A therapist’s 8 top tips for successful systemic foster care
Becoming a foster carer often brings with it new parenting challenges many people have never come across before – even those who’ve raised their own children.
When something goes wrong, there’s a natural temptation to find someone to blame. But blame can be a very counterproductive thing – leading to more and more problematic behaviours and situations.
That’s why many successful foster carers use ideas from systemic foster care and in their homes. It’s a different way of looking at problems – one that focuses on patterns of behaviour and effective solutions, rather than simple blame.
What do we mean when we talk about systemic foster care ideas
Mark Huhnen is a systemic psychotherapist and social worker in London, UK, who has excellent tips and advice for anyone interested in systemic foster care.
“What makes systemic practice – and particularly systemic psychotherapy – different from other ways of viewing problems is that, in systemic therapy, we see problems not as within a person or within their psyche or mind, but as being between people,” he says
“So rather than saying a person is depressed, or is a horrible child, or this mum is useless, or this foster carer can’t cope, we ask what the environment is, what the context is, what is the web of relationships in which they struggle.”
It’s a different way of thinking and, ultimately, a different way of acting and parenting. Again, it’s a shift away from “the blame game”.
“Saying a child has a mental health problem, or a parent, a foster carer or a social worker is useless, doesn’t really solve the problem,” Mark explains. “It’s more useful to look at the pattern of interactions that lead to a situation.”
An example of systemic foster care in action
So, how does systemic foster care work in practice? Here’s an example from Mark:
Johnny is 13 and has been living with his foster family for a year. He visits his birth family regularly, but each time he comes home from a visit he is more upset than usual. The suspicion is that either mum or dad is giving Johnny ideas to make him behave disruptively in his placement.
The possible result:
The foster parents blame Johnny’s birth parents for his behaviour, while Johnny’s birth parents’ resentment of his foster carers continues to grow. Johnny is caught in the middle – and how does that help him?
A systemic way of looking at the problem:
Instead of apportioning blame, the foster carers take a step back and ask: “What reason could Johnny’s mum or dad have for putting ‘disruptive’ ideas into his head?”
Perhaps they got the impression they’re being blamed for being ‘bad’ parents? And if they have, then perhaps it’s understandable that – consciously or not – they’d create a situation where it becomes as difficult for the foster carers as it is for them?
A systemic solution:
The foster carers can be a circuit breaker on the negativity, and show empathy with the parents. A conversation that includes “OK, this is very difficult for me and I can see how difficult it must have been for you as his parents. Is it OK to ask your help?” can be a great starting point for working together to find a solution to a problematic situation.
Here are Mark’s top eight tips for any foster carer trying to put systemic ideas into practice at home.
Try to spot the logic, or the good intention, behind every action
Whatever another other person is doing that you find problematic, know that there is some logic behind it. They will have good reasons for doing what they’re doing. I’m yet to come across anybody who actually sets out to do bad by others.
No one wakes up one morning and says ‘from now on I will be a bad parent’. Most people try to do right by each other. But, as the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
So your first challenge could be to ask yourself what someone’s good intention might have been.
If you’re struggling to imagine the good intention, or need help finding a systemic way to handle it, talk it through with someone (such as your supervisor or another foster carer). This will help you broaden your perspective.
Showing compassion for a situation can help to create a connection, because the other person understands you’re able to empathise with them.
You have to push through your own reservations. The story with Johnny, above, is a great example of how this can achieve great results.
Don’t leap to solutions
There’s a temptation to consider a situation and come to a clear view of what we feel the solution might be. But when we have a positive result in our mind too early, we can close the door to solutions we haven’t even imagined yet.
So don’t leap to a solution too quickly, or you’ll find yourself single-mindedly heading in its direction, when it might not be the best option. Instead, ask yourself how you can contribute to conditions that will make it more likely you find the right solution together.
Again, talk to your supervisor or fellow foster carers. You’re not alone – there are plenty of experienced people in your network who can help you.
My mantra is to stay curious. Never stop questioning, and never stick with the first idea or the first answer you come up with – because a problematic situation could always be about something else (and there’s usually always more to it).
And stay curious with yourself, too. Ask yourself questions such as “how come this situation feels difficult to me?” and “how come I mastered this situation so easily?”
Cut yourself some slack
When a problem arises, especially in the heat of the moment, your initial reaction might not be to reach for a systemic way of parenting. It’s quite normal, especially when you’re new to systemic ideas, to fall back on what worked with your own children and other ideas of parenting.
This is normal! It’s useful to cut yourself some slack to start with. You will get a couple of things wrong (as you will probably have done with your own kids). ; we can’t get everything right all the time.
Also, don’t forget there is a reason your foster child came into foster care in the first place – and that’s that they themselves have a particular set of challenges in their background. So you’re also going to face some challenges parenting them, and it can take a while before you find a way of parenting that works really well.
Lay the groundwork for tricky situations
Speaking of “in the heat of the moment”, sometimes we need to take a step back in order to gain control over our own emotional state. There may be situations that arise where you feel the need to take a moment out to regain composure – and that’s OK. Take a walk in the park, or whatever it is you need to do to shake off these moments.
It can be a good idea to coordinate with your young person, ahead of time, what you will do if there’s ever a tricky situation like this. Also, identify your ‘triggers’, and discuss them (and how to handle them) with your supervising social worker.
Reflect on how you’ve handled situations and think about how you could have handled them better or differently.
If you notice you’ve done something that wasn’t so useful, ask yourself “OK, so what was my logic? How come I ended up doing this?” Allow yourself to check in with what you might have done, with good intentions, but did not go quite so well.
And remember that you’re new to fostering; you’ll grow into it (and you can always get some help along the way).
Remember, systemic foster care ideas are not a cure-all
Like everything, using systemic foster parenting ideas can go wrong sometimes (or perhaps sometimes it just won’t go completely right).
Remember, systemic practice is not like an antibiotic, where you take the pill and you’re pretty sure it will work. It can take time to find the right solutions. Occasionally we find something that works – but we don’t necessarily know beforehand what will be successful.
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.