Friday, May 27, 2016



I can't remember where I first heard the word used to describe emotional pressure.

I remember from French lessons as a child, being taught you put the stress on this syllable or that.

I remember something about a stress-fracture, something medical.

Then suddenly the word was taken over to mean being leaned on by life.

There used to be a phrase for people who could cope with all sorts of upsets, they used to say she had 'grace under pressure'. Nowadays someone is doing well if they are 'coping with the stress'. Or else they are 'stressed out'.

It's in my mind as I'm halfway through a training session about risk assessment. It's a Blue Sky online programme so you can sit at your kitchen table with a cup of tea and tap your way through at your own pace.  Quite fun actually. And you do get thinking about some of the material.

I've just finished a great module about SECONDARY STRESS.

I didn't know two things;

a) That I have got secondary stress.

b) It's possible that it's a good thing.

Secondary stress is what you get from having someone in your life who is stressed out.

Looked-after children almost always have stress in their lives, and as a foster parent they come into your life for sure, right into yourvery house.

So how does secondary stress work? Like this:

When you have responsibility for someone who is stressed out you have the stress of ensuring their environment and ongoing experiences help to reduce their stress. 

In fostering the first priority is to provide  a safe place for the child, so you have to avoid physical dangers like open fires and bottles of bleach.  That means you have to look at your home and its dangers.  To do that you have to use your imagination about possible negative things, and that's when secondary stress begins. There you are, in your own home, your own lovely homely home trying to imagine anything that could go wrong. As you make pictures of disasters involving kettles and coffee tables you get little kicks of anxiety. But it has to be done or else the child might hurt herself.

But there's bigger and better secondary stress to come.

Just as important as physical safety is emotional safety.  The foster parent does everything she can to comfort the child, to make them feel better.  You try to help them feel safety, to trust the adults who are looking after them. 

To do that you have to use your imagination about each child's particular plight.

You have to look into their heart and soul. And every time you do that you share their pain.

This is the mother of all secondary stress, and it's the foster parent's lot whenever she chooses to look at the world the way her foster child does.

You find yourself experiencing being unloved by someone you desperately want to love you. You experience loneliness, fear, anger, defeat, uncertainty, mistrust. 

You happily risk secondary stress to spend moments imagining the darkness of your poor little child's life. A poor little child the world has asked you to look after.

So, without thinking about how much of a piece of you gets eaten, you go there  in order to do your job the better.

You have a better idea of what the child needs because you've had a tiny taste of how it is to be that child.

Secondary stress can be a good thing if it helps you help the child and...

...and this is the big thing, for me anyway;

You know you are losing a bit of your inner peace in order to do a good thing better than if you didn't care enough to take the risk.

Because if you can help that child the better, you help yourself by knowing that it's in a good cause. Knowing you are fostering at the top of your game.

Obviously; if the going gets hard you get on the blower to your SW, so monitoring yourself is important.

But on the whole, I like my secondary stress, it means I'm doing my best to do my best.

Having said that, I've switched to decaf tea recently...

Monday, May 23, 2016


We've had a golden fortnight or so with one of our looked-afters.

The more I foster the more I come to think that their progress, their repair - call it what you will - is ultimately down to them.

Yes, we foster carers facilitate, meet their needs, offer advice (sparingly) and act as ...role models.

Much over-used term role model, but I can't think of an alternative. 

We keep our tempers, are polite and considerate, behave towards everybody with kindness and if the need to be firm presents itself we do it with care, make sure it's fair and reasonable.

The hope is that our example rubs off. It takes time, concentration and stamina.

As for advice, I don't think anybody really likes taking someone else's advice. Definitely not as much as they like giving advice. As we get older giving advice becomes a tic. Anyone older than anyone else feels empowered to offload what they consider to be the benefit of their opinion.

Foster children have been through things that foster parents and social workers haven't. We wouldn't tell a soldier who'd been traumatised on the battle field what to do to mend their shattered selves, we wouldn't presume. Same thing.

What we do is improve the ground where the little flower is growing. Okay it's suffered some killer frosts but it's hanging in there, it needs nourishments; confidence, a moral compass, self-worth. We foster carers have to show them respect, treat them maturely, give them signals that they are moving in the right direction to become adults of merit.

