"Self-acceptance and positive self-regard is at the centre of most therapeutic approaches to positive change. This is true for both children and adults, so I guess it is our job as foster carers and perhaps as citizens to encourage people, and the children we look after to feel good about themselves and to feel valued in order to progress towards their potential.
So how does this work in practice? I love reading about foster carers who just do stuff, they may never have read the textbook, but instinctively they learn what is good for children and what works. With training and experience we can all improve our approach in anything, so training is good for us all, very few of us have achieved our ultimate being, so all of us have room to improve whatever our starting point and however we have got to where we are today.
As a foster carer my own approach was always to find something that I liked about each child that arrived as soon as I possibly could. It had to be genuine. I could not make up that I liked them, they would know if it was false, all children do, but they also sense if it is true and if they have aspects of their character that I admire and encourage and really value. Children and people know if you like them, and that is the foundation of self-esteem and positive mental health.
Of course, I cannot claim to like every behaviour, although I do enjoy it more than most, I cannot recall fostering any child that I could not find something that I really liked about them. Once we had established that I liked them we could build on this, and build a relationship, and through this relationship facilitate change.
Sometime when people are stuck in relation to a child I ask what it is that they like, I move away from the negatives and focus on the positives, sometimes the position of being stuck arises from not having worked out the positives, which is the area in which we can work on and grow and influence and develop more resilience in children’s mental health.
Of course I like feisty behaviour, I like children who stand their ground, even if they are wrong, the act of standing up for justice, as they see it, is a positive quality, so I find something to like pretty quickly in most children.
In therapeutic terms, this is at least the foundation of building unconditional positive regard, of building unconditional love. It is simple really, it is our job to love children as a good parent might, and if we love them and they know that they are loved they will feel better about themselves and can build on this positive feeling in other areas of their lives.
We had a child who was very pleasant, but not very academic, he was behind at primary school when he arrived, Alison told him it did not matter what score he got in his tests because she loved him anyway, and she would continue to love him whatever result he achieved. The message got through, and when he scored almost zero in his maths he proudly told his teacher that it did not matter because Alison had told him he was a nice boy, and that she would still love him whatever he scored in his tests.
The school told us this at a parents evening. I think they understood.
He did not turn into an academic pupil, but he knew he was loved, we had repaired his self-esteem, and he had good mental health, irrespective of his academic ability.
Some foster carers archive significant academic progress, I read a review this week of a child who had come into placement academically behind but after just over a year was now exceeding expectations for his age group. Many of you during lockdown, by providing individual tuition targeted at the individual child and where they are at, by accepting them as they are, and building on it, have achieved more progress during lockdown than ever could have been achieved at school. Self-esteem and academic progress have risen in harmony.
But there are negative influences that mean we have to work harder than ever to get our message across. Social media allows negativity to be posted anonymously, children who are different are easy to target, and as adults we have to work harder than ever to value our children and boost their self-esteem. We have to ensure that our regard for them is greater than anything they see on social media.
I know that for some of our children the message is getting through when I read comments about our foster carers from the children. “They are very lucky to have me” in placement was one of my favourite responses affirming self-worth, “I love them and I know that they love me” and a really poignant message from a child who had moved in from difficult circumstances, “They have taught me how to enjoy my life”.