Friday, April 27, 2018


A reader asks; "How do you cope with a full-on wobbly?"

Good question.

The anonymous reader is asking about the moment when it all gets too much for a poor dear foster child and they need to let off a bit of steam. The episode (in my experience) lasts for a few minutes but it feels longer, and can last a bit longer sometimes. The first time it happens it catches  you unawares, and you need to talk to your social worker about it to be reminded that it wasn't your fault, you did everything you could. Together with your social worker you come up with a plan to cope even better if it ever happens again.

Blue Sky, and I feel sure all fostering agencies and local authorities are there for us, especially on the rare occasions things boil up.

All children, foster children or not, have their moments. Fact is, we all do. It's just that children in care generally have more to get het up about than most.

I've only had two foster children who reverted to what I'd call full-on wobblies. One needed to yell out loud, not at me but at the world, it lasted for two minutes then she'd stomp upstairs and slam her bedroom door. She did it only three times then stopped. The other child cried. Howled like a lonely puppy. And in between sobs lamented the saddest wail I've ever heard about life, the universe and everything. Twice she chucked things, but I noticed she was very careful to make sure they were soft, unbreakable things and that their flight through the air endangered nothing and nobody. The child needed, and deserved to let it out.
The strategy we worked out was for me to accompany the child in the lament. Share her sadness. I ended up tearful, with the child.

I've learned that foster children are frequently totally in control of themselves and their actions when they wobble, I talked to my social worker about it and she agreed. So I stopped worrying, or to be precise I worried less. That helped.

Nevertheless a wobbly in your home is a proper kerfuffle. It doesn't happen with every child, by any means. I'd guess 80% of ours have been pretty much good as gold, 15% had their moments, 5% had full-on wobbles - not often though; a few times. And the wobbles dried up and stopped after a while, with both kids.

I'm not going to pretend that with experience wobbles become easy to deal with; we foster parents are human, our home is somewhere we want to be a haven of calm and loving peace. Some foster children have been to hell and back, or to be more accurate have been to hell and are on their way back, and sometimes some of them need to release some grief and frustration.

I went to a brilliant training session at Blue Sky on 'De-escalation'. As usual I managed to digest two or three key things, take them away with me, and put them into practice.

'Coping' with a wobbly is largely about managing your own mind, your thoughts and feelings. We can't expect a child to cope with what's going on in their heads if we can't cope with our own heads.

First up I learned that a wobbly is a signal that the child has learned to trust you. This isn't a credential you can hone in on at the time, you're totally pre-occupied with what's going on, but afterwards you have a cup of tea and remind yourself that if a foster child lets it out it means you're doing everything right for that particular child. This is a true fact, it's not moonshine. A wobbly means they are bonding in their own way.

Second up, a wobbly is not a misbehaviour. It's no more a misbehaviour than having a sore throat and a runny nose. Having a sore throat and a runny nose is a symptom of a cold, and it's no fault of a child if they get a cold. Having a wobbly is a symptom too. You don't confront or berate a child for having a cold, or chastise them for it; colds happen. For some children in care, wobbles happen. There's no point telling the child to stop, or using logic or threatening them with sanctions such as loss of wi-fi or whatever.

Third, a good device to turn the tide is distraction. Offer the child a choice between two things they really like such as ice-cream or a bike ride or a MacDonalds or a late night. There are some neat devices involved in this technique; 1) It helps them take their thoughts to a nicer place, 2) It gives them a choice so they have to think and start working out the nice options, 3) It lets them have some control, and many if not most wobbles are down to the simple fact that the child is frightened because they feel they have no control of anything in life.

There are some other things come to mind that are merely my own experience, take them or leave them, I'm not a psychologist. First thing I've almost always noticed is that the child finds a wonderful peace after the wobble. They are calm, approachable, talkative and co-operative. They needed to blow a gasket and needed to be re-assured that you, their foster parent, was cool about the whole moment.  Which is why I never refer back to a wobble.

