14th May, 2008

Regaining Babyhood

I was lucky enough to attend a one day seminar on therapeutic foster care recently, presented by Kate Cairns, a long time foster carer and social worker from the UK. What an engaging speaker she was.

Much of what she had to say focused on the effects that an unsatisfactory or disrupted attachment has on a baby’s development. None of this is new to me (I’m an avid attendee at seminars and conferences, and love to read parenting and fostering “text” books) but she had a very personal way of describing the process which really brought home to me how an attuned baby engages with his caregiver.

This engagement lays down patterns in the brain to ensure that they develop all those important life skills like how to form a trusting relationship with another person, how to self-regulate and to curb impulses and control rage, how to recognise and acknowledge their feelings and those of others.

Any foster carer can look at a child and see the behaviours that indicate “this child’s brain did not form the necessary templates in that first year or so of life”. The child very obviously demonstrates the consequences of this deficit: is unable to trust others or rely on them for help and comfort, needs to control everything and everyone around them, hasn’t learnt to check their impulses or control their rage, and shows no awareness of their own feelings and certainly is unable to show empathy for others.

I look at my own daughter Portia, who has been with us for all but the first year or so of her thirteen years of life and recognise that these behaviors still form a noticeable part of her personality. Her need to control members of her family, particularly her little brother and her dad, drive them both to distraction. She tells them what they should be doing, or how they should be doing it, with utter confidence in her own infallibility.

Luckily, she’s doesn’t get into a rage very often (although plenty of those hissy-fits that teenage girls seem particularly prone to) but she still has a great deal of difficulty curbing her impulses. Despite the guidance she’s had at home and school with the mantra “stop, think, do” we’ve yet to see that being consistently used although she’s not in trouble for scrapes, damage and breakages as much as a few years ago.

But I’m happy to say that Portia is learning how to recognise how others are feeling and to change her behaviour accordingly. At nine or ten she often had social problems at school and most of it stemmed from her own tactless comments and actions. It seemed at that stage that the only way to boost her shaky self-esteem was to put down everyone else and build up her own accomplishments with lots of bragging and showing off. I’d say she’s come a long way since then.

Certainly I now see a quieter and more genuine awareness of her own strengths. She doesn’t need to brag or compete as much as she used to, and when she makes a derogatory comment about someone she’ll catch herself and try to explain why it is she feels that way, which opens up the opportunity for a bit of a learning discussion on why people behave as they do.

When she came to us as a quiet, timid, undemanding, slow-developing one year old, I didn’t know about the effects of neglect and trauma as described by Daniel Hughes and Bruce Perry. I knew nothing about therapeutic fostering and reparenting, but I knew from parenting my own babies that this little girl and I needed to bond. So I did what came naturally, treating her as if she was a much younger baby, which wasn’t at all hard because she was a tiny little thing and nowhere near walking yet.

I wrapped her in a cosy bunny rug and snuggled her into my body as I rocked and sang to her (even though she seemed to never need soothing or to be settled to sleep). I carried her around in a baby pouch on my chest despite her legs dangling down past my waist and making it very difficult to go upstairs or climb up hills and rocks when bushwalking.

Eventually I transferred her to a hip sling which didn’t keep her quite so close but was a great deal more convenient. When giving her milk I always held the bottle and snuggled her on my lap. I would not let her hold the bottle, which she was used to. She needed to rely on me for that warm soothing milk, and trust me to provide it.

I managed to keep that routine going till she was over two, despite her little foster brother arriving in the meantime who also needed constant feeding and soothing. I played baby games with her at a time when most kids have moved on to more sophisticated pastimes. Lots of patty-cake and peek-a-boo games, riding horse on my crossed legs whilst facing me as I sang to her, silly rhymes that babies love, with tickling and blurting on bellies and pressing of noses. All attempts to regain what she’d missed in her first year of life: attunement with a caregiver.

Unfortunately for Portia and I this process of attachment was often interrupted over the next two years, mostly by failed attempts at reunification with her birth mum. This would sometime take Portia away from our family for days, weeks, and at one point three months. Also, as I mentioned before, baby Seth joined our family when Portia was not yet two and his withdrawal from alcohol in those early months of his life took a lot of my time and energy.  I guess that Portia, while getting plenty of care and attention, may not have been getting the intensive mothering that her early neglect demanded.

But of course attachment is an ongoing process. Over the years I made extra effort to pull her in closer to me. It wasn’t always easy as through her toddler and preschool years that the quiet, mousy little baby was replaced by a willful, controlling, angry child. I always felt she was distant and detached from me. Even her younger foster brother Seth, who was with us from five weeks of age, developed a very normal secure attachment to me.

