T has been with us for about 6 months. He is 10 years old and is diagnosed with ASD though it seems quite mild. Some of his symptoms that are attributed to ASD could also be just down to the fact that T is a 10 year old boy. In general he is a very happy lad but one who has moments of anxiety and has some problems dealing with his emotions. Because of his condition he does get fixated on things so he has a strong passion for cars and certain movies and TV programmes and at the moment he has a sometimes unhealthy obsession with Loom Bands (tiny little elastic bands that the kids make into bracelets).
I am married with three children, one at home, one at University and one living just down the road, and I am the main carer as my wife has a full time job as an Assistant Principal at a Sixth Form College.
Friday 7th February – Thursday 19th February
So we’re been coming out of a tough spell at home which culminated a few weeks ago with some very aggressive behaviour from our foster child. It has been quite a worry. So I have decided to go through the process of how we managed this and also what our conclusions to this were. Why is this happening after over a year of him being here? What has changed, if anything? How much are we to blame, if at all, for his increased poor behaviour? And how will we proceed from here?
Things had been much tougher since Christmas, at least a tantrum every day, and we were worried that an increase in contact over the Christmas holidays had been a cause. Was he returning to old ways because of the amount of time he had spent with his Mum? Was Mum spoiling him and becoming lapse with boundaries? Was Mum setting any boundaries, after all, who could really blame her for wanting the 6 hours every 2 weeks to go smoothly? But it all came to a head a few weeks ago, after some increased tensions around the house, when he physically tried to hit me, twice. He has raised his fists a couple of times before when he has been very angry but he has never taken it any further. Now he is only 10 so he is not going to do much damage at the moment but he won’t always be that age and the way he is growing and if we consider how tall Mum is then the evidence suggests that he’s going to be a big lad. So this is not a direction we want to go in.
The first thing I did was to contact my Supervising Social Worker to arrange an emergency meeting to talk through things. I really wanted to off load but also to make sure that what was happening at our house was known at Families Fostering. Plus there is a lot of experience at our agency and my wife and I decided it was a good time to use it, which was not easy because it felt like an admission that we are failing to cope. I suppose like a lot of people involved in fostering we believed we were quite good at the parenting thing otherwise we would not have got involved in the first place. So I suppose it felt like we were not managing very well. That can be a tough thing to admit and can make you feel really low.
But the first thing that my Supervising Social Worker said was to not take this personally, that it was not about us, and that if we unpick things it may become clearer. And so we did. She started by drawing a big triangle on a flip chart (my initial response in my head was I wanted to just talk it through, I didn’t want any psychology) so we could fill it with information on T and then she asked me several questions about his past. Do we know what it was like when he lived with Mum? What was their relationship like? How long has he been in care? Who were the other carers in his life? Why did he go into care? What are his known conditions? When was he diagnosed as Autistic? Things we did not know we looked up in all the paperwork we had and eventually, after a while, it became a bit clearer to us. We filled the triangle up with all the known information we had and though we could never be sure we could at least look at the evidence and make an informed guess. This was what we surmised from our chat. T had been in care since he was 7 and before that he had had a volatile relationship with Mum and other relations. There had been a lot of verbal aggression, never physically violent, but enough verbally for Mum to ask for help. That is why he was in care. But not just with Mum, there had been difficulties with other relations too. And her own illness made it even more difficult for her to manage a small boy with very complex needs. We could never know for sure but we could take a guess that the situation at home could have gone a bit like this.
Mum is not feeling well and is staying in bed a lot and because of this T is not getting any important time with her. Mum spends quite a bit of time in bed (because of her depression) and so T becomes very independent and able to manage for himself. A child who manages for himself may not take too well to advice. And his Autism does not help. So eventually things become tense as T demands some attention and Mum wants some kind of obedience and then they end up rowing, over silly things, which would finish with T getting angry and ending up in his room crying. After Mum feels guilty and through this T gets the love, affection and attention he requires and also a few treats and rewards.
Now this may not be the case at all but it seems to add up to his behaviour now. T’s sense of love and affection could come out of arguing and pressure points; his subconscious state of normality, and so he is trying to replicate that with us. And this may help us to understand why he tries to push everyone to breaking point and why he can’t back down from an argument. He is an adult in a child’s body. The love he had and wants only came when everything had reached a crisis point. Also we tend not to argue in our house that much, we are one of those irritating families that likes to talk things through and to not raise our voices and stay calm because we know that is more productive. But what does that do for T when T’s love comes after an argument, once everything has broken down? What if we don’t allow it to become an argument? Maybe T does not know how to end an argument without tears and so he will push it until it ends the way he is used to. But, as I said, this may not be true but it did open up my mind to all the different reasons as to why we may have come to that point where he would want to hit me. These kids can be really complex to understand. Never underestimate and don’t compare to your own kids. Reading up on Attachment Theory, how a child’s early attachment to parents and guardians if broken can cause lifelong issues, was very useful and even though I have had training on this it is not easy to see it even when it is right in your face.
And this is just one of the points we discussed in the triangle. We also looked at the fact that T is Autistic (and he has a diagnosis of ADHD and PDA) and sometime we may forget that because it is not always recognisable to us. There is a sense that we want to normalise him when that may not be possible. We want him to go to a mainstream school and deep down I still think he should but we can’t take that for granted. He desperately wants to go too but if he can’t manage his anxieties which come from his condition then we may be setting him up to fail. And anxieties are very important. I am beginning to recognise his behaviour being linked to heightened anxieties. If something changes or suddenly is not available then T’s anxieties cause him to not think clearly and sometimes that means he goes into the flight, fight or play dead mode. He is not a runner but the other two are common behaviours in him. It may seem that what he is angry about is petty but his condition and his anxieties do not work that way. We had an example this week where I had forgotten that it was ‘dress up as a favourite book character’ day at school the next day. With my kids we could have organised something really easily but with T it became more difficult. And even though we sorted that out I believe now the anxieties stayed with him even though he said he was fine with what he was wearing and so when something else came up a bit later he could not cope and flipped. It was as if 50% of his head was already filled with the dressing up anxiety. And the anxiety meant he could not cope with other simple tasks. And sometimes we forget this.
So what does this all mean to us? Well his condition means that I really need to be ahead of the game and I can’t let things suddenly change. If they do I need to be aware that it may have a knock on effect on other non-connected things later. I can’t compare him to my own kids because his condition and his upbringing mean that it is very different. His behaviour is going to be linked to his childhood and even though it may seem strange to us there often will be a simple reason behind it. And his anger? Well we will need to address it because it will not serve him well. His temper could well be fundamental to his inner self and so that is going to be quite a task but we can teach him skills in recognising and managing it. And I think that may come from spending time with similar kids with similar conditions. I have joined the local Autistic society so that I can look out for courses, not for me but for him and maybe also both of us. I believe the more he learns about his condition the better it will help. We have also joined a Saturday afternoon club where he will be able to play with kids with similar conditions to him so hopefully that will help him to see that yes he is different but that so are a lot of other people too. This does not mean no to mainstream school but it does mean I need to make sure it is the correct decision. Ultimately he will need to gain skills in managing himself so that he can continue to develop into an adult and we will need to help him. And that, I think, is going to be our main task over the next few years. One day at a time!