In last week’s blog I talked about stress and how I try to deal with it. This week has tested all my coping skills to the edge. My two Looked After Children (LAC) have both had contact with family and the fall out as a result has stretched us all to the limit. When I first became a foster carer, I was told by my Supervising Social Worker and other experienced carers that contact is usually the most stressful part of their role. Now, when I talk to new or prospective carers I gently prepare them for the hardest part of their job.
J, who’s nearly 10, has contact with his Mum and two brothers and M, 14 years old, has contact with her Dad. They both look forward to contact and both dread it in different ways. Family bond is important and keeping that link open for the future is one of the most important roles a foster carer can do and I felt the responsibility heavily this week. J had been getting more stressed as the day approached and this has manifested as ‘naughty’ behaviour. He has found it hard to manage his complex emotions about seeing his Mum and he still has a hard time understanding why he’s in care. His relationship with Mum is a common one when dealing with Looked after Children and J, at eight years old had to be responsible for getting his twin brothers up and ready for school while his Mum struggled with day to day life.
Combine this with M’s own stress about seeing her Dad and this had led to a household bubbling up with unanswered questions, unresolved conflict, guilt and fear. M has learnt to self-regulate to a point but her normal way of managing these complex emotions is to shut down and pretend it’s not happening.
J had contact on Monday with his Mum in the morning and his twin brothers, who are in care with a different foster carer, in the afternoon. Contact was held in a Children’s Centre and was supervised by an independent social worker. I wasn’t in the room with them but was told that contact with mum lasted 12 minutes as she was 45 minutes late, spent most of the time she was with J on her mobile phone and left early to meet her boyfriend. J seemed to take it in his stride and showed her his school certificate for attendance and for most improved in class. She made the right noises and then had separate contact with her twin boys. When I took J for a coffee while he waited to see his brothers, he didn’t say much but nursed his juice and wouldn’t make eye contact with me. After I collected him from contact with his brothers, he had two bright red spots of colour on his cheeks and eyes barely able to hold back tears. He threw himself into the car and hunched his shoulders willing me not to talk to him. J is such a proud, fiercely independent boy and tears are an absolute no-no in his book. I left him alone while I drove and he suddenly shouted ‘it’s not fair!’ and told me that his younger brothers had told him that mum had said she loves them and wishes she had them back. Unfortunately, Mum didn’t say that to J and he ended up taking his hurt out by lashing out verbally at his brothers, causing contact to be ended early.
M on the other hand tries to be indifferent to approaching contact and finds it easier to reject her Dad then be rejected by him. She has returned to Dad from care in the past and in her heart she knows it doesn’t work and they clash too much but she finds the reality of being away from her family hard at times. Day to day life is easy with M; teenage dramas, BFF break ups and Instagram photos aside but she finds it hard to open up about her early life. Seeing Dad is a double edge sword and always leads to meltdowns or more drama. M is in contact with other members of her Dad’s family that she doesn’t see but still speaks to and this always creates an additional layer of misunderstandings, hurt feelings and more rejection. Her contact arrangements are more informal and I dropped her off at a local coffee shop and arranged for her to text me when she was finished. Half an hour later, Dad texts me to inform me that M has ‘stropped’ off and he doesn’t know where she is. M then texts me to inform me that she’s done and is going home by bus. I can’t leave her, not knowing how she is or where she is so the next hour is a series of phone calls, texts, ignoring me and driving between bus stops and home looking for her. Once she was found, it is the delicate procedure of knowing what to say at the right time and balancing that with J’s monologue of never wanting to see his mum again.
A few days have passed and things are settling down again slowly. J has had bad dreams about monsters who eat his head and has decided to sleep with the light on again. M can’t rest for a moment and is filling every minute of every day with friends, their dramas, music and her social life. It’s easier to deal with her best friend’s boyfriend drama than think about her Dad and his lack of feelings for her.
We are easing back into normality with a regular routine and I know in around a week’s time, J will be back to his happy self, obsessed with his Marvel comic game and M will allow herself to slow down. In the meantime, I open my email to confirm contact again for J in eight weeks’ time and I sigh putting it in the diary. What I want to do is circle it with a big red felt tip pen but I know I’ll have to start the gentle process of letting J know about it so he can prepare himself and be there to pick up the pieces afterwards.
Contact is hard on the children as it can manifest their feelings of rejection all over again but it is also hard on us foster carers. These are the children we have nurtured and cared for, the ones whose knees we have patched up, the ones we have sat up half the night with when they cry over their boyfriend and it’s hard to let them be hurt again.