them to unimaginable abuse and neglect. They had grown up in fear and chaos, with hunger and pain being used to control them. And here was me expecting them to stop stealing food, to think about others, not to shoplift, and not to inflict injury on people and pets. Just because I, and the rest of my family didn’t do it.

I found that, in order to get Rose and Alfie to behave in a way that was even partially acceptable, I had to state the obvious, each day. ‘When we go to the shop, you must not take things¬† that we have not paid for.’ ‘Do not put your hands into the bag of the person in front of us in the queue.’ ‘Don’t sit on the lap of anybody you don’t know.’ ‘Don’t offer anybody a massage – ever.’ ‘Don’t follow any other families or run off.’ ‘Stay close.’ The list of instructions grew with each week that the children spent with us. And while to me it seemed crazy, sometimes rude or patronising to have to give out these dictates, it worked…..sometimes.

Moving on to my wonderful idea of explaining things rationally. That’s fine when you’re speaking to a calm, confident child who is used to receiving helpful advice from adults. When you’re trying to discuss the reasons for not running across a road, stepping closer to the train line or moving towards a cliff edge but you’re faced with a chaotic, flailing child who has only ever been guided by fists and kicks – it’s a different story. Detailed explanations have to move aside for short, sharp orders. I had to become the kind of strict, dictatorial parent who barks at their children, watches their every move and tries to pre-empt disaster by keeping them close at all times. I couldn’t allow Rose the luxury of exploring – she would disappear, attaching herself to a family, a couple, a lone man – anyone who happened to be in our vicinity. I became, not over protective, because I was, after all, doing what she needed, but on constant high alert. My stress levels reached ever higher with each trip out to the park, the shops, a friend’s house.

Being slow to anger – I had never had a problem with this until I was, over night, given the charge of two extremely chaotic children. Most of the things which are bewitching and loveable about children were missing in Rose and Alfie. They lacked empathy. If they saw something they wanted, they took it. If someone was in their way, that person was pushed aside, kicked, stamped on, whatever it took to remove them from the equation. Both children displayed highly sexualised behaviour, towards each other, towards other children and towards nearly every adult, including myself and my husband. Rose took great delight in hurting our pets, nearly causing the death of one of our kittens. I discovered that I could get angry, very quickly, that seeing friends and family members and pets shocked, hurt and upset by Rose and Alfie made me furious. I found myself shouting at the children, on a fairly regular basis. I couldn’t speak to Rose for nearly a week after she threw our kitten down the stairs.

Of course, I had experienced anger before, in relation to our daughter, but the strength of our bond and the nurturing parenting she had received meant she and I would reconcile soon after an argument. She would understand the need to make amends and would want to win back my approval if she had done something wrong. The making up made us stronger.

All thoughts of trying to get Rose and Alfie to make amends, admit responsibility or say sorry disappeared into the ether within a few weeks of their arrival. If they were caught out stealing food, breaking toys or belongings, running off or hurting other children, their response was complete emotional shut down. Overwhelmed by confusion and shame, they would switch off to me and everyone around them, head in the sand, hoping desperately that we’d all go away. It took years for them to even be able to look at me when they were being told off.

Being physically demonstrative – an absolute no. Children who have been sexually and physically abused by their parents and who are suddenly uprooted and dropped into your household will not usually be receptive to touch, or certainly not in a healthy, safe way. In the first few weeks he lived with us, Alfie responded to any physical closeness by screaming. Rose responded by becoming hyper excited or inappropriate. We had to tread ever so slowly with both if them, and although it went against all my maternal instincts, I had to allow both children to come to me when they were ready, and not to rush them.

Likewise, telling Rose and Alfie that we loved them seemed to elicit strange reactions. Alfie clearly didn’t understand what we were talking about, while Rose took it to mean we wanted some kind of sexual contact with her. We had to find other ways to express our love, to become inventive.

