Caring for a foster child with ADHD
26 July 2023
26 July 2023
Natasha Francis-Wint- Caring for a foster child with ADHD
‘I am the lucky one, gifted with this sparkly, fizzy energetic ball of love, my life is so much richer for being their parent’. Natasha, aged 44, a foster carer from Nottingham, has first-hand experience fostering a child with ADHD and talks about the highs and lows of her fostering journey, the frustrations in the diagnosis, and the stigmas and struggles children with ADHD face today.
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a condition that affects people's behaviour. People with ADHD can seem restless, may have trouble concentrating, and may act on impulse. It is estimated that children in foster care are three times more likely to develop ADHD than other children, possibly due to the close relationship between trauma and neurological conditions.
Natasha’s Fostering Journey
Natasha’s young person has been with her since 2018 when she began fostering with a previous agency and then moved to Nexus Fostering in 2022. Natasha knew fostering was the path she wanted to take after her own teenage experiences. ‘I was a teenager that struggled, getting up to all sorts of mischief: playing truant from school, pregnant at 17 and a mum by 18, I was attracted to high-risk behaviours and peers, but I was lucky in that I had good family support, I made it out relatively unscathed! I felt my experience as a teenager and the skills I learned later working with adults with learning difficulties and mental health would give me a good firm standing as a foster mom.’ I knew before even meeting my child that they would be the one for our family. I remember it clearly; walking in Derbyshire and receiving a bit of information about them and immediately returning to the car and pestering the agency to make the call to the local authority’.
‘There were things I did at home before they arrived that made them feel safe as a child. I made sure the house smelt nice, their bedroom was a calm space, and added some personal touches for their arrival, considering their sensory needs so adding soft blankets, freshly laundered pyjamas etc 5 years on my young person will say “that smells like when I first came here” when I use the same plug-in air freshener. We were lucky that we were able to bond very quickly.’
Symptoms of ADHD tend to be noticed at an early age and may become more noticeable when a child's circumstances change, such as when they start school. Most cases are diagnosed when children are under 12 years old, but sometimes it's diagnosed later in childhood. Most parents initially see their GP and are then referred to a psychiatrist or paediatrician for a more formal assessment. Often the child’s school may also be able to arrange a specialist referral.
Natasha’s young person was diagnosed just 3 years ago at the age of 9 years old, 2 years after moving in. ‘Our child had already been referred to a paediatrician but then moved out of the area and so the process starts again, this is frustrating. Being new to children’s services it is a minefield to understand the processes and terminology used, however, I was lucky in that in my previous job I’d navigated the equivalent in adult services this experience gave me the confidence to know when to push and when to stand back. I think without previous experience I’d of been completely overwhelmed, there is no clear pathway to diagnosis for our young people.'
A child with ADHD will often spend a lot of time apologising, feeling different from their peers, and being people pleasers. The beauty of the ADHD brain is that it is incredibly free-spirited and very forgiving. A child won’t just do something because they have been told- there must be a why and many system-led and adult systems don’t make sense to a child with ADHD. Often if it doesn’t hold dopamine and sparkle, an ADHD person won’t be interested, and simple tasks can become difficult.
Natasha explains ‘my young person is at their absolute best when we are at home, and they have no pressures or expectations put upon them. This is when they really open up and soften. My young person has many triggers; demands being placed upon them, new environments, busy environments, school, professional, being overstimulated, not having enough stimulation, and explains it as an internal ‘fizzy’ feeling’.’
Overcoming the challenges
Looking after a child with ADHD can be challenging, but it's important to remember that they cannot help their behaviour. Foster children with ADHD are sometimes more difficult for local authorities to place in homes, but the stability and warmth of a supportive home environment can make all the difference. While fostering a child with ADHD can be a challenge at times, it can also be incredibly rewarding if they are given the right environment within which to flourish.
Natasha explains that when she looks at her young person she doesn’t see or notice ADHD however that is not to say it doesn’t come without its challenges ‘I just see them and without it, they wouldn’t be them and I adore them however my young person needs a constant level of supervision, which is tiring. We’ve had to have a specially adapted room made for them due to the risks they posed to themselves i.e., taking apart plug sockets, stripping wires, knocking plaster off walls, slamming doors so door frame cracked etc. You must be prepared to constantly adapt and change things in your home as my young person is extremely smart and soon finds their way around obstacles that I have put in place to keep them safe. I have had to make many adaptations to my home to keep them safe.’
