Writer’s Bio: I am a foster carer and ex teacher. I hope that my endless curiosity about our kids and the wider aspects of fostering and the trauma children experience might help others. I am not an expert, except in being me, and maybe that is the way to get through the process of being a foster carer; being aware of yourself and how this can help our precious, damaged charges.
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‘Idunno’ and ‘I forgot’ are armour in a foster kid’s repertoire. These phrases allow them to avoid a variety of difficult tasks, placing the onus back on you, the adult, shutting you up or avoiding tricky conversations. I have found that the following does not create a helpful dialogue: ‘when will you know?’ leads to confusion and more Idunnos: ‘well I don’t know either’; might as well not have said anything, this serves to give you the last word but so what! ‘Try to remember’; an obvious one this, they either don’t want to remember, or it is too painful, or they cannot put their ideas into words, either way, asking them to try will not yield any fruits.
As with all behaviours I have experienced, we have had to figure out what is happening behind the words or behaviour and then come up with a plan. Here are some of the reasons I believe my kids have used Idunno as a cop out phrase (I will cover Iforgot in a later post).
1. They actually do not know! My kids do not just ‘struggle’ to talk about feelings, they do not recognise any feeling other than anger and laughter. When they feel happy they frantically work their way through the other side to silliness and when they feel angry they hit things, sometimes each other, shout and swear. So if I ask ‘What do you think about contact being delayed?’ they have no idea… When they first came, they could not even name anger, their body just reacted in ways that scared them so they aimed to do the things they always had; break things. Even supposedly simple questions like: ‘did you enjoy playing outside?’ pose problems as they are not sure. They know that they played outside but they are unsure what I mean by enjoyment. There is so little that is concrete in their mind that they do not know how to qualify what enjoyment was. It could be that it is different to how they have played before, so they cannot name what happened, it could be that they do not feel that they deserve to enjoy themselves for a variety of reasons, it could be that they are scared to acknowledge enjoyment because then they might want something and that opens them up to further pain. Which leads me to my next point:
2. They are scared to acknowledge their own feelings. My kids have found it very difficult to ask for something, whether a drink, or a jacket and we are nowhere near asking for physical or emotional reassurance yet. The first part of this is that fear of allowing someone else power. At heart most children in care are just babies, revisiting the attachment process of showing a need and having that need met. But our kids have learnt that their needs might/will not be met and so asking for something opens them up to psychological pain, and why would anyone do that? I am still learning about attachment, and I think anyone worth their salt will acknowledge that nobody knows enough about the subject, but in a practical day to day sense, the more needs we can meet the better. I have a lot of conversations like: ‘you look cold, would you like a jacket?’ ‘Idunno’ ‘Well, here is a jacket, put it on when you want’ or ‘it’s been a while since lunch, would you like a snack?’ ‘yes please’ (more on manners another time) ‘what would you like?’ ‘Idunno’ ‘ok, well how about a banana or some peanuts?’ for my kids, sometimes even a limited choices I too much and I have to give them something but this serves as an example. Obviously I have used very simple examples, but now apply this principle to something with more emotional weight’: ‘What would you like to do this weekend?’ If one of my kids says ‘go skateboarding’ he is letting me know what he cares about and giving me that chance to say no, or to ridicule him for his choice, my kids have been hurt enough, they are not going to put themselves out there without a lot of surreptitious and consistent support!
3. The red rag to a bull ‘Idunno’, for me, is the one I should be kindest about. I work hard to remain patient, but it is only through reminding myself of the cause constantly that I can stay kind and understanding. This is the deliberate, I am not engaging with you ‘Idunno’. For example, there is some sullenness in the air, maybe over silliness at bedtime (that’s not just my kids, right?) and a choice is given: ‘Are you going to sit up and listen, or shall we not have a bedtime story?’ to my brain this is an easy choice: he just has to sit up and then we get to re-engage via storytime; brilliance on my part? No. what happens is ‘Idunno’ and with that, the whole strategy is flummoxed… what do I say? My kids have suffered far more than just a missed bedtime story in the past, the cost of a bedtime story is well worth it, in their eyes, to gain some control, which for them is very hard won. What do I do? I know that they want a bedtime story but they are refusing to acknowledge that because there is much more at stake!! The Idunno cleverly forces you to either give in or be the bad guy, which in turn forces you to fulfil what they believe of all adults; weak or mean. My plan of action is currently one of the following: read the story really quietly so that they have to emerge from the blankety sulk; say ‘I’m just going to go to the loo and then I will be back, maybe you could be ready?’, say ‘well, I will wait on the stairs, shout me when you are ready?’. I am not suggesting that I have used these tactics every time, there have been times when I got it horribly wrong, forgetting that if I can give them a little bit of control we can diffuse the situation and have had very difficult bedtimes where I have stood and said ‘well, you need to tell me if you want a story’. It was not unusual for my kids to go to sleep on an empty stomach before they came to us; they are definitely able to go to sleep without the chance to say goodnight nicely. Sticking to my plan works 90% of the time, but I have to be aware that this is the one I might need to take a minute from (hence the ‘I’m just going to the loo).
As I get to know my kids, I realise that they have developed ingenious ways in which to survive and to protect themselves physically and emotionally. In the scope of a loving household, their survival tactics can be in turn frustrating, saddening, maddening and very difficult to overcome. But I hope that they will not need them forever, and that we can get past them with patience and an endless curiosity. My favourite question from my supervising social worker, when I feel like groaning quietly in a corner? “Why do you think they did that?”
The foster care assessment process
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