How taking risks can improve foster care relationships
All relationships need time to grow.
Think about your partner, your best friend, or a colleague you’re close to.
How did you become close to that person? Chances are, it took a little time to develop a trust between you, but as time and trust grew, your relationship became deeper and felt safer.
Now think about whether there are any limits to what you can say to one another in these relationships.
How do you know the limits? Have you tested them? And has testing these boundaries deepened your bond even further?
Testing the limits of a trusted relationship is called “relational risk-taking” and it’s something we at Lika ask our foster carers to model with the young people in their care, to help those young people build healthier and more trusting relationships.
What do we mean by relational risk-taking?
Taking a relational risk means having something to lose by sharing something with someone.
As with all risk-taking behaviours, relational risk-taking can leave you feeling anxious, fearful or worried that you’re making a mistake — or that the person you’re speaking with might think you’re silly or leave you feeling embarrassed.
That’s the risk!
But we also know that taking risks in life can often lead to rewards and feeling fulfilled.
Family therapist Barry Mason writes that if people can take relationship-based risks that come from a position of learning and respect, rather than just playing it safe, they are more likely to develop collaborative and trusting relationships.
At Lika, we think this idea of “not always playing it safe” leads to foster carers developing the skills to be outstanding foster carers.
Examples of relational risk-taking
Relational risk-taking isn’t about being reckless or not considering people’s feelings. It’s about wanting to have a different conversation with someone. You’re inviting them to grow and deepen your relationship by building trust and understanding.
Here are some simple examples:
- Noticing when a child is struggling with a relationship and talking to them about it, despite fearing you might be rejected or thinking “it’s not my place to ask”
- Talking to a young person about their birth family
- Being open with a young person about feeling good and enjoying their company
- Talking to a young person about situations you feel could have been managed better.
In a foster care situation, relational risk-taking is also an opportunity to shift unhelpful or unhealthy patterns of talking and reacting. So, it’s a useful tool, and one Lika encourages our foster carers to understand and use.
How foster carers can use relational risk-taking
There are two good reasons to encourage relational risk-taking in fostering relationships:
- It encourages the foster carer and young person to form a closer relationship
- It helps young people build trusting connections with the other professionals in their life.
Depending on how you already “do” relationships in your family, being open in the way relational risk-taking requires may feel uncomfortable. We’re asking you to try something different and improvise a new way in having a conversation. It’s potentially scary stuff if it’s not something you’re used to.
But as a foster carer it’s important to embrace thoughtful ways of communicating that are both honest and invite feedback. And we have seen first-hand how taking relational risks helps foster carers develop the skills (and the relationships) required to be truly outstanding foster care professionals.
Relational risk-taking opens up a space for children to feel nurtured, to learn from their carers, and to understand they are in a safe relationship where they can be honest.
In the words of Brené Brown (who is a lecturer and researcher of courage, vulnerability, shame and empathy): “courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen”.
Relational risk-taking is about being courageous and showing vulnerability. This models to our young people that whether you’re an adult or child, there is always space to talk and be open about what could be different in your relationship.
A large part of what the systemic fostering agency Lika does is train our foster carers to be more therapeutically minded in how they look after their young people. Understanding and applying relational risk-taking is a part of that.
READ MORE: Understanding the teenage brain
How social workers use relational risk-taking with foster carers
Building trust and creating a deeper understanding of each other is great for any relationship. So, Lika’s social workers use relational risk-taking conversations with our carers, too.
During supervision sessions, supervising social workers may ask foster carers questions like the ones below to help set the tone and create an open relationship that invites transparency and feedback.
- If I needed to talk to you about something that I think might be difficult to talk about, what’s the best way for me to go about this? What ways have been helpful and less helpful in the past for this to happen?
- What are the rules for speaking with each other at times when I’m offering praise, or if someone’s upset or needs comforting?
- What are our expectations of each other for how we’re going to work with each other? What does respect look like? What would a trusting relationship look like? If we were struggling with each other, what might I see from you that indicates you are unhappy with me?
Relational risk-taking in action
Let’s take a closer look at some of the concepts around relational risk that our foster carers learn about in training and see how it can be applied to foster care situations. We’ll look at:
- How to structure a relational risk conversation
- Tips for having a relational risk conversation
- An example of a relational risk conversation in a foster care situation
- Managing your expectations about relational risk conversations.
9 tips for structuring a difficult conversation in a foster care setting
Here is a helpful structure for foster carers planning a relational risk conversation with their young person:
- Check in: “Is this a good time to talk?”
- Say what you like about them/your relationship/the situation (you want to take this risk as you want things to improve)
- Outline what you want or hope to achieve from the conversation (creating the context for a fulfilling conversation)
- Explain what is or has happened/what you don’t like/don’t want (related to the behaviour rather than the person)
- Say what you hope for and want to be different (the preferred future)
- Outline the “if you do/if that happens” scenario (how it will improve the relationship)
- Outline the “if you don’t” scenario (what the impact or consequences could be on the relationship)
- Ask for their views: “What do you think?”/“What can we do to fix this?” (creates collaboration and joint responsibility. It also gives them the opportunity to offer ideas and feel included in the resolution)
- Open up the conversation (if the person is engaging with you, move into sharing ideas and a broader conversation).