Of course, when they scuff their knee and get scared of a drop of their own blood we swaddle them in the real or metaphorical cuddles of good nursing they also crave.

But mostly, provided we give them the space and security, as long as they actually want to, they do it themselves. 

One of our looked-afters has had trouble making friends ever since she came. Foster children often struggle with pals. If you've lived your life in a disjointed family, the symmetry of a healthy group dynamic is Greek to you.

This kid was very, very sad about having no friends. But utterly, utterly determined to keep trying. It was sometimes painful to watch the rejections, but over the last two weeks it's been simply overwhelming to witness a giant leap. From nowhere too, or at least if it's come from somewhere we can't spot it.

It's as though a penny has dropped about the give and take of play. She's been building a network. It culminated in her having her gang round on Sunday. I say her gang, she organised the whole day, yakking on her phone all Saturday.

We all remember the joy of having a gang right? A team. A bunch of like-minded people all the same age with enough in common for you almost to want to wear a uniform. 

They played all day, first in the house, then up the park, then back at the house.

The best of many best things was that she managed the business of dealing with her powerful wanting to be the leader, which I think she'd worked out was one of the reasons people didn't want to play with her before.
She used to have a full set of what I call 'leadership qualities', but they were a bit raw and unsophisticated. Now she knows to go along with other playmates ideas, that people don't want to play with a player whose play is geared to making them and nobody else feel good, they want to play with people who want to make all the playmates enjoy and that means co-operation and sensitivity to others' needs and moods.

They played the best long game of Hide and Seek I've ever seen.

My looked-after and her best pal found such a good spot no-one could find them, they hunted high and low.

You know that thing where children playing hide and seek sometimes make a deliberate noise so you know where they are? They do it with their parents, I don't recall seeing it between contemporaries.

This happened. One of the searchers had a mobile.

It rang.

My looked-after used her phone from their hiding place to encourage the seekers to keep seeking, that they were getting close. She plainly did this the moment she twigged that beating them into submission wouldn't do her any favours, and when they eventually found her the seekers were allowed to own the triumph because the clues they'd been given were helpful but they still had work to do. Clever.

Huge laughter.

Deep joy all round!

Tuesday, May 17, 2016


One of our regular friends on this blog, Mooglet, has suggested we get a goldfish or a gerbil instead of the dog as asked for by Romeo. Good thinking.

The goldfish thing reminded me of something that sticks in my craw about this country. Well, every country on earth actually - with the slight exception of China as far as I understand.

The reason any mention of goldfish triggers this thought is as follows;

A few weeks prior to my goldfish moment we'd taken in a new foster child. She was a petite (underfed) girl, terribly shy. Her background notes showed she'd been a seriously under-planned child. Her parents had no idea what having a baby entailed and as the enormity of the commitment dawned on them they responded by not lifting a finger.

My analysis of their inertia (all foster parents turn into budding psychologists, sometimes we're as good as anybody else) was; the parents had themselves been treated with horrible derision by other adults all their lives and learned that if you do nothing then at least you can't be ridiculed quite as much as if you do something. 

The parents problem was caused by the reverse of 'learned helplessness' - where children are denied independence by having everything done for them rather than being taught how to do things - yet the end result was almost identical. They couldn't do anything.

Our new foster child wanted a pet, so we decided to put a couple of goldfish into the garden pond. When I say 'garden pond' I'm talking about a shallow tub with enough thick chicken wire covering it to almost prevent rain getting in. Fostering = Health and Safety is King.

So we took this little unplanned child, this little person who nobody gave a fig about and nobody had previously had any expertise or desire to care for, we took her to the big pet store on the by-pass.

'Can I help you?' asked a young assistant.

'Yes we'd like some goldfish please.'

'Right,' she said 'I'll go and get the forms.'

The forms? Oh yes, the forms.

We sat down at a desk.

They wanted our names, address and other details;

'Have you ever owned a goldfish before'

'Is the intended environment ready?'

'What systems of oxygenation have you installed'.

'If outside, what means of protection from predators have you?'

