Holding the Line With Foster Children

Foster Parenting Tips

When a foster child joins your family, there is an implication that the child is important to you. After all, if the child were not important, you would not have taken them in as a foster child! In human relationships, when someone begins to be ever more important to us, there is the likelihood of fusion beginning to occur. The answer to fusion is to present a differentiated stance with the child.

“Fusion” is a fancy word for the process and end result of two people gridlocked in an emotional and behavioral situation. Usually, neither person is budging, and the stress level begins to run very high. A simple example of this is when you find that you begin to dread every interaction with the teen, because it begins with the child defensive, and an argument soon breaks out. You and the child are left with sore feelings. With a foster child, and especially adolescents, this may happen more often and with more intensity that with natural children. This may be because the foster child is bringing with them a way of relating to adults that is problematic (this is why they may be in foster care). There are times when this fusion and gridlock become so intense in a foster home situation, the child is removed, sometimes unnecessarily…if only the adults understood these concepts. So it is important for foster parents to understand this emotional gridlock effect and how to treat it.Many foster parents may experience the adolescent as “always bucking authority”, or “always contrary to anything that is said”. These behavioral signs are often labeled “oppositional defiant”, when in fact, they are just a symptom of the “fusion” problem. One way to tell if it is a fusion issue rather than an oppositional defiant problem is that a foster parent may find that they notice a pattern with all of the children that y have served; there comes a point in the treatment when everything seems to get “stuck”; not just with one child, but with most of the children that they have had in their home. This is a sure sign of the grid locked, log jammed problem called fusion.

There is much more to the explanation of why and how this emotional gridlock happens, but the point of this article is to help you manage it once you recognize it. The way to manage it is to present to the child a highly differentiated stance in your interactions with them. Using this way of interacting is not only for use when you notice the grid locked emotions and behaviors; it is a good practice to use it as a preventive tool to fusion.

A differentiated stance might be described as the ability to hold on to your self while in very close emotional contact with another person. This means not becoming overwhelmed by their or your own emotions. With anyone, but especially with children who come into foster care, we begin to invest a great deal of energy into helping and managing our negative emotions about the other person’s “resistance” to our help. On the other side of the relationship, the child also may be feeling overwhelmed by the behavioral expectations and emotional closeness that they begin to feel from the foster parent. You can see how this situation can become a “push-pull” problem that could grow into an impossible, grid locked situation.

As a person becomes emotionally and behaviorally grid locked with another person, their tendency is to “push away” the other person through rejection of respect, caring, affection, interaction, or help. These behaviors then “step on the toes” of both people’s personal integrity. The situation will reach the explosion level at some point, and this usually is not pleasant for anyone. Remember that this is true of both people. Though you may not realize it, you likely have subtle (or not so subtle) ways of interacting with the child that serve to make the situation worse. At the very least, this is not therapeutic. At worse, it makes the child even harder to help, because they shut down.

Here is an example: Bill, the foster parent, is once again trying to get the foster child, Tyler, age fifteen, to clean up the wet towels and dirty clothes in the bathroom following his shower. Tyler just gets up and slams his bedroom door when Bill states in a rather loud voice: “Well, I guess the elves have left the bathroom a mess again!” Bill then shouts through the door: “Well, if you are going to act like a little boy, I’m going to treat you like one!” ß-----that’s fusion, emotional and behavioral gridlock, not very differentiated, and not therapeutic or productive.

Now, let’s look at the same situation if Bill were using a more differentiated stance. Bill once again sees that the bathroom is full of wet towels and Tyler’s dirty clothes. He instantly feels his irritation rise, because he has told Tyler soooo many times before to not do this. But, he silently acknowledges that at least the boy took a shower today. (Tyler usually only takes a shower when pressed). Bill takes a moment to get hold of his emotions, but he is still a bit irritated. He reminds himself that if he wants a positive result, he needs to be fully in charge of his own emotions. He says to Tyler through the open door: “Tyler?” (He waits until he has Tyler’s eye contact). Keeping his voice even and calm, he states: “I see that you took a shower, and I’m glad you did. However, I see that you left your belongings in the bathroom. We have talked about this many times before. Privileges will be removed, starting now, every time this happens. There will be no reminders or warnings.”

Bill’s tone is calm and even. He really is holding onto his emotions, not just acting. If he were just acting, Tyler would be able to hear it. Tyler has crossed the line of Bill’s personal integrity once too often, and now Bill is telling Tyler how things will be from now on. Bill is speaking form the best that is in him, not from a pushy, aggressively dominant and nasty place. When he speaks from this place, Bill’s natural authority not just as a parent, but as one person speaking to another in the shared community comes out.

Now, there is no guarantee that Tyler will not get up and slam the door just like he did in the first situation. But Bill has the satisfaction of knowing that he has acted therapeutically. Bill knows that if he keeps using this differentiated stance long enough, the interactions will become smoother. He also feels better. He has not wasted valuable emotional energy on the situation. In maintaining his differentiated stance, he is teaching Tyler important lessons about how healthy interactions take place. Tyler has a right to choose his feelings and behaviors, and so does Bill. But Bill is teaching Tyler that it is possible to not allow others to have control over how you feel or behave. This helps Tyler to change his unhealthy reactivity into healthy and mature responses.

Try it for just a week, and I bet at least YOU will feel better. Try it for a month, and I bet the child begins to show improvement!



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