Feelings in Foster Care
‘How do you feel about that?’ is probably the most clichéd question that people think psychologists ask. Actually they’re right. In the film ‘Freaky Friday’ a clinical psychologist and her teenage daughter change bodies for a day. Faced with the task of doing her mother’s job for a morning she is given the instruction; just ask ‘how do you feel about that?’ Cliché or not it cannot be denied we ask that question a lot. Indeed we are paid and trained to do so – it is our bread and butter.
It would be so helpful for everyone involved in placing a child to know in advance how it will feel for the foster carers when a child lives with them. Feelings are central to the role of fostering as this is primarily where the children will struggle and present the most challenges.
Helping a child learn to manage their feelings is one of the key tasks of fostering and yet it seems not often discussed in much detail. The emotional landscape is quite complex. What we may have are several layers of feelings from the child and the carers past and present thrown together and mixed up.
Firstly there are the child’s feelings associated with adults from their past which may include; anger, despair and fear. The child may have difficulty in managing these feelings, as the system for regulating emotions may not have developed which only serves to exacerbate the problem. This may result in the child being hyperactive, withdrawn or impulsive. Then there are the child’s feeling about or within themselves about their early life such as shame, rage and denial. The child’s feelings for their foster carer may start with a yearning for affection but may be mired with trust issues and disturbance.
Foster carers feelings
The Foster Carer’s feelings about the child will of course depend on their own emotional past and present as well as how they cope with the child’s traumatic past. It can be a confusing time. Foster carers may well feel a range of intense feelings. Children will bring their emotional past with them and will work it through in the present. Although this is unlikely to be a conscious or deliberate process it is still experienced by all as acute, intense and unsettling.
A role which a clinical psychologist can undertake is to talk this through with a foster carer. Obviously if a foster carer who is subject to these emotions can discuss, and understand and process them they can be restored to a state of balance, stability and strength. This is a good position from which they can move forward and help the child to do so as well. If this restoration is not possible then the door is open for resentment, hostility and anger to grow and fester. So it is wise to seek help and support with this difficult but incredibly valuable job, and please allow me to ask about how you are feeling!
Brenda McLackland Associate Clinical Psychologist