Problem Child

Published 01 Feb 2019

Our secret single male foster carer shares the second in a series of blog posts about his experience of fostering -- the highs, the lows and everything in between.

Problem Child

‘Teenage foster kids. Who’d have ‘em?’

Late night visits from the police, tantrums, threats, fury, damage to your property, disappearances, curtains twitching in the street, waiting on the phone for the police to get round to answering you, embarrassed apologies to irate neighbours, frustration, violence, tears, insecurity, anxiety, sleepless nights, another visit from the police in the early hours, a job that never ends…

‘Why do I do it? is a question that every foster carer asks themselves after such incidents. It’s certainly a question their friends ask: ‘I admire you for doing it, but you must be mad. I couldn’t handle it. I don’t get why you do it.’

I am relatively new to fostering – just four years in, I know I am a better foster carer than when I started, mainly because of a combination of training, learning from fellow foster carers and, the best teacher of all, experience.

My first placement was a troubled lad of 17, who I shall call Tom Smith. 

Deeply damaged by living in a household with a mother who couldn’t cope and a violent father, Tom was, I soon realised, incapable of empathy. To our alarm, we soon divined that the lad’s chief joy was to be found in stories about the pain and suffering of others. Despite our best efforts, he was incapable of putting himself in another's shoes. Tom was lazy, violent, racist and in denial about being a thief and a liar. He could take it like a starving man, but he could not give. 
I was completely at a loss. I tried a number of tactics – tolerance, sanctions, discussion in groups with his peers. They all failed. They were all water off a duck’s back.

What was I doing wrong?

A lot, it turned out. The first thing I did wrong was express anger with his excesses. If Tom, pretty much out of the blue, smashed a cup, swept the table clear of my possessions, threw a chair across the room, laughed at someone’s agony in a fall, I got angry; sometimes even shouted at him. 

My reaction might not sound unreasonable to the average parent – in fact it sounds natural, even inadequate – I was advised, by witnessing friends, that the boy needed ‘a clip round the ear’. 

I knew, of course, that a clip round the ear was the last thing he needed. But, in one way, I was wrong about that, because some deep, dark part of him craved exactly that. 

He had learnt from his loveless childhood how to gain the intense emotional intention he so tragically lacked and so desperately craved from his parents. Just be bad. It’s that simple. They will hit you and shout at you and they will certainly make you cry, but at least the subconscious craving for their intense emotional engagement was being satisfied.

By shouting, all I was doing was repeating elements of the parental behaviour that had put him into this mental state in the first place. It wasn’t a clip round the ear, but it was satisfying something his damaged psyche needed. It was the welcome pain of the drug-user’s needle.

A jarring exposure to Tom’s past came when his father visited my home, together with a six-year-old and four-year-old, his children by his latest wife, who was also visiting. We were sitting round our big table, Tom sat slightly away from the table on his own, quiet and polite, and conversation was strained. It picked up a little when his father recalled a trip to Thorpe Park, where they all had fun.

The six-year-old, meanwhile, was playing with a board game I had set up near the table. Suddenly his father flashed; ‘come here you little sh**’, as he reached out and cuffed him across the head. A clip round the ear.
I was stunned. ‘Mr Smith, there’s no need for that. I’ve got no problem with him playing with the game.’

‘Oh,’ said Mr Smith, ‘alright then, you should have said. I won’t have my kids being rude when we are guests.’

‘No, that’s right,’ nodded the grim-faced Mrs Smith. 

Silence. The six-year-old sat down on the floor and stared at it, the four-year-old, also on the floor, playing with a plastic dinosaur I’d provided as if nothing had happened,

I turned to Tom whose eyes had entirely glazed over. He looked out of the window – a thousand-yard stare.

I reported the incident to the local authority but never heard if there was any follow-up. But it revealed to me, like no placement referral document could ever do, the sort of childhood that Tom had lived through. 

Did the placement get better after this? A little. Training courses taught me more about child psychology, how some emotionally deprived children develop an inability to empathise that can become impossible to reverse. 
I changed my approach. I realised that some of Tom’s behaviour was being created by the opposition I presented to him. I was still having to learn to control my instinctive male reaction to a 17-year-old squaring up to me, to learn not to stand my ground, to learn to back away, without worrying about appearing weak. To give him room. And, above all, not to shout, and not to answer his taunts, his swearing insults. To stay prepared, but continually, and carefully, and quietly, to ask for calm.

I hadn’t learnt quickly enough. On one climactic day, Tom kicked off again. He had agreed to do some washing up and was now refusing, making an issue of something I had abandoned, making himself, it seemed to me, more furious, hunting the conflict I was avoiding, throwing chairs and then heading for the fridge, intent on pulling it apart. I stepped in the way to protect the fridge and he threw a punch, which missed. He shoved me. I held him off, using all my strength. He backed off. But my heart was hammering. I couldn’t handle this. This was so very nearly a serious fight.

So a placement-in-crisis meeting was called, none of us could see the way ahead, and I joined the long list of carers who hadn’t been able to look after Tom. We parted, a few days later, on good terms, with smiles, jokes and handshakes. 
I look back on it all now with regret and shame. 

What were the lessons of Tom’s three-month stay? I learnt that he was lazy because life held no interest or hope for him, despite all I said or did to engage him, violent because violence set the tone of his childhood, incapable of empathy because he’d never known compassion, a racist because someone had to be to blame, a liar because he wanted reality to be otherwise, a thief because he was, like so many thieves, subconsciously searching for a physical expression of love and worth.

Could I have helped him more? Maybe, if I had been more experienced – the local authority apologised for giving me such a tough first placement.

Did it put me off being a foster parent? Very nearly – foster care was much harder than I had expected. Later placements have shown me how rewarding this job can be.

And here’s the key. Foster care teaches you about young people, but most of all, it teaches you about yourself. It is that combination that makes it worthwhile. They better you get at it, the better you become at being human and helping other humans. And what are we here for, aboard this fragile, spinning, cosmic dot, if not to become better and better at being humans?

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