“But the truth is,” she continues, “that parenting is really hard. It isn’t always rewarding. And it doesn’t always bring you joy. That’s OK! Who said it was kids’ job to make you happy? I think if we’re more honest about the struggles of parenting and what parenting really looks like, we can be more upfront about what we need to make everyday parenting easier.”That pithy comment comes from Jessica Valenti who is the author of a new book on mothering. Yes, parenting is quite challenging for pretty much all of us who have ever chosen to walk that road. It is full of ups and downs and children who must adapt to a world that may not be very welcoming. We have seen that in spades with the recent suicide of Amanda Todd, the young woman from British Columbia who was bullied extensively. While there has been much attention on her death, little energy has been given to the now grieving parents who must daily adapt to the new reality of a family system that no longer includes their daughter. They too are victims.
It was with those thoughts in mind that I read new research from Belgium by Vanschoonlandt et al. They spoke of working with foster parents who have foster children with externalizing behaviours. As pretty much any parent will tell you, defiance, aggression, rule breaking and other forms of externalizing problems can stress parents significantly. What then if the child doing that is a foster child?
Many in child protection might think of foster parents as somehow much more skilled than the average parent. After all, they have sought to take on challenging children. In my own clinical experience, this is not something that you can expect, although I have certainly met such foster parents. Indeed, I have often thought that I could not take on the challenge.
In the Belgium research, they note that foster parents also struggle with the demands of these children. It can be a daunting task. This research is suggesting that careful supports are needed if they are to be successful with these demanding children. They focused their intervention on helping foster parents to better understand attachment issues with the children in their home as well as on behaviour management techniques.
Psycho-education about attachment enables the foster
parents to understand behaviors of their foster child and
to keep investing in the foster child (who may be
rejecting them). Furthermore, foster parents create a more
predictable environment for their foster child and apply
behavior management skills to increase desired behavior
and decrease misbehaviors. The analysis of the techniques
used by foster parents indeed showed that they combine a
positive approach with predictability and effective limit
setting. As the program developers intended, there was
limited use of negative consequences for unwanted
behaviors. More general parenting skills were also
included in the program because the developers thought
they would be of value in working with foster parents and
foster children. Increasing predictability in difficult situations
could avoid problems. Helping children in recognizing
their emotions and solving problems could increase foster children’s emotion regulation and problem-solving
skills. Finding a balance between stimulating autonomy
and monitoring may be difficult in parenting foster children
who had become too independent or whose parents
had been over-involved (in press).
Even with the significant training and support, however, they found that only a limited number of foster parents implemented the techniques. This helps us to understand that changing parent behaviours can be difficult. If those who are motivated to work with foster children may have either difficulty or resistance to new parenting techniques, one can only imagine the difficulties that parents in the child welfare system must face in implementing new parenting techniques!
Reference: Vanschoonlandt, F., Vanderfaillie, J., Van Holen, F., & De Maeyer, S. (2012). Development of an intervention for foster parents of young foster children with externalizing behaviour: Theoretical basis and program description. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, In press. DOI 10.1007/s10567-012-0123-x