New experiences and exciting adventures – yes, back in the early days we really did think that foster children would welcome such things. Wrong. Taking the children out of a home environment where, for the first time in their lives, they felt safe, and then expecting them to embrace the outside world was clearly a mistake. They were terrified, and expressed their fear in a raft of different ways. Rose would run off, disappear, beg for food from other people, steal things, and generally ramp up the chaotic behaviour. Alfie would become catatonic, standing frozen in one place, dissociating from what was happening around him. He lost control of his bowels and bladder and sobbed silently, wrapped around my legs, under my feet, hanging onto my arm as if it was a lifebelt.

I cringe when I cast my mind back over some of the times I’ve shouted, given ridiculous ultimatums, pushed my crazy expectations onto foster children who could never dream of meeting them. My naive younger self had her assumptions well and truly trounced by each new placement, every child bringing their individual needs and challenges which shook me out of my state of complacency. Which, ultimately, was a good thing.

Just lately I’ve been wishing I could go back to that younger self, just before we started fostering. I would have a lot of advice to dole out, a lot of warnings to give, as well as words of hope and joy.

But hey, I thought I knew it all, I don’t suppose I would have listened anyway.

 

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How fostering changes your parenting style

Alternatives to a goodnight kiss

It’s scarey For Esme, our foster daughter, to tell anyone she loves them. It requires a depth of trust that she doesn’t have access to. It requires her to make herself vulnerable, to lower the heavy armour she has built up over the years of her life.

Abusive, inconstant and cruel parenting forced her to start layering on this armour before she could speak. If you raise the barriers, you can’t be hurt – this is what she has taught herself. She was the oldest child in the family, so when she was born and first began toddling around, there was nobody to act as a buffer between her and her parents, no caring sibling, no protector. Her younger brother is far less damaged, because he had Esme to shield him, to some extent.

So Esme appears cold, distant and uninterested in people much of the time. It has taken me years to accept her need to push me away. I have cried and agonised on many evenings, at the end of a long day of trying to connect with this little girl and feeling that I have failed.

Just one of the many profound lessons that fostering has taught me is that children can’t be forced to accept love, and that I can’t expect children to fall in with my ideas about how to behave, and to express that huge thing – love.

So, I want to give Esme cuddles. She hates them. Still, at the school gates, she strains away from me, presents me with the back of her head for a kiss, won’t make eye contact. At bed time, after a book, she can’t handle a kiss so we manage an awkward hug and then we do the hand kiss. This is something Esme came up with a couple of years ago, and it has become more important and complex as time has passed. It started off with her kissing her palm and then putting her hand on my arm as she said goodnight. It then progressed to me kissing my palm and her allowing me to lay my palm against hers. A kiss without lips or intimacy. I guess it feels really safe but still feels like an expression of love. We now kiss both of our palms and press them against each other’s corresponding palms each night and at the same time, I try to hold her gaze for a few long seconds. It feels good. It’s a positive way to end each day, whatever has happened.

Occasionally now, when I have left Esme’s bedroom and am making my way down stairs so that I am well out of sight and almost out of earshot, Esme will call, ‘Love you!’ I think it’s directed towards me, so I call back ‘Love you too!’

A couple of nights ago as we did the hand kiss, Esme suddenly said, ‘I just can’t stop holding you.’ I was shocked into silence for a few seconds. She NEVER holds me. Never physically, because it feels too risky. Because even after living with us for several years, I think there’s a part of her which still fears that I will turn that hug into something else. After recovering myself, I said, ‘You can hold me any time, I’m always here for you.’ She responded with a smile.

Without claiming to be a mind reader, I like to think Esme hugs me and cuddles me in her head. A smile from her, with proper eye contact, is as good as a hold.

Some time soon I’m hoping the hugs will become easier for Esme, something she can accept and offer on an ad hoc basis like her brother. Until then, I will do as I was recently advised to by a friend on Twitter – smother from a distance.

