It is very common to hear relationships between staff and young people in care discussed in terms of whether the young person “likes” a particular adult or not. Comments such as, “James doesn’t like Sue [staff]” are often heard in staff meetings and handovers. Or even worse, “Billy and Sue [still staff] don’t get on”. As if it is a relationship of equals and there is nothing more to think about here than a straightforward personality clash.
It is of course true that children will prefer some staff to other staff – or form stronger bonds with some adults and not others. To an extent this is ordinary and healthy – we do not want to encourage indiscriminate attachment styles.
However, children in general, and traumatised children in particular, act out lots of issues/disturbance in relationships in numerous ways – and for lots of reasons. So when a young person appears to hate a member of staff, or appears to be “targeting” him or her, it is worth thinking about why.
It could be Transference – where the child is projecting on to the adult negative characteristics and attributes which actually belong to a significant figure (usually a parent) from the past (of course there is positive transference too, but I am discussing why kids might not like you).
Perhaps it is psychological splitting – children struggle to manage and understand ambivilance (feeling more than one thing about the same person) so they split them – projecting all the rage, hate and difficult feelings on to one carer while keeping another one safe and benign. Fostering couples may well recognise this.
It is possible that, rather than dislike the adult, they really really like them and don’t know what to do with these feelings. It scares them – so they push the adult away.
It could be any or all of these reasons or something else, but either way like/dislike is not really what I strive for. Aside from all the psychodynamic stuff above, kids are generally reactive – they like you when you say things they want to hear like “yes” and don’t like you when you say things they find difficult like “no”.
What I hope to be is a consistent, boundaried, interested and good humoured adult in their lives who can manage and contain their more difficult parts. If I can achieve this then over time they will learn to trust me. This will mean the relationship will withstand the day-to-day vacillation between like and dislike. And this is when I am most likely to be able to help them.
Scarlett, 14, came to us as an emergency placement on Christmas Eve following the breakdown of a foster placement. So she spent Christmas Day with complete strangers – I was one of them. She was gobby but clearly very scared – she seemed lost and my primary feeling in her presence was one of great sadness. At times I actually felt a little tearful.
She has been in care for just over a year – her mum died five years ago and she was left in the hands of her aggressive, alcoholic father – who seems to have failed to meet every single one of her care needs. He was described to me as “a waste of space” by a police officer – it is hard to disgree. Scarlett actually asked to be taken in to care and, almost uniquely, is actually angry with social services for not helping her sooner.
Anyway, pretty soon into her placement with us, she started (in the words of my colleagues but not mine) “targeting” me. This would take the form of extended verbal tirades in which I would usually be called a paedophile and be informed that no one liked me – indeed even my own friends apparently did not like me and took the piss out of me behind my back (spot the projection). Also – I should not be looking after children and she was going to have me sacked.
These outburts were most likely to happen if I said anything which did not absolutely confirm her world view. “You’re not allowed to disagree with me” was something she actually shouted at me. Scarlett appears to find even very minor or trivial differences of opinion humiliating and catastrophic.
While all this was a little wearing at times, I did not feel “targeted” nor was I worried about the long-term dynamic in our relationship. Her behaviour seemed entirely understandable under the circumstances – even more so given her experiences of men and the fact that I am the only man who regularly works in the home.
I just continued to respond in the same way – showing an interest in her, making sure I spent time with her, calmly explaining that sometimes I would say things which were difficult for her to hear or that she would not like – when I thought it was necessary. And she could scream and shout at me but my job is to look after her properly, not get her to like me.
Two nights ago I was sleeping-in at work. I stood on the landing to make sure the kids went to their rooms. Scarlett sat in her bedroom doorway and spoke to me for over an hour. Her whole childhood seemed to pour out of her – including many significant things we did not know.
And she said these exact words: “Don’t get too attached to me Jack, I might leave.”