What is a systemic approach to foster care?
At a glance
In social work and psychology there are around 50 kinds of therapy used in practice. You’ve probably heard of some of the bigger ones – like cognitive behavioural therapy, hypnotherapy, and art therapy.
Each kind of therapy uses different techniques to help make a difference to a person’s life and their relationships.
Another of these therapies is called systemic family therapy, and it’s one that can be a great help to foster carers and the young people they’re fostering.
So, what exactly is a systemic approach to foster care, which is therapeutic in its approach?
The internet is filled with confusing explanations of systemic family therapy. Finding a good, clear, simple explanation can feel like trying to hold onto a soapy bubble; you can see it but when you try and catch it, it bursts in your hands. But let’s have a go at creating a simple explanation.
If someone said to you, “I’m seeing a systemic family therapist”, they are saying, “I’m learning to think about the patterns in my life”. They’re thinking and learning about who they are as a person and peeling away the many layers of stories and beliefs they have about themselves that have developed over time. And then they’re finding the tools to help them make a positive change.
What that looks like depends slightly on what the person wants to achieve, but as an approach to therapy it can be a great fit for foster caring. Fostering can be an emotional journey for both the adult and the young person – and systemic family therapy provides tried and tested tools that help create better relationships.
Imagine you have a wardrobe filled with denim jeans. You have an unlimited number of them, but you decide to throw on 40 pairs. (Yes, at the same time.)
If you’re walking around wearing 40 pairs of jeans, living your life the way you want to and interacting with the rest of society could easily get pretty messy. Those jeans make it difficult to get around and people might not always react well to you.
Now imagine each pair of jeans represents different layers of emotions, beliefs, values, relationships, and complex stories about who you are as a person. While all these jeans make up who you are, they also affect how you see and experience the world and how you interact with other people.
A systemic approach helps you understand these layers and how they affect your decisions and relationships. Once you have the context, systemic family therapy can provide the tools you need to make positive changes and create more functional relationships.
Relationships really are at the centre of systemic family therapy, which is why the therapy applies so well to fostering and foster care.
We are all in relationships of some kind. Some are closer – perhaps the relationships we have with our partners, parents, kids, or even our neighbours. Others are a little more distant – your local florist, for example, or the woman who drives the 119 bus, whom you smile at every morning but never say hello to. These relationships weave a tapestry of familiarity throughout our lives.
The many and complex relationships in your life create “relational patterns” (the ways you interact with and react to the other person). Sometimes these patterns can be really healthy and sometimes less so. If we’re lucky, we can recognise the patterns we are in and how they have come about. However, more often than not, we keep our blinkers on and keep repeating unhealthy patterns of behaviour.
These patterns are part of a system of relationships: family, friends, church groups, the community, cultural groups, and so on. The more you zoom out from yourself, the more interconnected relationships you see.
Think about the London tube network for a moment. It’s big, confusing and complex but the trains keep moving along. After years riding the tube, sometimes you feel like you’re on autopilot – not really sure how you got from A to B. Other times you try really hard and focus on where you need to go – which, bizarrely can have varying results! Our relationships with our own families often function on this sort of level.
Using a systemic approach to fostering allows us to understand the patterns in a person’s life, how they connect and how the systems they’re a part of influence them and their relationships. Social workers and systemic family therapists are trained to understand these patterns and to be curious about how they have developed over time. It is important this is done without blame or judgement.
Over the course of your life, walking around wearing 40 pairs of jeans can be stressful. Sometimes help is needed to understand and even reshape a few layers to achieve a new look.
So far this explanation of systemic family therapy has been quite conceptual (it really is a soapy bubble, huh?) But taking a systemic approach is actually a very practical way to create positive change.
When a young person comes into care and is placed with a foster carer, they often come with many and complex stories and ideas about themselves. But chances are they’re not wearing 40 pairs of jeans. Add in years of abuse, trauma, lots of different relationships and instability, and these young people are walking around in 100 pairs of jeans. They might even be wearing a few extra layers that are hidden even to themselves.
From here it’s not difficult to start seeing how young people in care can start to feel weighed down thinking about the future – and why they might have no idea how to negotiate this with adults in their life, especially if they’ve only just started living with them.
As adults, foster carers will have their own way of seeing and experiencing the world. Bring this together with a young person with a complex history and sometimes the relationship can get tricky.
From a social worker’s point of view, being systemically minded when talking with foster carers means asking questions about what the carer has noticed about their relationship with their young person. That includes highs, lows and all the grey areas in between. What’s being created between them? Do they like the pattern they’re in or would they like it to be different?
We can then share ideas about how these patterns might have started and where it might lead them. We might even discover that this is a problem for the carer that they never even knew existed before the young person started living with them. (There are those hidden layers of jeans we all wear, showing themselves again!)
Let’s use an example to demonstrate therapeutic fostering in action.
Gloria has a 12-year-old foster child named Lukas. They do not speak about the fact that Lukas does not shower most days and struggles with his hygiene.
This is causing a pattern of frustration for Gloria, where she ignores Lukas’ hygiene needs because she doesn’t want to offend him. She felt like talking about it directly with him was rude.
Lukas can be teased at school because he has a strong odour, but he carries on as usual as the smell is an armour to keep the bullies away.
As Gloria’s supervising social worker, I might ask her questions such as:
- “When you were growing up, what were the family rules about cleanliness?”
- “What were the consequences if you didn’t follow these rules?”
- “Were these rules spoken about or unsaid?”
- “What rules do you think Lukas had at home about showering?”
- “Do you think these were spoken about?”
- “What ideas do you have as to why Lukas doesn’t shower?”
- “Where did you get that last idea from?”
- “Imagine you spoke to Lukas about what you’ve noticed about his showering habits. What curious and thoughtful question could you ask him that didn’t blame him for not wanting to shower?”
By understanding someone else’s layers as well as your own, you can feel more prepared to talk about, challenge, embrace or feel less fearful of them.
If a foster carer has more ideas flowing about a dilemma or their relationship to a problem, the opportunity to create closer and more thoughtful relationships becomes a real possibility. That’s the systemic approach – curiosity and understanding through thoughtful language. As the great anthropologist Gregory Bateson put it, “it takes two to know one”. In other words, we learn about ourselves through the relationships we create.
“Children thrive when they move to this fostering agency. They make significant progress from their starting points.” – Ofsted 2023.
Lika was rated Outstanding by Ofsted in 2023. Please read our report to hear how our young people and foster carers experience the agency. Lika is an innovative agency that uses systemic family therapy approaches as a model to guide everything we do.
Lika recruits foster carers for children in local authority care. We’re recruiting foster carers in Croydon as well as across London in Hackney, Barking, Dagenham, Redbridge, Lambeth, Haringey, Hammersmith & Fulham, Kensington, Tower Hamlets, Bromley, Sutton, Wandsworth, London of City, Camden, Westminster, Barnet, Ealing, Brent, Islington, Waltham Forest, Greenwich, Bexley, Lewisham, Redbridge, Ilford and Newham). Lika supports foster carers to develop their skills and knowledge to care appropriately for these children.
If you’re interested in foster care, get in touch.