How foster carers can put therapeutic parenting into practice
We are all the sum of our experiences. Whom we are is a reflection of the people who raised us; the ideas, values, and beliefs we were exposed to; and the things that have happened to us throughout our lives.
For many foster children, often those experiences have been traumatic – and that can be reflected in the child’s behaviour.
Therapeutic parenting (or therapeutic foster care) is all about understanding that those behaviours are an expression of that trauma, rather than naughtiness, and being able to respond in a way that both builds a good relationship with the child and helps transform their life.
It sounds great, right? But how does that actually work in practice? We spoke to Julie, a foster carer in Croydon in South London, to find out.
GOT QUESTIONS?: If you want to know more about becoming a foster carer in London, ask our team here.
How foster carer Julie uses therapeutic parenting
Julie has been caring for less than a year. She has a young girl with developmental delays and learning difficulties in her care. Julie completed some therapeutic foster caring courses with Lika before her placement started and uses therapeutic fostering techniques in the home.
“If the child does something wrong, instead of outright asking them ‘why did you do that?’ — because a child doesn’t know — you give them some ‘best guess’ options,” Julie explained. “They might take one of your suggestions, think about it, and then say ‘perhaps that’s what it was’.
“Apparently I do some of these therapeutic things naturally and I don’t even realise it. Maybe it’s because I’ve bought up two sons and it’s just what I’ve found works best?”
READ MORE: What is a systemic approach to foster care?
Therapeutic parenting techniques teach us to reframe what we might see as naughty (or attention-seeking) behaviour and understand it as the child looking to form (or build or test) your attachment to them.
In these moments (and this is the bit some people find tricky until they’re used to it) it’s vital to suspend your own feelings and tune in to what part of the child’s abusive past makes sense of their behaviour. How could attachment-seeking behaviour make good sense as a response to the child’s feelings and concerns?
For Julie, there is an extra layer of complication when it comes to understanding her foster child’s behaviour.
“I think it’s a bit different when you have a child with a disability because I might give her some ‘best guesses’ and she might just say what she thinks I want to hear because she wants to please you,” she said. “So, often I have to do a bit more digging to find out what’s really going on.”
It takes time to therapeutically parent well
Julie said if therapeutic techniques don’t come naturally, it is a good idea to rehearse what you plan to say.
“In quiet times, think about situations that have happened and how you might have handled it differently, in a more therapeutic way, and think about what kinds of sentences and words you might use,” she said.
“Don’t expect yourself to be able to therapeutically parent in a moment; it takes rehearsal, because if someone is screaming at you that they hate you, there’s no way you’re going to be able to therapeutically parent in that moment.
“If it’s too sensitive, too raw, maybe leave it a couple of days and then maybe say ‘do you remember when…’ and then see if you can therapeutically parent.”
Why it’s vital to respond empathetically to a traumatised child
Not responding empathetically to this kind of behaviour in a traumatised child can ultimately lead to other problems, such as:
- Gang membership
- Drug or alcohol misuse
- Vulnerability to domestic violence
- Peer relationship problems
- Poor social skills
- Low self-esteem
- Sexual vulnerability/exploitation
- Early pregnancy.
The keys to success are not only practice and patience, as Julie suggests, but creating a sense of “PLACE”.
Spending time with each other, interacting, bonding, learning about and from each other. Feeling safe, relaxed and comfortable. This creates an environment where the child can respond without anger or defensiveness.
Being loving is an expression of both enjoyment and commitment. For the child to feel secure, they need to feel that commitment is always present. The child must always feel you’ll act in their best interests.
Core to a child’s sense of safety and security is the knowledge that you accept them for who they are, value them and think they are worthwhile. While behaviour can be criticised, the child’s “self” should not be.
Engender an environment of calm, quiet, thoughtful reflection. As Julie demonstrated above, at an appropriate time, gently (without annoyance) prompt the child to consider why they behaved in a certain way. “What do you think was going on?” or “What do you think that was about?”
Showing compassion demonstrates to the child that you understand them, that you know they’ve had difficult experiences, but they don’t have to deal with them alone. You’re also showing your commitment to the child and enabling them to develop the inner resources required to deal with their trauma.
The difference made by therapeutic foster care techniques
Julie says the therapeutic foster care techniques she learned during Lika’s training sessions really changed her responses to her foster child.
“Thinking back to how she was when she first came, it was really full on,” Julie said. “Every day she was screaming and shouting. Without all the advice from Lika, I think I might have almost fallen over at the first hurdle and said ‘I can’t cope with this’, because I wouldn’t have had the tools. The training gave me the ideas; I just put them into action.
READ MORE: Sheila and the joys of therapeutic parenting
“Although the child is standing there screaming and shouting ‘I hate you’, they don’t hate you, they’re just angry and they’re just saying random things. So you just stand back.
“The first few times you try to stand back, you think, ‘wow, what have I done?’ But then you see it working and you see the change it’s making, and it’s all worthwhile.”
Change takes time
As Julie says, helping transform the life of a traumatised child takes time, but it’s foster carers who can really create that change. Here’s what clinical psychologist Dr. Amber Elliott — an expert in attachment — has to say:
“The most important people in making a difference to these traumatised children are not therapists, psychologists or social workers… but you, the person who has day-to-day, intimate care of these children. Most of the valuable work that other professionals offer can only be done through you”.
Live in South or East London and interested in becoming a foster carer?
If you’re in south or east London and you’re interested in becoming a foster carer, give the helpful team at Lika a call on 020 8667 2111. We’re here to answer all your questions.
We’re in the London boroughs of Croydon, Sutton, Bromley, Merton, Lambeth, Westminster, Wandsworth, Lewisham, Southwark, Islington, Camden, Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Ilford, City of London, Haringey, Newham, Redbridge, Barking and Dagenham, Hammersmith and Fulham, Kensington and Chelsea.