 

Alternatives to a goodnight kiss

Foster carers’ birth children

Our daughter Amelia was so excited when we talked to her about fostering. She was desperate for a brother or sister and delighted at the thought of ready made siblings arriving in the house.

We all went on an introduction to fostering weekend, sat through various training sessions and assessments with all the other prospective foster carers and their families. At the end of the weekend, as we were preparing to leave, Amelia turned to us, mystified and asked, ‘Where are the children then?’

Her face fell when we explained that foster children weren’t just handed to us at the end of the training – we would have to wait for the right placement and the right match for us as a family.

And so we waited……all foster carers get pretty good at waiting. Emails arrived, sometimes every day, laying out the details of each new child or sibling group or mother and baby who needed placing.

We said yes to two Afghan refugee teenagers, who spoke no English, had never attended school, needed to be fed a halal diet and taken to worship regularly at the mosque. We were turned down when someone better suited to the boys’ needs was found.

We said yes to a severely disabled boy with Prader Willi syndrome, who ate gravel and made deafening air raid siren noises at random moments throughout the day. Again, someone more experienced was chosen.

Finally, after turning down a young Vietnamese lad, fresh out of prison and being hunted by the Triad gang he had formerly been a member of, we said yes to Ruby, a pregnant mum and her 9 month old son.

Amelia was deeply disappointed by 18 year old Ruby, who came from a family where children were, at best, ignored, at worst, abused and neglected. In the three months that Ruby stayed with us, I think she spoke five words to Amelia. She wasn’t cruel to her, she simply saw no reason to acknowledge her existence or needs.

‘This is not what I thought fostering would be like,’ Amelia said to me tearfully one day, half way through the placement.

‘Me either,’ I thought to myself, while giving her a hug. Ruby’s second baby was born with Downs syndrome and she was nowhere near coping with motherhood. The stress of filling the maternal gap for the babies, while guiding Ruby towards better parenting and fielding the in-fighting of her dysfunctional family was taking a huge toll on me.

I reassured Amelia that in six weeks’ time, Ruby and the children would be leaving. To Amelia, who was seven years old, six weeks seemed as long as a life time, but she stuck it out.

It wasn’t all bad. There was a beautiful moment just after the birth of Ruby’s baby when Amelia explained to me in a voice hushed with pride that Ruby had asked her to choose a name for the newborn. When Ruby left, she gave Amelia a hug and called her a ‘doughnut’ – a term of affection she only applied to people she really liked.

After that, we had a short term emergency placement of a disabled boy, who we all fell in love with. Amelia grieved for him when he left, and still comes out with some of his catch phrases now. She found it hard to understand that one day he was in our house, our life and our family, and the next he was gone. No further contact was allowed, in order to give the long term placement a chance of success.

Then there was a pretty disastrous placement of a teenage girl, whose drug dealing armed robber boyfriend got out of prison just in time to start causing us grief. Amelia was fond of both the girl and her boyfriend, and we didn’t have the heart to tell her the truth.

Then there were a few different respite placements, which brought their own stresses and rewards. Amelia by this time was thoroughly disenchanted with fostering. We hadn’t had one placement which ticked her boxes.

Rose and Alfie arrived next. Another emergency placement, supposed to be three months long. It turned into a long term relationship for us all. Amelia finally had her friends, a brother and sister to play with, constant company, someone to share experiences with.

It wasn’t plain sailing. The children came from the worst background imaginable – and I know that sounds over dramatic, but it isn’t. They both had attachment disorders, Rose had an eating disorder, Alfie was dyspraxic and also appeared to be developing Multiple Personality Disorder (now called Dissociative Identity Disorder). Both children displayed highly sexualised behaviour towards us, other adults and other children. Including Amelia.

So, overnight, Amelia went from being an only child to sharing everything with two extremely demanding foster siblings. Her world was rocked by the strangeness of it all, by Alfie and Rose’s deep distrust of everyone, their inability to consider the feelings of others, their anxiety levels.

