Unique insight into what it means to foster with us.
The fostering nanny
What the children are used to eating is a concern. Many children have only experienced junk food or take away food, drink fizzy drinks and have few fresh fruit or vegetables. For some children it is common place to snack all day, and sometimes at night too, and not have any set meal times. Most of the children we have cared for have had a very narrow experience of food.
We had a very sweet little 3 year old girl come to stay with us for a few days, who would only eat what she called "Purple Dinner." We discovered that this was a pre-prepared baby food in a purple plastic tray from the supermarket, and suitable for a child of 18 to 24 months. If it was not purple, she wouldn't consider even trying it. We heated it in the microwave and the she ate it with a teaspoon. It required no fork and no chewing. She felt safe eating this and it comforted her.
It can be tricky feeling your way through this minefield of habits and attitudes, while trying to provide the best you can in terms of experience and choice. You can't force a child or young person to try new things. You also can't just withdraw from them all the foods that they are used to, which brings them comfort and security. FG and I have had some success in finding ways to promote better eating habits through our experience of fostering. I will share what helped and worked for us and the children we have cared for next time.
I often think that in childcare you have to think on your feet. That is, you are often dealing with unpredictable situations and need to use your initiative, creativity, experience and training to make very quick decisions.
I could empathise with Michael about feeling wrathful over having no autonomy about what was happening to him; at home, it appears, he was given a lot of autonomy and was used to dictating what he wanted. Now he was placed in a situation, not of his choice, and was being told that for now he could not get what he felt he wanted or needed. He was not prepared to accept the reasoning behind this. All this I could understand, but I was not prepared to suffer verbal abuse because of it. I realised that if I challenged Michael by berating him or arguing with him, it would only fuel his rage and give him more cause to verbally attack me. I really had no idea how far he might take it! But I was not going to allow myself to be victimised by an 8 year old child either.
I reasoned that if his level of self-control was developed only to the level of a three year old, perhaps he would respond if I used the same strategy as if I were dealing with a three year old, but using language appropriate to a very intelligent 8 year old. I took a deep breath to calm myself and returned to the kitchen.
Michael had taken himself into the conservatory, which backs on to the kitchen, and was sitting on the bench looking dejected. I thought I would feel my way and not be the first one to speak. I began to cook Michael's tea, but could see him through the window and he could see me. He watched me for a few moments and then let rip!
He railed on about what a poor carer I was and how he expected to have his tea ready. He said I was supposed to be caring for him, and that is what carers did, and now he was soooo hungry, and how it was all my fault because I had made him angry because I wasn't caring for him etc. This would have been insulting enough if his attitude hadn't been one of total disrespect and hostility, and his body language and facial expression bordering on malevolent. Just to clarify a point. I was cooking his tea at the same time I had previously cooked it on other days. He had also had an after school snack as on other days, and this had worked fine up till today. I could see what he was doing, he was looking for an excuse to let go of his anger; he was looking for someone to take it out on, someone to blame for how he was feeling and I was available.
After a couple of minutes of this, I walked to the door which separates the kitchen from the conservatory and spoke in a quiet, calm voice, "I understand that you are very angry about your situation but I cannot allow you to continue to speak to me in that manner. It's called verbal abuse and it's not acceptable to speak to me, to your social worker or anyone else in that manner. It's obvious that you don't have control over your feelings right now, so I'm going to close this door to let you know that I don't want to listen to your verbal abuse. When you have control of your feelings and can speak to me in a respectful way, then you can open the door and come in." I quietly closed the door and went back to preparing Michael's tea. I wasn't sure what would happen next, but at least it had won me a few moments to think ahead and calm myself, while giving Michael something positive to aim at too.
Two or three minutes later I was surprised when the door opened and a very subdued Michael entered the kitchen. I steeled myself, but was astonished when the first words out of his mouth were "I'm sorry". I had never previously experienced Michael saying sorry for anything let alone his verbal lashings! He then surprised me further when he began to cry. He was still trying to justify why he spoke to me the way he had, saying that he couldn't help it because he was hungry, and when he got hungry he got angry. I said that I felt that his outburst wasn't about him being hungry, but about him being angry because his social worker didn't give him what he wanted to hear. He began to sob.
I left what I was doing and suggested we sit together on the sofa. I would have liked to give him a hug to reassure him, but with Michael this wasn't possible (more on this later). So my reassurance had to be verbal. I told him that I understood how difficult it must be for him to be forced into a situation he neither liked nor wanted. I had told him previously, but told him again how I understood that he didn't want to be here with me, and that what he really wanted was to be at home with his mum. I told him that unfortunately I could do nothing about that, and that all I could do was to try to make the three weeks he was with me as positive as possible for both of us, which is why I had closed the door earlier on.
