Tuesday, January 05, 2016


A reader, Nathalie, has asked a great question having read "The Paradox Of Fostering". Normally I reply to comments  beneath the post, but this needs a more detailed reply. She wrote;

"This post was interesting to me, because I feel quite challenged by the notion that a foster parent such as yourself would 'put up with' behaviour like 'getting snipes about being useless, bad language when no-one else is about and snubs'. I understand why the child might act that out, especially when you point out that they are transferring what they know of family to the equivalent family roles in the foster home, however I'm interested in how you respond to that as a carer?

I would want to be (calm, but) very firm and say that speaking to a woman like that is not acceptable behaviour, so that they are unequivocally clear on the issue - that they may not even be conscious of. 

I wouldn't want my kids seeing me let that slide.

What is the bluesky guidance on this?" 

Thanks Nathalie, very important, let's talk about it.

When there's a conflict between foster parent and foster child there's a secondary and all-important conflict going on simultaneously in the foster parent's mind;

Control versus de-escalation.

I imagine it might be possible to exert oneself with calm but firm command, but in my experience if a foster child is prepared to cross the line they've crossed it plenty before, and have been subjected to plenty worse than a calm but firm explanation of why it's unacceptable; to no effect.

I'm more interested in de-escalation than coming across as the boss. The foster parent needs to retain authority, but not at the risk of provoking worse behaviour or alienating the child. If you de-escalate professionally you have retained and enhanced a better form of authority. 

Zero tolerance in fostering, unless you get the Von Trapp children, is a non-starter. You expect some mild difficult behaviours, as with most children. Some things you just turn a deaf ear to. Teachers call it 'selective hearing'. Otherwise you spend all your time pulling them up. In time the unwanted behaviours fall away, if you've kept on the right terms with the child.

Yes, there are lines that can't be crossed, but the reality is, as in war, there's a big expanse of no-man's-land and no actual line drawn in the middle, and foster children are good at positioning most challenging behaviours in this grey area. I worked in a youth club in a rough part of town many years ago, one of the other volunteers was a police officer, a desk sergeant, lovely bloke - used to turn up in his uniform. 

With the very best of intentions he decided to draw up a list of bad words which were unacceptable and those that could be used. It was running to three pages of A4 when he gave up, partly when it was pointed out that "Blimey!" - which he had on the 'Acceptable' list - is short for "God blind me". As for "Burke", also on his 'Acceptable' list, I'm afraid I can't tell you what that means...all grey areas.

If a child said to me "You're useless!' because there were mushroom bits in the Bolognese sauce, and I was frazzled or going through a patch of low-self esteem I could hear it as an insult to myself, and I might be tempted to make an issue of it. 

But I try to remember why the child feels rude or angry. I try to reply "Sorry, I forgot how mushrooms make you sick, let's take the bits out". I've even been known to reply; "That's me, Miss Useless 2016". Then I try for a smile with "Defending champion actually". Then; "Unbeaten in uselessness since the "Most Useless Person Europe 1998. I came second". Makes me smile anyway. 


Then change the subject with; "Do we want a lolly or ice cream for pudding?"

So, I'm afraid, good luck with being unequivocally clear on what's acceptable with a child who's been through hell. At least for the first few years.

I try to hear what the child is really saying, which is:  "I'm frightened" "I'm lonely" "Nobody loves me".

My line in the sand is drawn where it helps the child most, not where it suits my pride or self-image.

If my own children, or younger impressionable foster children witness challenging behaviour I help out the upset child first, then talk it through with the others afterwards. I talked to my children about fostering in advance and I keep talking. They are part of my team. They get it. Does it work 100%? No! We once ended up with an unofficial door slamming competition after one new child brought the door slam into our house. I joined in for a bit, it was mildly therapeutic. After I withdrew from the competition they carried on for a bit and it petered out.

This is my way, other brands are available. Yes, in the past I have sometimes put my foot down hard, but it neither ended the child's anger that caused the behaviour or made me feel better about myself or improved relations with the child. 

But; everyone in fostering is different. We all bring our own backgrounds and baggage to the job, and I respect other approaches, even if I don't agree with them always, and bite my tongue at support meetings.

Blue Sky's position, as I see it, and I'm not an official Blue Sky spokesperson, I only know my own thoughts, is the same as local authority social workers and Independent Review officers I've met; 

Don't allow yourself to feel abused, don't allow yourself to be put in the slightest danger (unlikely), in the worst possible instance (very rare) use the restraining technique's we are trained in.  These extremes are simply extreme; extremely unlikely.

The rest of the behaviours, which are stock-in-trade for many fostering situations; mild grumpiness, sulks and deliberately snippy 'pleases' and 'thank yous'; are water off a duck's back.

The best advice anyone at Blue Sky has ever given me, which I'll freely pass on here is; use common sense.

Your own common sense that is, not mine or anyone else's.

Common sense is, after all, the most evenly distributed commodity on earth. Everyone thinks they have the right amount.


  1. Really enjoying your posts at the moment and it makes a lot of sense to not want to get into a battle of wills with a child. We are struggling atm with 2 brothers behaviour towards each other - if they shout/ are rude to me I can manage it but if they do it to each other I feel I need to tell them it's not ok, and they also hit/ push / threaten. Finding it difficult to get a balance to prevent arguments happening but also need to protect them from each other when they do happen! What would you do in this situation? They are 10 and 4, and have very little patience with each other, and struggle to play together.

  2. Hi Maria,
    It's probably going to take a while, one of those challenges where the foster parents have to stick to their guns. One child I had, just after he joined me, he was having a bit of a paddy, not his first.
    I said to him; "How long are you going to be getting angry at everything?"
    He replied "It took me five years to get this way, It'll take me five years to calm down" I thought that was one of the wisest things I've ever heard in fostering, from anybody.
    I guess you could try some strategies to help them appreciate each other more. Find some soft targets which they can achieve and gain rewards, especially some which call for them to co-operate together. Tricky with a 4 year old, the 10 year old must sometimes feel pulled back.
    If the weather was good they might make a good piggy-back team versus a pair who are good at being beaten. Or maybe a game of snakes and ladders where they are a team and take it in turns to throw against another team (you +1 other) and anyone who says anything gruff about their playing partner goes down the nearest ladder (that way you can re-enforce co-operation AND make sure you lose - by cheating a roll of your eyes or a sigh whenever it's needed).

    1. Thanks for this! Good ideas for teamwork. We've had a nice few days with the eldest being really patient with the youngest, possibly he's seeing how patient we are with him but also I think he appreciates that we don't always take little ones side, I think little one is used to having a paddy to get his own way or get oldest told off,and they're seeing that we can be fair with both of them and try to make everyone a winner!
      Really finding this 'job' so rewarding, love all the little changes we are seeing, yesterday eldest came home from school with a certificate for outstanding behaviour, the school say he's been much more settled and is doing really well, pretty amazing of him considering his circumstances.

    2. Sounds like you're doing a fantastic job in every way. It's pleasing to hear you can see the little snatches of progress which are the meat and drink of fostering, you simply don't get huge and sudden reversals, that only happens in the movies.
      Maria, you make a great point about role modelling; the child gets to see the right behaviour in you, how it is its own reward and experiments using the model (namely you) and if we're vigilant gets not only an internal reward (they know in their gut what's right) but an external one too: your praise. Maybe eldest can come to learn he has a job to do as role model for youngest, someone youngest can look up to and admire. Wow, that would be some achievement.