Amelia grew with the placement. There were times when she ranted and cried over it, telling us we had ruined her life by bringing Alfie and Rose into our family. She demanded we stop fostering, threatening to leave the house as soon as she legally could.

There were other times when Amelia felt she loved Rose and Alfie, that she never wanted them to leave, that she saw them 100% as her brother and sister. As she matured, Amelia was able to contextualise the children’s behaviours and transfer her anger onto the parents rather than Rose and Alfie themselves. She even composed a virtual hit list of all the family members who had abused or neglected the children, coming up with inventive ways in which to do them harm.

We moved on from there, I am glad to say. Amelia is my hero. She has been pivotal to the success of all our fostering experiences, and we’ve been very forward in making her aware of how grateful we are.

When my husband and I have been at our wits end, when we’ve felt we couldn’t carry on, Amelia has lifted our spirits, been brutally, wonderfully honest with us and eternally optimistic. She has grown into a deeply empathic and emotionally intelligent person.

There are many many Amelias out there, doing extraordinary things every day, and their contribution to fostering is immeasurable.

 

 

 

Foster carers’ birth children

Writing as therapy

I published my first book this week. Writing it has been a long and painful process. Made more painful by the fact that it is a true story….the story of Rose and Alfie, two of our foster children….and our family’s journey with them.

I started off writing the book as a form of therapy – I needed to get it out of my system, channel some of my anger and frustration. I also needed to chart the children’s progress, to remind myself of how far they have both come. Rose and Alfie are now young adults and still struggling in lots of areas of life, but they are both incredible people and an inspiration to me in many ways.

As the book developed and evolved, the feeling grew in me that this story needed to be shared. That people needed to know about the powerless and voiceless state of some children in care. And the frustrations and struggles of those caring for them. Maybe we have been unlucky with the experts, social workers and judges we have encountered, but I have a sneaking suspicion that’s not the case. I still feel very angry about some of the battles we had against the system, and about some of the final decisions made, often by people who had never met the children….or me.

Ultimately I am hoping people will read ‘Betrayal’ and be inspired by Rose and Alfie’s story. Admittedly it is a sad tale. They came from the most horribly abusive family background, from chaos and neglect. There is a lot to feel angry and despairing about in the book.

But there is also a lot to celebrate and feel positive about. Like the fact that Rose and Alfie found their place with us, in our family.

It was pure chance that they ended up on our doorstep.  Pure chance that we had the space, had no other foster children at that time, were willing to take on a short term emergency placement.

Now, when I think of the people Rose and Alfie have become, and consider what their future would have been if they hadn’t been rescued, it gives me a lot of pause for thought, and reason to smile.

‘Betrayal’ by me, Grace Hunter, is now available through Amazon.

Writing as therapy

Foster children and birth families

So, my foster daughter, who has been a walking thundercloud of anger and defiance for the last six years has suddenly changed into a calm(ish), happy(ish) sweetheart. Someone you would want to spend time with. Someone who wants to please people rather than fight them, manipulate them and hurt them.

Fantastic. And just as suddenly, she has announced to her social worker that she wants to see her mum and dad, once a month. These are the parents who abused her daily for the first four years of her life, who saw her as something to be used, who neglected her and degraded her, leaving her with no childhood and no sense of identity.

I expected the news to hurt, for me to feel rejected. I think that’s what my social worker expected too – she was very sympathetic to what she saw as my damaged feelings. I was in shock, for sure, for a few days. I started to see all the work, the progress we had made with this child in the last six years slipping away from us.

Once I got over the shock, and was reassured by the social worker that contact wouldn’t be restarting, at least not in the near future -I started to see something very positive about our foster child’s request. She is definitely in denial of anything abusive having happened while living with her parents – this is not a positive, and it’s a fact she will have to face up to one day. The positive thing for me is that this little girl appears to have decided she is with us for good. The change in her behaviour is due, I feel, to her lowering some of the barriers she has erected around herself.

