Have I failed as foster parent? by Peter Langdown

Have I failed as foster parent? by Peter Langdown


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By Fostering Families

Inevitably as a long-standing foster parent, we will reach a point in our career where we feel we have failed our children. If a placement breaks down, a child leaves us, or if you see their world falling apart through a path of self destruction, it can be too easy to feel that we, as the foster parent, could have, should have, nay, definitely have fallen short of helping them also know from personal experience and from many stories from other carers, that when a child leaves or things start to go awry, your fostering LA/IFA can start to look at you and your decisions with a very critical eye and question your methods, decisions and reactions to the situations that arose. This means that we are not just suffering the trauma of losing a child that we care for and love, or watching them spiral into self-destruction, but we are questioned as though we are to blame. ‘The words of our internal critic is confirmed by our employer. The upshot of this can be catastrophic to our mental health. We feel like we have come into a profession to do good and try and make the world a better place, but instead we get to a point where we feel our best is not good enough and that our actions may have caused a child to go through a highly traumatic experience. So what and how do we manage this experience that really, if we are brutally honest, is an inevitably of fostering? For some, it may happen when we are gifted our first borrowed child, others may go a decade with a long run of success before things go awry. Either way, it is a brutal experience, so what can we do to manage ourselves and our own mental wellbeing when this occurs? The answer is that we need to reframe our own perception of what and who we are as humans. I firmly believe there is an overwhelming misunderstanding in our society around the words ‘to teach’. We also have a broken concept of what happens when we fail at ‘teaching’ our children, be it our birth or borrowed children. I believe a lot of this comes from outdated concepts of how we used to teach and treat children. We are all aware of the historic world where ‘to teach’ a child was a concept of tyrannical control, through the ideology of a fear of severe discipline, thoroughly strict instruction and intense discipline. That we, as the teacher, were to enforce rule and discipline upon those who are to learn. That as children, we were to do exactly as we were told or fear the consequences - consequences that could quite literally mean a beating.

The implications for the child are obvious, but what this imparts to the ‘teacher’ is overlooked. It tells us that children do not know how to learn, how to grow, and it is our responsibility to make and enforce change. The issue with this is that it means the onus is on the teacher to ‘make’ the change, and therefore it is our fault if the child does not succeed. Now of course, we know this is far from correct. Children are sponges and love to learn and experience the world, and we have come a long way from this archaic mindset. We have also moved our practical application to suit and now understand and employ practices such as ACT and PACE parenting. The benefits of these science based techniques are clear, and thankfully our children are growing up with secure attachments in an environment that gives them a stable base to go out into the world. I fear, though, that it is the other half of the coin that has been overlooked: what this means for the teacher. Although the child can now look forward to being ‘taught’ properly, we still hold (even if subliminally) the notion that to teach is to be responsible for not just what we teach, but the outcome of the teaching. This can easily be assumed true if we confuse causation with correlation. It is our job as a parent (foster or otherwise) to offer an environment and society to our children that is positive, safe, and full of opportunity to learn through experience. This is what it means to teach. The important word here is ‘offer’. I do not use the word ‘enforce’. This one word is the quintessential key to changing your entire mindset around what it is to teach, what it is to be a parent and, in fact, what it is to be human. ‘There is a fantastic psychologist, Alfred Adler, who hypothesised the theory of the ‘task of self. His teachings are summarised brilliantly in the book The Courage to be Disliked. The concept he wanted to distill is that we, as humans, are physically incapable of making someone else do anything. It is only when the other person makes the decision to learn something that they will be open to learning it. That does not mean they WILL learn it, of course, but perhaps through time, practice and the usual application of repeat trying, they will hopefully learn how to fully carry on the lessons they observed from the original teacher. This should be understood explicitly by parents or anyone in a teaching role. However, this lesson has been lost through the bad teaching ideologies of the past. Let’s unpack it. We, as a society, have been so focused on the damage caused to children by the old mindset of teaching them through tyrannical force, but we haven’t fully moved past the concept that we as the teacher are responsible for ‘making’ a child learn. The reality is that we can only ‘offer’ ourselves to the student: we cannot physically ‘make’ a child learn anything if they do not want to or, even more commonly, are not yet able learn it either logically or emotionally. It is here that we, as foster parents, find the grounds to beat ourselves up.