'Have you used tap or natural water?'

On and on. It lasted twenty minutes before we were approved and allowed to take home two goldfish. I wanted to call them Laurel and Hardy because one was bigger than the other. 

The family settled for Ant and Dec.

You must see my point.

There used to be an old maxim;

"You need a licence to own a dog or to fish in a lake, but anyone can have a child"

It's become truer than ever in our modern world.

If only the little girl's parents had been vetted before they had her. 

China? The Chinese government used to limit families to one child, which was one toe in the water of intervening with who has children and how many. 

I must point out, as I do from time to time, that outlook is my own view, not Blue Sky's.

Ant and Dec are fine BTW.

                                                                  * * *

Council for Prosecution; "..and do you expect this court to believe that they are the same Ant and Dec you purchased from the Pet Shop?"

Secret Foster Carer "They are, Your Honour."

Council for Prosecution; "Call the assistant from the Aquatics Department at the Garden Centre!"

Secret Foster Carer " Wait! I confess!!"

Monday, May 16, 2016


Ordinary children go through their phases in fairly orderly fashion.

Newborn baby.

With each phase the relationship between the child and their parents moves to a more sophisticated level. During the first stages we supply the basic needs to survive, but as they move up our responsibilities graduate towards emotional needs and spiritual support, not that they stop expecting a full fridge and a lift home at midnight; "Only please don't come in mum, wait at the end of the road."

The phases with a new foster child are the same only at Warp Speed. 

Romeo has ben with us 6 months now. When he arrived it was about meeting his basic needs; food, liquid, a good night's sleep, a good balance between his different physical requirements.

I always wish I could get closer to the distressed child more quickly, but it takes time; you have to get to know them to meet their individual emotional needs, and they need to build up trust in their foster family. You can't rush it. 

Before they can achieve a loving friendship with us, they need to be properly fed and watered, then given a sense of security and territory and possessions.

Then they move on to being kind to others out of a sense of confidence and pride in  who they are.

In ordinary children those processes take ten years.

In foster children it takes about six months, give or take.

In many ways when Romeo arrived he was like a newborn baby, so dependent on us for everything. 

Now that six months have passed he has reached perhaps an even higher level than the average child his age. He turns out to be an 'enhanced' child. Certain parts of his brain developed quicker when he was small to help him cope with challenges that other children are spared.

He still struggles with basics at school, but he's catching up. 

But when it comes to raw emotional intelligence he's 8 going on 28.

He's asked for a dog of his own.

This won't be likely, but it's a profound request. It's underpinned by a desire to move up the pecking order in the house, a belief that he can care for a complicated organism. These facets he's totally self-aware  of, he breaks his own emotions down into their components;

"It'd give me someone to boss around. Everyone else has someone below them."

"I'm ready to look after a dog, I'll do it all, don't worry, what you don't think I can?"

Most interesting is his take on his big reason to have a dog of his own;

"It'll mean I have to stay here because my mum doesn't allow pets."

Naturally as a foster parent I'm working on re-uniting him with his natural home. But that's beginning to look like a long shot, and he knows it. 

I think his worry is he might get moved to another foster home, and the dog is his insurance.

Imagine. In six months he's gone from being helpless to being able to conceive a scheme which flatters his foster family - which he wishes to do out of mutual respect. Not only that he has a grasp of the subtleties of himself and the rest of humanity that are beyond the man who might be the next President of the United States.


Monday, May 09, 2016


"RAISING AWARENESS..." of matters of concern has become something of a national pursuit.

I have to admit I can't take everything in, I don't think many people can. We tend to get sucked in to something such as those unaccompanied Syrian refugee children when it swamps the TV news, but many issues sadly glide by largely unnoticed. In the last month I've already missed World Pillow Fight Day not to mention Donkey Week.

But coming up is National Children's Day and they've picked on a very thought-provoking point in their video which explains all, it's only a few minutes and easily digestible (it's a cartoon). So although I get fed up with people sending me links and adding the message 'Take a look" and it turns out to be some unremarkable 50 minute You Tube thing, here's a link to the National Children's Day UK homepage which has a link to their video;

But if you haven't time I'll sum it up, because it's very applicable to foster parents.