Natasha talks about how it can be isolating for a child and how they always plan ahead; from smaller events to family holidays. ‘It is difficult to make plans as you need to assess the young person on the day to see if they are feeling ‘fizzy’ or not but also have to consider where you may be going before even suggesting it to ensure it meets their needs. I have found that as my child gets older, he is able to do this for himself. This will often mean a drive-by of an event for him to see whether he feels he can cope. Even where we go on holiday must be planned in minute detail. From the location of the hotel, can the bedroom furniture be moved around? Can they access the whole house through the night without me knowing? Is the resort busy? We watch YouTube videos before booking a holiday so they can assess for themselves. The anxiety caused by demands being placed upon them causes huge emotional outbursts, where they can be verbally and psychically challenging, despite being usually a very loving child.’
Stigma’s and dominant labels
ADHD often comes with negative dominant labels, is misunderstood, and can have the stigma, ‘It’s not ADHD, it's bad parenting’, ‘ADHD is an excuse- he knows what he’s doing’. Natasha explains ‘The stigma around ADHD is something I struggle to come to terms with and maybe that’s because I’ve also been someone who judged the parenting of children with ADHD myself before experiencing it first-hand. It's hard not to feel overprotective of our children when you see and feel the judgment of others, particularly as my child gets older and it’s more obvious that his “behaviours” are not in line with their peers! However, as we better understand their triggers and discover the environments that they feel most comfortable in we see incidents of judgment recede.’
Natasha explains a time recently when someone was able to see her young person had a sparkle which immediately made her anxiety disappear ‘ My child was asked to go to church after watching a gospel concert and talked to some of the youths that attended. I was worried as churches often feel stuffy and confined but the pasture came out to meet me at the door after my child blasted through the church ahead of me. He told me my boy was welcome and not to worry if he walked around, made a noise, or needed to walk in and out during the service’.
How can we help as foster parents?
You can’t outrun ADHD; it will always show up. Be compassionate in those spaces where it shows up. With children that have experienced trauma, guide them, and enable them to feel shame, and make them realise they are human. Society and cultural understanding are slowly appearing more today, as more people talk openly about their experiences and society understands ADHD. Many parents have the question, ‘How do we get our children to conform in society to navigate adult life’. It is important to empower the children and their behaviour by encouraging conversations where they get to make their own good decisions. Also allowing the child to realise the consequences of their actions and involve friends and family to understand the child’s triggers and happy places.
Natasha speaks positively of her experience ‘Everything sparkles, if you’re lucky enough to have a child with ADHD, you will never have to struggle with flat-pack furniture - he views this as a giant puzzle! You will have an on-hand, thinking out the box, problem solver with you all the time. The dullest of days will be bright and full of energy!’
Nexus Fostering holds a variety of training, one of those being ‘How to get the most out of ADHD’ a workshop from our Practice Development Lead Xanthe Parker. Held locally at each office it looks at how can we better understand and support our children with ADHD. Natasha spoke about the training and support she and her young person has received from Nexus Fostering. ‘Training can often feel repetitive within fostering however the training which just focuses on ADHD was excellent and hit the spot perfectly. My child has been assigned a support worker as it's recognised how complex his needs are and that as his foster care, I sometimes need a break. I have clinical supervision fortnightly, an opportunity to debrief without judgment with a therapist. These sessions are invaluable. There is also a specialist ADHD support group for foster parents and fortnightly supervision with my amazing social worker!’.
Natasha's advice for a parent or family struggling with the diagnosis ‘I’m not an expert but for those parents that may struggle to embrace the diagnosis of your child. Your child is still the same person as they were the day before they got their diagnosis, but a diagnosis may open doors for them and allow those that care for them to better understand their needs and why they do what they do! There will never be a dull moment, you’ll always be knackered, and you’ll feel like your ears are ringing from their constant chitter chatter but I promise you’ll find something to smile about every day because their outlook is so unique. I am the lucky one being gifted this sparkly, fizzy energetic ball of love, my life is so much richer for being their parent.’
Many families mask the problems around ADHD, part of your role as a foster carer is to ignite the positives of ADHD and to help guide with the struggles. Reframe and rephrase the language you use for the children and challenge the dominant labels that are around ADHD, ‘That behaviour annoyed me, not you’. Unlock the child’s potential but nurture the child’s characteristics, be compassionate, and understand that their behaviour is not annoying or intentional. Break down rules, set clear boundaries and healthy routines, and remember how the brain functions. Most of all be kind to yourself and separate the behaviour from the child.
26 July 2023