She is calmer, she is happier, she is more affectionate and spontaneous than she has ever been, and I am surprised by the warmth of my own reactions to her. She shouted ‘I love you’ to me from the school playground on day this week when I dropped her off. That’s a first. She told me she feels safe in our house at bedtime a couple of weeks ago. Little tiny things, but huge for her……and for us.

So, rather than feeling hurt and rejected by her desire to see her parents, I feel like celebrating. Not that I would want contact to re-start, I think it would be disastrous. But it seems to me our foster daughter, for the first time in six years, feels she has the head space, the confidence and the maturity to handle contact with her birth family while staying firmly rooted in our lives.

Things are changing, in a good way.

 

Foster children and birth families

Back to school……and the difference a great teacher can make

So my foster son went back to school this morning. I was full of anxiety, trepidation, stress. He was beaming, cheerful and confident.

His last school year was disastrous in patches. Stubborn refusals to join in with lessons and activities, running away from staff, controlling behaviours and physical aggression which escalated to such a level that the head teacher threatened to exclude him.

There had always been problems with school, but last year was off the scale, and it deeply affected his friendships and our stress levels. Luckily, the parents of the children he had hurt were incredibly understanding, down playing events and giving him leeway.

We were at a loss to understand quite why things were so bad, but, and I feel awful saying this, my husband and I are convinced that some part of the problem was his teacher. She was lovely, enthusiastic, young and bubbly. We sat with her in a meeting before our foster son entered her class and explained that he needed boundaries…..very firm boundaries. It makes him feel safe if he knows who is in charge, and then some of the controlling behaviours recede, which usually takes away a lot of the conflict. She nodded and seemed receptive to what we were saying.

However, we discovered at a much later date that this teacher believed in fluid boundaries, and felt so sorry for our foster child that she allowed him to do pretty much what he felt like in the classroom. A recipe for disaster. He didn’t respect her authority, she didn’t understand or accept what he needed and so all the foundations of good behaviour which other teachers had nurtured in him collapsed. In three months. The really low point was when he stabbed another child in the back with a pencil.

I think this was when the teacher sat up and realised what was happening, but it was pretty much too late by then for her to claw back her authority. Our foster son spent the rest of the year in limbo, unsure of this new ‘strict’ version of his teacher, while also being aware of her vulnerabilities and sympthies towards him, he was miserable and unsettled. We were all glad to get the year over with.

This year, our son has a fantastic teacher. She is no nonsense, she is fun, she is firm and extremely kind. As we approached the classroom this morning, she whisked me into a side office and told me about the prep she has done, just for our child. She recognises that she has to be five steps ahead with him, anticipating his anger, looking out for triggers for his controlling behaviours, seeking out the best companions for him on tasks. She has allocated a safe area in the classroom for him to go to when he feels angry or sad or needs to talk. She will be making him feel needed by giving him specific, but varied jobs each week – the variety means he can’t become obsessed with doing one thing, to the exclusion of all the other children.

Speaking to this teacher makes me feel grounded, it gives me hope. She listens to me and accepts that I know what this child needs. So often as foster carers I feel we are perhaps judged as being harsh – I have to monitor everything my foster daughter eats as she has an eating disorder. I can’t allow either child to have a sleepover with friends as they are both prone to sexualised behaviour. I have to remove a lot of choice fom their lives because otherwise obsession and control loom too large and cause conflict.

To be listened to and not judged is a fantastic thing. We beat ourselves up enough in our own time – at least my husband and I do – about how we are parenting these challenging children.

Support from school can go a long way to removing the stress from fostering. I feel very blessed that our foster son has this teacher for the next school year. He has so much potential, and hopefully this year he will be able to fulfill it, rebuild friendships and blossom as an individual.

Watch this space……

Back to school……and the difference a great teacher can make