He asked me how I could possibly know how he felt, because I hadn't been through it! I explained that, no, I hadn't been through it, but FG and I had looked after lots of other boys and girls who had been through exactly what Michael was going through. I said they had shared with us what it felt like and so we had learned from them. He was calmer by this point. I suggested that if he would like to talk to me or FG about how he felt we would be prepared to listen. At this point his body language changed and I saw the barriers go back up. He just firmly said "No". The conversation was ended!
I mentioned before how Jade's lack of opportunity to make any attachment affected her instinctive discernment in how to behave around other people. How do you teach a child about something which should have been experienced and learned through a nurturing, well attached relationship with a carer during her infancy and early childhood? We could see that educating Jade could help, but she didn't really understand why she wasn't safe around strangers, and this meant that we had to watch her like a hawk. This was tricky as she got older and we wanted to give her more autonomy, as we couldn't let her out of our sight. We didn't want to overdo the safety angle as we wanted her to remain confident and not fearful of others. We felt that what Jade really needed was time and long term stability, neither of which we were able to offer her. What a dilemma!
I'll share a few other examples of our experiences of taking Jade out and about to give a clearer idea of the challenge we were up against.
- For the first few months of Jade's stay with us, whenever a woman entered our home, no matter who she was, friend, family, social worker, guardian, neighbour or contact supervisor, (but all strangers to Jade) she would climb up into their lap, put her arms around their neck and call them mummy.
- At a play park, Jade would speak to any adult, asking them to lift her in or out of a swing, push her or watch her go down the slide. If she fell or hurt herself, she would go to anyone for comfort. Most sensible adults were very wary around Jade and some felt uncomfortable with her over familiarity. But if any of those adults, or the children with them had asked her to go with them, we have no doubt that she would have gone without a backward glance.
- We took her to a Burger King restaurant that had a small play area for children, as a treat one day. We sat as close to the play area as we could and watched Jade like a hawk while trying not to make it too obvious. The large family at the table close to ours was eating lunch, chatting and sharing some family photographs together, when Jade decided to join them. She perched herself on a vacant chair, picked up some photographs, looked at them and was just about to help herself to some chips, when we came and rescued her. The frozen pose and open mouths of the family would have been comical, if the underlying problem wasn't so serious. We made polite apologies (what can you say?) but the family regarded both us and Jade strangely. Again, we felt that if that family had invited her to go with them, she would not have hesitated.
- I was shopping in a supermarket one day when Jade was about three and FG had taken Jade to a different shop. When they returned and she saw me, she called my name and ran towards me with her arms outstretched. I responded as any human being would, by kneeling down and opening my arms to her. She ran into them and wrapped herself around me and I responded by giving her a big hug. I must admit, I was almost led to believe that Jade was forming an attachment to me and had genuinely warm, affectionate feelings that she wanted to express. It gave me hope which, was short lived. When I went next to pick her up from her playgroup session and all the mummies/carers were arriving together, several of the other little children ran to their mummies and their mummies responded as I have described above. I realised then, that Jade had learned this behaviour from her peers and this was confirmed when she ran, arms outstretched to a complete stranger! I wasn't hurt that she hadn't run to me, as I understood little Jade, but I was very concerned that she had displayed that kind of behaviour towards a stranger, because it was what everyone else was doing.
This gives an indication of what we were up against. We continued to watch her carefully, share our concerns with others who were sharing her care, record every incident and bring these to the attention of those who were ultimately responsible for Jades future care. We set an example of how a loving, nurturing family with strong attachments, behaves and offered her the opportunity to experience that. We continued to educate her about the need to stay safe in an appropriate way. We took courses on attachment theory, to equip ourselves with better understanding and knowledge. We tried to give her as much stability as was possible for a short term placement. We gave her affection and received it from her in an appropriate way. All of this was not enough though, so we dearly hoped that when Jade found her permanent home, the family would be able to address these issues long term, with help and support and with the possibility of therapy for Jade.
Unfortunately, those involved with Jades care felt that Jade's relative was not able to take these long term concerns on board. She wanted a little girl to love. The little girl materialised in the form of Jade who was more than willing to mimic acts of affection and say mummy. This met the relative's immediate need, but what about Jade's long-term needs?
Perhaps it's now clearer to see why we were less than happy with the outcome for Jade. We continue to be concerned for her ongoing ability to keep herself safe as she grows and matures towards independence. Our hope is that Jade and her new family have the opportunity to learn from each other. That they will gain the necessary understanding needed to make genuine attachments possible for Jade before she reaches adolescence. We will never know.
