OK, I’m not starting this stating that I’ve been through the same experiences these wonderful foster carers go through. I’m not saying I’m more expert or knowledgeable that any of you. I’m not. I’m saying I had an experience with a child I care for who is not my own, it was hard, I learnt from it. I wonder if it might help to share it with you.
Here I am, I’ve worked in social care since I was 16 years old, I’ve had experiences – like most of you have – which were incredibly hard and I got over them and maybe I’m a little proud of myself for that. I have a whole 10 years post qualified experience as a social worker, I’m half a therapist (the other half is still learning) I’ve ran parenting classes – I run my own fostering agency for goodness sake. When I heard that speech act from my little person did I use all this knowledge skillfully and react as seamless professional carer?
Nope. I cried inside (then on the outside in a locked bathroom).
Here’s why I think that’s not surprising – or any bad thing.
I’m with the little person I care for, a lovely bubbly, clever little bean. I’ve spent about a week planning for this day, hiring the bike, choosing the right day etcetera… it’s a success! Its sunny we have fun, we laugh and joke, its nice. Then from the back of the car like a trained sniper comes this:
“If I had one wish you wouldn’t be here, my real mummy would be and I’d never have met you.”
Wow. I don’t think (as an adult) I’ve been cut to my heart like that. I looked in the rearview mirror at a sad little face and what did I do? After being a qualified social worker for 10 years, working in fostering for about 5 of them, being therapeutically trained and knowledgeable in parenting approaches. What did I do?
Nothing. Literally. (In the use that is almost metaphorical –as I still drove the car and continued to breathe!)
I was putting all my efforts into not crying, because in that moment, all my professional learning, all my practice experience seemed to dissipate. My nerves were on the outside of my body and I could do nothing but hold in an eruption of tears and wails. At least I retained some sort of common sense – that action may not help here!
I wasn’t stopping this because I didn’t want to seem weak (I’d cried all the way through Matilda with the same kidley bean just a few days before), it was because somewhere in my emotion filled mind, I knew that this was difficult for me, but it must be way harder for this tiny person. Humans very rarely just say such things flippantly, there’s always a context, a reason, a hope and a need. I could not tell you in that moment what it was – I was really focusing on not crying – but I knew there must be one, and I had to be the adult, I had to hold on and provide some sort of security, even if it was silent security!
It’s amazing how fast your brain can work in these moments. I was unable to speak, but my mind was running all over. All the conversations we’ve ever had, all the jokes I’d ever made (that little person may not have found funny), all the ‘directions’ I’d given them about eating breakfast or whatever, all the dialogues and responses I’d had around conversations about mummy. I can only assume my mind was desperately tracking through my memory log seeking a reason, an answer to why this was happening – I must have done something, its in here somewhere. I’m not sure if it wasn’t, or if it was but it didn’t really help. It just added to the panicky feeling that had started to unfurl in my stomach and seemed to be working its way up to my chest.
Then, just as I’m piecing my mind back together, before I speak, the little person starts to uncontrollably cry. “I’ve missed my chance”, I think. “Its too late I’ve lost the moment and now they feel I’m punishing them with silence”. It’s remarkable how quickly moments can shift and change from underneath you. Sometimes feeling like you are caught in a tidal current with crashing waves in every direction that you feel powerless to influence or overcome. This time however, there’s someone else in the water with me, a little person, a person I’m caring for, a person who needs me, even when they are simultaneously hurting me.
So I dove back in. I gave up on words. No point fighting a loosing battle – nothing coherent would have come out of my mouth anyway. So I just hugged. Held and hugged. Hoping this was a sign of some sort of secure base. An attachment domain if you like. A reaction to what I thought may have been a request, a call to action. Just hoping, but not knowing, this was what the little person would find helpful, comforting.
I’m not a mind reader, but if I had a go, I would think this was going on for the little one:
“I love my mum, we have fun, I love it there. But I also had fun today, I like this person. Oh no, what have I done to my mum? She would be so sad if she knew how I felt about this person. Who does she have if she doesn’t have me? Does this make me a bad person? I wish I wasn’t in this situation.”
When I think of it like that – I think wow – how can such a little person, with a developing mind and body manage all of those thoughts, those relationships, those perceived consequences? And wow – how did they manage to put it into words!! I (as a fully grown adult) was dumbstruck, and there they are – articulating perfectly, letting me into the most painful part of their heart. Wow.
