Tuesday, July 22, 2014


That TV show "Friends" was always going to go down well with young people, being about young friends.

Nothing takes up more time in young people's lives than their friends. Texting, Mssging, Facebook and all that. Looking back, my generation had to make do with talking to each other, but friends were still of A1 importance.

The first thing I learned at my first Blue Sky training session was about "attachment". Newborn babies, from the minute they exist, crave attachment with a caring parent. Attachment is a two-way feeling of understanding and care for someone. It's the love we feel for our family members. It starts before babies are born. As they grow and learn to walk and talk the attachment deepens. Babies develop attachment with their parents, then use the skills to make healthy relationships with other people.

Children who have fractured relationships with their parents have trouble making attachments. They don't get on with other people very well, and it can be the root cause of a whole range of social problems.

It's not only the children of socially deprived families that suffer. Rich still send their children off to boarding school, and the damage they can suffer is starting to be understood.

My own children all have a steady bunch of friends they are growing up with. They have been friends for a long time. There are arguments. New faces come and go occasionally. Changing schools from primary to secondary was a wrench, but with social media they've stuck together. Now that they are getting towards thinking about romance I guess the dynamic will shift a bit.

I notice it's not the same for many looked-after children. Yes they sometimes have friends, but I'd call them acquaintances rather than friendships. You see it in the playground, the foster child is often on his own. Not necessarily unhappy, almost as if they've pulled up the drawbridge on other people and don't want the risk/reward of trying to bond.

It's not always the case of course, and I've also noticed that the problem, if it is a problem, seems to right itself as they approach adulthood. They find themselves a buddy or two. Or as Bill puts it "An accomplice".

I don't know if what I've noticed about foster children struggling to make friends is true across the board, maybe it's just my brood. As to the cause; their damaged attachment? Their conscious reluctance to put themselves out there and maybe get emotionally hurt again?  Maybe they are simply short of the social skills you need to keep hold of playmates. Maybe other children sense that your looked-after child might be a bit more complicated than the rest and children are usually pretty astute at recognising the necessary similarities with themselves that make other children potential friends.

The thing is, what do we carers do to help? You can't teach a foster child "give-and-take". I tried once arranging a little tea-party of school mates at our house, but it didn't do the trick. The other children paired off and my looked-after ended up angry, confused and overdosed on sugar. He didn't end up with a buddy.

I guess the best we carers can do is be some kind of friend while they are with us.

As a p.s. Blue Sky organise a load of social events where all the children there are young people in care. They do seem to relax knowing that everyone is in the same boat, no worries about another child asking an awkward question or fear that others might be gossiping about them.


  1. Whenever I read one of our posts, I feel a bit like a voyeur as I have no direct link to fostering except a friend from university. I hope, it is ok that I am commenting anyway…

    I cannot comment on what you have writing regarding children who are being fostered, however, I boarded myself and have friends who boarded at prep school and I wondered whether you know of any research exploring the damage children can suffer from attending boarding schools. Regarding the damage children can suffer; do you think this occurs on a more general level, or do you think it is linked to boarding at an early age (or are you thinking of the abuse which occurred in some boarding schools)?

    You make an interesting point, and I think it is true that if one boards “fulltime”, then the attachment to friends and potentially family could weaken over time. It can be very difficult to start boarding at an early age, or when one is one of the international students and struggles with the language barrier and the cultural differences.

    It is true that not everybody has a happy time at boarding school, and it can be difficult at times, but I think depends on the level of pastoral care in the school. Especially for international students who’s parents can't sign them out for a weekend, let them come home for non-compulsory exeats, or pick them up from boarding school if they are ill. However, boarding school can be very nurturing and positive environment, and I had an amazing time and met some of my best friends there. Most of people I know from boarding school do not seem to have any problems. Whether they started boarding at an early age or not. Perhaps it is too early too say though as the first ones have just graduated.

    Hopefully, this does not come across as biased or as criticism as this isn't my intention and you raise an interesting point.

    1. Dear Anonymous,

      Thank you sincerely for your thoughtful post. You are most welcome here. For further information about boarding and its effects try Googling "BSS". It stands for Boarding School Syndrome.
      Some psychotherapists want it recognised as a medical condition.
      They say they can spot a boarding school survivor at a glance, not because of their affluence, but because of "a wounded quality".

      I think the practice of boarding children is quite medieval. Affluent parents do it to their children in ignorance of its effects. I was at an event where I got talking to a man, dressed in a tweed jacket, the owner of an estate agent business. he had had a few drinks and opened up about himself, telling me that he felt deeply unhappy inside as his parents had sent him to boarding school aged 7. Elsewhere at the event was a 15 year old boy playing the piano dressed in a tweed jacket, the man's son. Who was attending boarding school. Go figure. Maybe there's more care and kindness in some boarding schools than some children would get in their stately home, brought up by nannies and butlers.
      What is the message a chid gets if he or she is sent away before he can fend for himself? It's a rejection.
      If a child is bullied at school or made to feel inadequate, or unwelcome at least they can come home and close the door for the evening. Not at boarding school, it's 24/7.
      Must be even harder for foreign boarders.

      However, as foster carers we have to remember that if removing a child from their natural parents to advance them is wrong, then we must be as careful and caring as possible with children who have suffered exactly the same fate, albeit for different reasons.

    2. Dear Secret Foster Carer,

      Thank you for your reply. I had a look at the psychotherapists’ idea and wondered whether you agree with their analysis. I wasn’t sure whether I should reply in detail, as this blog is about fostering and not about different views on boarding. However, I do not agree with your perception of boarding schools, and even though the following may confirm your perception, I would like to offer a different view (albeit only my personal experience).

      The message one gets when leaving for boarding school needn’t be rejection. I think in families that communicate well, where boarding has been discussed, the decision is made in an inclusive way, and the child is 13 or older, one does not feel rejected. For me it meant seizing an opportunity, a privilege, to be able to learn to speak English fluently and become bilingual, to live in another country, to get a very good education and to prepare myself to go to university in the UK.

      I do not mean to give you a rose-tinted version, so here are some negative aspects: it can be daunting at times and I struggled with homesickness and language problems in the beginning and a term can seem very long when one misses home. Any unpleasant behaviour from others in such a situation is indeed horrible, however, the staff try to create an environment where everybody gets along and where unpleasant behaviour is not tolerated.

      Not everything goes smoothly at all times, and it can be difficult when problems arise when one flies home, meaning that one finds oneself stranded at the airport for the night. Yes, it is hard if one is in hospital due to an accident and one’s parents cannot come (and everybody else in the room is visited by their parents). However, difficult situations give one the opportunity to be independent, to persevere and hardly any long-term experience is only positive. Also, should I or other boarders ever have children who board, we can always handle situations differently, and having boarded might help us to make the right decision. Moreover, the staff work as hard possible to help one settle in, to make one feel as welcome as possible and create a home form home.

      I had a lovely time there; the sports fixtures against other schools, orchestra practices, the competitions between house, the drama and choir performances we, as a house, put on. As a boarding house we had pampering evenings, we had hot chocolate/ pizza and DVD evenings. We celebrated Chinese New Year, St Nikolaus and had our own little Oktoberfest & German Christmas Market. Being with my friends 24/7 was amazing and we had so many happy moments together. They are truly friends for life.

      Overall, I had a great experience with a few wobbles and I wanted you to know that, even though boarding school may not be for everyone, it is not “medieval”.