We blame ourselves for what we cannot take blame for. We too often fall into the trap of correlation over causation, a trap that can also be adopted by fostering agencies /authorities. On the face of it, it is our job to teach a child how to be an adult and to grow into well-rounded, secure beings. Sometimes though, a child can implode and a placement may break down. We (and often the fostering agency / authority) will look at the obvious - this has failed - and come to the conclusion that the teacher (parent) has failed to properly teach, We also feel that we were there to teach this child and, as the child has not learnt, we have failed and only added to their already traumatic life. This is where we as foster parents

suffer and where we can truly feel hopeless and at ends ‘our choices as to why we decided to go into this noble career. This is looking at the experience through correlation, not, causation, We see an action and a reaction and assume the

two are linked to each other, even when itis not the case. We need to go back to the theory of Adlerian psychology: we are independent creatures and only learn when we choose or are able / ready to. To teach is to offer something that we deem of value to another, but we cannot make another person learn what we have to offer, no matter how much we want them to.

When we understand this, we see that we are not the cause for a child being unable to take on the lesson. Also, if a child cannot take on the lesson for a multitude of reasons, then it is not their fault either.

But how does this link back to fostering in real terms?

How can this understanding help make us

  1. better foster parents, and;
  2. Deal with the challenging times as a foster parent?

It teaches us that we can only offer who we are and what we know. We must understand that we only know so much and can only offer the type of person we are. It is our role to offer lessons that embrace ACT and PACE and - importantly - create an environment where a child can feel safe. We can offer as many opportunities to learn lessons that improve their understanding of the world, and how to manage and interact with it in a safe and stable manner.

What we can't do

Is make a child learn these lessons we offer. A child may not be interested in them because they don't see the benefits, or (especially when it comes to our borrowed children) they are simply not ready to learn them yet. What you offer may seem safe and harmless to you, but to the child it may be perceived as letting in vulnerability and therefore danger. We cannot blame ourselves for this, and we cannot blame the child either. The only thing we can do is to keep offering evidence that these lessons are safe to learn and, when they are ready or capable of learning them, we hope they will choose to learn from them. Even then, they may need to try and fail countless times before they master it. When we start to realise and accept that the task of self is separate to others, we can start to be kinder to ourselves and to our children when things do not go well. If a placement breaks down and if we have offered all the bases that we are taught, then itis not a time to beat ourselves up. We must understand that we can only offer what we have: we cannot share what we do not possess. If a child needs something you do not have it is not your fault, but hopefully someone else can. Therefore, letting your LA/FA know what you can and cannot offer helps when trying to find a good match for that child, It may mean bringing in more specialists, or it may mean the child needs a more suitable home. It may also mean, and this is a very common theme, that your borrowed child is not ready, nor willing to learn just yet no matter who presents these lessons to them. You can make the choice to stick with them and be there for them, consistently offering the lessons they need to learn until they are ready for it. But if we do, we must hold the task of self close to our hearts and heads. If we choose to persist we cannot blame ourselves if we are not able to pass this knowledge on, nor the child if they are not able to. When we start to understand this way of human interaction, we learn to be better parents and better teachers, more patient with ourselves and our children,

Remember, next time a child does not do something you've told them 3000 times over, itis not ‘your fault’, nor is it the ‘child’s fault’. There may be new and exciting ways you can offer a lesson (which I always encourage), but just keep going and one day they will be ready. As long as you are there when they are ready, then you are doing all you can do. The important thing to remember is that the underlying processes do not change, whether itis a child not making their bed, or a child running away from home and stealing things whilst swearing and being abusive to you and your partner. All that we can do, (and when I say we, I mean fostering at large) is continue to work the same principles; offer the child an enrolment where they are safe and lessons are readily available,whether that is with you or with another parent who has different ways of demonstrating these lessons. It is much easier to say when we are far away from an intense experience, but it is all the more important to understand and accept when our logical minds are in control. With this understanding and mindset, we can move into the world being kinder to others and importantly, to ourselves, allowing ourselves to be the best carers we can.

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