What a gift. What a privilege. What a responsibility.
I’m not a mind reader, but if I was, I might think that a little person with all of this going on for them may need some sort of reassurance. May need to know that its ok to feel this way, may need to know that the adults around them will catch them when they feel they can’t stand this on their own any more.
I’d been sent a wonderful invitation. Masked in rejection, a protection in case I didn’t take the invitation (a little built in safety feature). An invitation to become closer to a little person I cared so much for. How would this little heart have dealt with a shouting match?
“Don’t say that to me!”
“How ungrateful are you?”
“I’ve done everything for you!!”
“Go to your room and think about what you’ve done!”
How would that little heart, full of torn loyalties and confused feelings, searching for a safe pair of hands to hold and guide them through. What would have happened if I’d said that? How would that little heart fair? How would that little mind, racing to make sense of feelings never felt before, trying to unpick relationships never forged before, how would that little mind have made sense of it all? What would have been the after effects of that?
I’m not a fortune teller, but if I were, I’d say it may have left that little person feeling like a bad guy. Maybe even confirmed the thoughts they have about themselves. They hurt people. Even when they don’t know they are. They break stuff, smash stuff, bring grown-ups to tears. They do this even when they don’t intend to – like a special power out of control. They’re a risk to others. It may not be that way, but it might.
So, like I said, I don’t have a step-by-step guide for this. The only thing I can recommended? Stop and think. Think about what this is communicating. What might the little person’s best hopes be about your response? (I’m guessing here that their best hopes were not to be shouted at or punished). Think about where the speech act came from? What was the context? What happened in the lead up? Was there a trigger? What are the other relationships or situations which may be impacting upon this? It helps. It does, it helps to take a step back.
The hardest thing is doing all of this whilst your nerves are on the outside of your body. As humans (or even as mammals), we have an in-built security system. When we are hurt we are said to go into Fight-Flight-Freeze mode. So when you are in this moment, when your heart is as full as an air balloon and your chest is closing in on it. You have to think. Don’t let your mind freeze. Don’t be consumed by the feelings that overwhelm you.
This is not a missile being thrown at you, to destroy you. It’s a game of emotional catch. It’s a game of trust. It’s a demonstration of a little persons trust in you to respond to them, maybe in a way they’ve never been responded to before. With curiosity, with patience, with love.
I don’t think I responded in the best way with silence. But I also don’t believe that time is rigid, that you can’t go back and make it better. So I went back. I thought about the little person’s favorite thing to do – read – and I thought it was a good idea to harness that.
Just a heads up, this is not an advice page, unfortunately I don’t have a step by step guide for reacting in this, or any similar situations. I also couldn’t find any – I looked trust me! I did speak to Linda (my esteemed colleague in Lika Family Fostering), before I wrote this letter, and I asked her to help me unpick what was going on – for me, as much for the little person. She has a personal story to of being cared for by someone who was not her birth mother. She’d been the little person in this story.
That helped. That really helped. It’s in the sharing of these experiences, which in itself is incredibly useful.
So here is my efforts to take relational risks with my little person, to let them know that I’m here to understand and to help, this may not look like rocket science – because folks – its not. It’s honesty:
I guess its not the most ‘professionally slick’ letter I’ve ever written, but in the moment, and sometimes after the moment, it falls out of your head. All you have left is your intentionality, your moral compass, your compassion.
I don’t know if this helps, or if it’s just an entertaining story. I know I trawled the internet trying to finds pearls of wisdom. Then I gave up, because the only thing that really matters was the relationship between that little person and me. That’s where I’d glean the inspiration. That’s where I’d start a change.
I’d love to know your thoughts, I’d love to hear your stories, I’d love to facilitate a platform for the people who care for other peoples children to share wisdom. So please write in – call in – email – send a carrier pigeon! But share, because its important as humans we do to make our relational worlds better.
This is one of the main reasons why Linda and I decided we would run monthly reflective group supervisions alongisde all our carers and a skilled therapist. Sometimes it’s the lived experiences we learn from the best. We can learn from each other and grow together as a passionate group of carers. We can share our successes and – like this – our struggles. But we can do it with kindness and curiosity.
We want to look after all these stories, care for them and carefully weave them into the fabric of a more resilient person because they did share and because they learnt.