Second, the wobbles diminish in time and eventually stop, so they do.

Third, I've learned to try to find the trigger for the wobble. This isn't always easy. We had one child who wobbled one day when I forgot it was wheelie bin morning and got flustered because the lorry was outside. The child confused my fluster for anger, and had memories of terrible (no, really terrible) things when mum got angry, so I had no idea when I got back into the kitchen why the child was upset.

Finding the trigger for a bad emotion in a child is made even more difficult when the child is unaware of the trigger so the foster parent has to do a Sherlock Holmes to spot it. Even more difficult if the child ferments the emotion for twenty minutes before they get upset; how are you going to work backwards and identify the thing that set them off?

Sometimes the child gives you a helping hand. We had a child who got upset on the way home from school. Eventually, from nowhere, the child said;

"It's that tree we go past near the park."

We drove home a different route and no anger. I never asked or guessed what the tree meant, the main job was done; trigger avoided.

 Here's what I used to do with one poor child, I'd say;

"If you want you could nip up to your room and come down when you feel better."

That became a badge of independence for the child; it was their decision to go to their room, I didn't cajole or escort the child, moreover they were going to their room, a room that was their territory, full of their belongings, a place no-one could enter without knocking and asking. On top of all that the child was free to repair their heart and mind in their own way and in their own time, and at liberty to come down when they wanted to. And - crucially - when they came down I made no mention of the earlier event, I'd just say something like "Want a biscuit? Tea in about half an hour."

Wobbles are one of the harder aspects of fostering, no point pretending otherwise. Fostering isn't one long bed of roses, that's why they go to huge lengths to make sure that anyone who is approved to foster has certain key credentials. You need a good heart, compassion and a desire to help and make the world a better place.

You also need to have been round the block a few times yourself. I remember when I underwent approval to foster how the social workers honed in on the trials and tribulations of my life. They were finding out about my strengths and skills for working things out.

If you receive approval to foster you are someone who is considered by a bank of professionals to be capable of doing something that maybe they can't.

If you foster you're good at the good stuff, and good at the not-so-good stuff.

You're good.

Really, really good.


  1. Great post (again) for us the wobblies in our case are stemmed from anxiety. The anxiety is usually from a situation that is out of their control and usually based on her perceived safety around strangers. Therefore our trips out in the big world are very limited for now and that seems to help. When we do go out there is a lot of preparation around us keeping her safe, where we are going, what we are doing, and a casual dash back to the car if things are going pear shaped. "Let's have a sweetie when we get back to the car" works a treat for us (at the moment as sweets are a rare treat)

  2. Thank you for your kind comment.
    Sounds like you're hard at work, well done.
    We foster parents first have to try to work out what's going on with the child, that's the first thing. Phase two is strategies.
    Phase two has two phases itself; short term measures to ease immediate discomforts (return to car, sweets) then longer term care to support more deep-rooted repair (your obvious love and devotion mainly).
    She is in good hands.

  3. Sadly the wobbles with the girl we're caring for only seem to be getting worse and can be triggered from usual daily boundaries she has been used to for months e.g. sharing toys or not getting sweets on demand. We've spent a lot of time helping her share her feeings and anxieties which helped temporarily but it's clear there's a lot more under the surface that we just can't get to.

  4. Oh dear, poor you. Poor child.
    There's a way of looking at a challenging child that has helped me.
    Whenever I worked prior to fostering, I always found myself having to deal with some colleagues or superiors who made my life more difficult than it needed to be, or so it seemed to me.
    I took it a bit personally as if they were on my case.
    Looking back I get it that they were simply bringing their personal problems to work; rejection, low self-esteem, anger.
    What I should have done at the time is say to myself "OK, this is hard, but being treated harshly is part of the job."
    There are times when we foster parents say to ourselves "This is part of the job".
    Have you got a network; family and friends, around?