8 top tips for taking relational risks
Here are some simple guidelines for having a conversation that carries relational risk:
- Pick the right moment. It might be that you have just had a very warm and enjoyable moment, which has created a feeling of trust and connection. This is an opportunity to take a “relational risk”. Say something like “this is such an enjoyable moment”.
- Take responsibility for your own feelings and reactions. Understand that you can’t control how the other person will respond.
- Live your truth. Become comfortable asking for what you want directly and communicating feelings confidently.
- It’s not about approval. Taking a relational risk is not about looking for approval from the other person. Don’t apologise. You’re simply stating something about yourself such as “I really enjoyed our time today; it left me with a really lovely feeling”.
- Don’t blame. Don’t say to the other person “you hurt me” or “I feel hurt”, as that is accusing and places blame. Say “I feel sad”, “disappointed”, “angry”, etc. Own the feeling you have, as it’s yours.
- Know your unknowns. Lead from a position of knowing you don’t know how the conversation will go, but know that you’re opening a space for listening and understanding.
- Provide context. Give context before discussing something. For example, “our relationship is very important to me. I know we both work hard at creating a good relationship so we can be happy. There is something I would like to talk to you about that I am worried about”.
- It’s not about having a go. Relational risk-taking is not having a go at someone or making them feel the pain you might be holding.
An example of a relational risk conversation in a foster care environment
What does relational risk-taking look like? Here’s an example of a conversation that carries relational risk, to give you a clearer picture.
We’ve only shown you what the carer is saying, not the young person’s responses, as it’s really to show you the flow of the conversation and the structure being used in practice.
Carer: Hey Cassie, how you feeling now? Is it a good time for us to have a chat?
Carer: Cassie, you are such a wonderful little girl, full of humour and fun. I’m so happy to be looking after you.
Carer: Your happiness means a lot to me. It feels important to me that we find a way to talk about what happened this morning so we can understand better what is happening for you in these wobbly moments. What do you think?
Carer: I don’t like that every morning before school we get into an argument and we both feel angry and sad afterwards. Do you?
Carer: I hope by talking it through we can work out a way to manage these moments better and then maybe we can find a way to have happy mornings where we giggle and laugh together. Wouldn’t that be amazing! What do you think about this as an idea?
Carer: If that happened, I think we would both feel much happier and relaxed together in our home. If it didn’t, then I’d be worried we will always have difficult mornings and always leave for school feeling wobbly. What can we do to fix this?
Carer: I can see you’re struggling to understand what it is that happens for you. Would it be okay if I shared some ideas and you can tell me if I’m on the right lines? Maybe tell me if I’m hot or cold? Then we can think of ideas together that might help us both manage it better?
Managing your expectations of relational risk-taking
Relational risk-taking is an approach that invites a conversation with someone you want to shift your relationship with. It creates a new way of talking, hearing and understanding one another.
However, in taking this approach it’s important to manage your expectations. This is you wanting to do something different and it may not be reciprocated in the way you expect.
So, this is a bit of a health warning for anyone considering taking a relational risk:
- Tempering unrealistic expectations about how something or someone should be will greatly reduce unnecessary frustration and suffering
- Never let yourself feel disappointed with another person’s behaviour if you haven’t taken a relational risk to explore what has been happening
- No one in your life will act exactly as you expect them to. They are not you. They will not give, understand, love or respond like you do.
- People are not mind readers. If you find yourself saying “you should have known”, then ask yourself “did I tell them?”
EXERCISE: Reflecting on your own relationship to taking risks
Answering these three questions will help you reflect on your risk-taking in your own relationships and how you feel about it:
- What are the rules of relational risk-taking in your home? How did you learn your family rules around this?
- Did you have any family rules growing up such as “children should be seen and not heard”, “keep your emotions to yourself”, “problems remain in the family”? If so, how do you think these influence you in your relationships now?
- If you were to wake up tomorrow wanting to take a relational risk with someone, who would it be and what would you say? What’s the worst that would happen?
A final word on relational risk and foster care training at Lika
Conversations based on relational risk-taking ideas don’t need to be complicated.
If the intention of the conversation is to build trust and strengthen the relationship in a respectful way then, even if the chat doesn’t go the way you imagined, it’s a starting point you can build from. Simply having the conversation plants a seed: you are trying something new, you are open to this, the invitation is there.
Lika foster carers receive extensive training and resources, tailored to their individual care situation. It includes training in techniques like relational risk-taking.
As a Lika foster carer you’ll be support by our team of experienced professionals, including social workers, therapists and other foster carers. Support is available 24/7.
We’re a boutique fostering agency and ensure fostering is a fulfilling experience for you and a transformational one for the young person in your care.
Live in London and want to become 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, City of London, Haringey, Newham, Redbridge, and Barking and Dagenham, Hammersmith and Fulham, Kensington and Chelsea.