The teenage carer
This time of year sees excitement levels in our household reach stratospheric heights. Not only is school out for the next six weeks but we've got our annual holiday to Europe just around the corner.
Preparations start months in advance, booking accommodation and flights and ensuring passports and EHIC cards are all up to date. This year there will be four teenagers travelling with us, two young ladies that we look after and our own son and daughter. For one of our foster children, this will be her fourth time abroad with us, for the other it'll be her first time with us and only her second time on an aircraft. She was very young when she first flew, so she can hardly remember it; suffice to say she's ridiculously excited!
The focus is not only on the holiday itself, there's also huge emphasis on the purchasing of holiday essentials. For most people essentials are, well, just that. But apparently when travelling with three teenage girls, essentials include fluorescent lime green nail varnish, six inch wedge heels (two pairs of each) and enough make-up and hair products to keep Boots in business for the next millennium. Two of the girls are talking about sharing a suitcase, heaven help the luggage handler who gets stuck with moving that one!
I'm busy stockpiling suncream (in every imaginable factor) and after sun, and trying to decide if we can use last year's beach towels again or if we should go mad and get new ones. We've promised the kids they can have their pocket money in Euros for the next few weeks, so they're already planning the ice-creams and mocktails they'll be "investing" in.
Let the countdown begin…
Pre-empting flash points
For one of our young people (Mae, age 12) there are certain scenarios that we know are going to ignite her temper. Mae has been with us since 2011 and this is the fourth summer she's spent with us. Mae has difficulty controlling her anger and whilst her tantrums have decreased in frequency, the nature of the tantrums has becoming more violent as she's grown bigger and stronger.
We have learnt that there are certain triggers that upset Mae. These triggers are, being asked to do homework; going to bed; getting up in the morning and being asked to take a shower. Of course all of these situations are accentuated after the summer holidays with the return to school, meaning routines have to be re-established. Mae doesn't like herself when she gets angry and upset and recognises that her reactions can be totally out of proportion with the request being made of her.
I spoke to our supervising social worker about my concerns, saying I felt I was treading on eggshells every time I had to ask Mae to do any of these things, I was never quite sure if I'd get an over-the-top reaction to my request. My supervising social worker made a very simple suggestion, "As you know what's going to happen, why don't you speak to Mae before school starts and tell her you're anticipating it being difficult for her and try to head it off at the pass. It could well be that if she knows you're expecting her to behave in a certain way, she'll behaving differently to try and prove you wrong."
So, my husband and I sat with Mae before she went back to school. We explained to her that we know this can be a testing time of year for her, and we understand why she struggles with the return to school, and that we're going to work with her to ensure the start of the new term is as trouble-free as possible for all of us. We said we'd see how the first few weeks went and plan a fun day out at The London Aquarium if we have a smooth transition into the back-to-school routine.
We're now being held to ransom! This is the fourth Autumn Term we've been through with Mae, and for the first time we've had no issues to deal with. The tactic suggested by our supervising social worker has been totally successful, Mae has been a different child this September and I'm busy planning a trip to London.
Food glorious food
For many young people in care, mealtimes are an alien concept. If they come from chaotic backgrounds or have suffered neglect, it's rare that their dietary needs have been a priority. One of my young ladies tells how she and her brother would eat their food sat on the wall at the front of the house. Getting her to sit at a table was quite a challenge. Meanwhile, another young person I looked after had no idea how to use a knife and fork, as he'd only ever eaten with his fingers. He was 16. OCD can manifest itself with food issues too. One young man I looked after wouldn't eat food anyone else had touched, and another young lady wouldn't eat any meat other than chicken, claiming she only liked chicken. It transpired she's never had the opportunity to try anything else, and now loves nothing better than a roast lamb dinner.
I try to make mealtimes a family occasion; the one time during the day when we all gather to eat together and catch up on the day's activities. As there are seven of us, all coming and going at various times, this needs to be led with military precision, and was proving particularly tough for two of my young people who started college last month. The college culture is very different from school, and this new found freedom led them to believe they don't have to join us for dinner any more. Indeed, they seemed to think they don't even have to let me know if they weren't coming home.
I was getting quite perplexed by this, as I felt it was not only a waste of food but also a waste of my time and energy. After all, it's not difficult to send a text. After three of four weeks of this, with me getting increasingly frustrated, I overheard a social worker talking to one of the children, "If you were living on your own you wouldn't stand and prepare a meal for yourself only to go out and leave it on the table uneaten would you? So why do you think it's acceptable to do this to your foster carer?" I repeated this logic to my other young student and lo and behold they've both been present for every meal since then.