Their point this year is that the wellbeing of any child is dependent on the wellbeing of their significant adults; parents, carers, teachers.

They highlight the stresses of modern life, parenting and teaching.  They mention caring but don't go into the fairly obvious fact that foster caring brings special challenges. Instead they talk about the wellbeing of ordinary parents and teachers.

There are some stark factoids;

10% of all mothers are dealing with mental health problems at any one time, and 6% of all fathers.

I get the impression from the video that although foster carers are sometimes on a rockier road than many adults in contact with children they are less at risk of loss of wellbeing than parents and teachers.

I have heard of a foster dad who was giving everything to his frightened foster son, that the dad himself had to go into counselling. I can't stress how rare this is, but you can see what must have happened.

He let his fostering chip away at his own peace of mind, but unlike an ordinary parent or teacher, help was on readily hand. His needs were quickly identified and support mechanisms put in place.

This is something I always try to make clear to prospective foster carers; unlike ordinary parents foster parents have a team of supporters at their side. The team helps with the practical aspects of fostering (for example, they handle the red tape and most of the paperwork) as well as the challenges of helping the child grow up in positive ways.

But the NCDUK awareness day is worth focussing on for a moment. The wellbeing of the child depends on the wellbeing of the parent.

We foster parents have to look after ourselves. Eat well, drink sensibly, ixnay on the tobacconay, exercise (especially stretching), find time to re-charge the batteries (even if it's only watching Bargain Hunt), make full use of the help our social workers offer, take time to reflect on the things we are doing with our foster children that are working. Plan a holiday, plan a treat. Smile. Laugh. Phone a friend. 

And anything else that floats your boat.

Friday, May 06, 2016


The seasons are a big deal for gardening fanatics.

Bigger for foster parents.

Cold weather means indoor stuff in the evenings and at weekends; everyone cramped together.

Good weather means the outdoors beckons.

When it's cold and wet we're constantly challenged to come up with things our foster children can do for recreation in the house. If I had a pound for every time I heard "I'm bored".

But Winter has it's merits; our children are close to hand (ie never further than upstairs), so we can monitor them, influence them, show them our attachments; in short we can actively parent them.

Come Summer and they are generally off and out. 

And why not? It's what we all did when we were young. The great attraction of the great outdoors is not so much the fresh air and sunlight as the freedom. 

Freedom from... us!

Independence is a heady thing. Do you remember the first time you crossed a road by yourself? The first time you bought something in a shop? The first time you came home from a friend's house by yourself?

The list of firsts on the independence ladder goes on and on.

I had another first yesterday; I was asked by a rep from Fosterline which racial group I belonged to. I replied "Well, I'm white I suppose..." Then I remembered my parents backgrounds and said "No! I'm A Celt! Yes...a Celt dammit! Can you put me down as a Celt?"

The man replied; "Er...well I've never been told Celt before, but I guess that's a racial er..okay."

So; another first. I'm finally in a racial minority. Not an oppressed one, or one where I'm subjected to prejudice thank God. But one which helps me feel the lure the Scots and Welsh have for independence.

Massive thing Independence.

And warm weather plus light evenings open the doors for foster children who want to experiment with their independence.

They want to go out on their own. Come home on their own.

Come home late.

I've heard foster parents moaning about their foster children wanting mobile phones. Look, one of mine, not yet in secondary school, has a mobile. It gives him kudos up the playing field, and why shouldn't a child in care, who feels the indignity of being looked-after have something to balance the books?

It's got a couple of Apps:  'Find Friends' and "Find iPhone'.

Equipping your foster child with a phone means you can call them or message them any time.

And it means you can tell where they are, to within about twenty feet!!!


The phone is twinned with ours so we can also discreetly monitor its activity (nothing as yet - the child is too busy having fun with mates to go roaming). 

Does it mean we no longer worry about the child being out and about?

Does it heck. We are still wearing our outdoor shoes until we hear the front gate,  just in case.

Summer; less for the foster parent to actually do, more for the foster parent to worry about...

Summer: Forward gear for foster children, forward gear for fostering.