It’s sad but true that the more horrible your child’s behaviour, the more you want to distance yourself from them, and the more frustrated and discouraged you feel. Unfortunately this is exactly when you need to be spending more intensive time with the child to bring them in closer again.

Over the years I noticed a cycle. Portia’s problem behaviours would escalate and I would be forever scolding her, feeling cross and annoyed with her and would crave distance, retreating from the intensity of the frustration and stress. Then I’d recognise where I was in the cycle and realise it was time for some very significant bonding.

A child psychologist who saw Portia when she was five for just a few visits, helped me to realise how, when I was overwhelmed by her behaviours, I would pull back emotionally from her and she gave me a few ideas on how to regain some closeness. She encouraged me to simply spend more time with Portia, doing stuff she enjoyed showing her she was worthy of my attention. Playing simple board games, colouring and making things together, singing and dancing to a music CD, cooking yummy sweet things to eat together, standing outside watching her ride her bike up and down the footpath, sharing stories and making up our own.

It amazed me how much time I could find to spend with her once I’d changed my attitude. I concentrated on softening my tone with her, making sure I met her advances with a smile instead of a frown, decreasing my scolding and nagging and replacing them with encouragement and joy in her accomplishments. It felt so good to begin liking her again, and that was made easier by the fact that her horrible behaviour quite noticeably decreased and she did become more likable by everyone else in the family too. Extra bonus – they weren’t always yelling at her and sending her away from them anymore either. Everyone was happier.

This relationship and behaviour cycle continued over the years. Even now I sometimes feel myself slipping and I have to remind myself to seek out Portia’s company and conversation a bit more – a bit more difficult now she’s a teen who naturally tends to spend more time alone in her room with her homework or reading or just listening to loud music. But it’s still worthwhile working on strengthening that still shaky attachment and the rewards are gleaned by seeing a corresponding shift in her behaviour and attitude.

Nowadays the activities are a little different. Watching her play basketball or skate or dive with lots of encouraging words and gestures, inviting her to help me with cooking, or asking her to make her famous choc fudge cake for afternoon tea. It’s sharing funny things on TV or YouTube or reading an article out loud from a newspaper that I know she’ll be interested in (or listening to something she wants to read out, even though it’s not really that interesting to me) or telling her something funny that I think she’ll appreciate. Sometimes it’s just showing her that I am keeping her in mind, that she is important to me.

I sometimes wonder when Portia’s behaviour reverts a little to that impulsive, oppositional, tantrum throwing four year old that she was, could it have been different? Maybe if we’d managed to do more, known better or tried a little harder, focused just on her and not continued fostering (but then we wouldn’t have our sweet son Seth). Or should we just look at the long way she’s come and promise ourselves to never let up or give in, but keep working hard to make sure this kid stays connected to family and community, feels strong and worthy, has focus in her life (thank goodness for all those sports she loves) and do our best to get her through the teenage years unscathed, to successful adulthood.

Well, that’s certainly an outcome worth a bit of hard work!


Dear Janine,

My partner and I are just beginning our foster caring journey, and I would like to thankyou for writing such an honest and open blog on Australian Foster Caring: there are so few out there! And for us particularly, as beginners, it is a little overwhelming

I have a few questions for regarding your experience for foster caring, especially long term care. My partner and I are really interested in this arena, especially with the same age of child that you started out with (0-5)…What was the experience like for you? How did you get started etc??



Jo, best of luck on your journey. I would be happy to answer any queries you might have, along the way. We never intended to just foster littlies but time and experience demonstrated to us that the under fives fit best into our family and lifestyle…not least because I’m in the fortunate position of being a stay at home mum. Our first few placements were either respite or short term, but I soon yearned for a longer term commitment, and so they placed with us a toddler with developmental delays, eventually diagnosed with autism, who stayed twenty months. We’ve pretty much done long term care ever since, as it’s what were best at. Stay in touch…I’ll look in on your blog and see what you’re up to,Janine


I just wanted to drop a note to let you know how much I’ve enjoyed reading your blog. Thank you for sharing your experiences and I look forward to future posts. My husband and I are at the beginning of our little adventure here in the States (hopefully getting certified next week) and I’m really trying to equip myself with as much good information as possible!


Janine – I’m so glad I clicked over here – some of the issues you describe with Portia mirror some I’ve had with my daughter. I’ve felt it’s been harder to bond with her than with our son, and I haven’t known how to make that connection.

Now, reading what you wrote, the pattern you describe makes so much sense. We, too, have those periods where her behavior makes us pull away because we are tired of the negativity. I will try to make those the time we emphasize the closeness and hopefully improve the bonding.

Thank you for sharing!

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