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Love is not enough for a child to get over a difficult start in life. Lucy Maddox asks: what is?

The importance of feeling connected to others is common to the findings of many studies of what helps people to survive difficult or violent childhoods. We all need caring relationships, as much as we need our basic physical needs to be met, and many of those who have survived and thrived after a challenging start say that relationships – either with one other person or with a wider community – were a help.

It’s easy to interpret this research as somehow saying that love is enough, or that we can love people to make them better. The reality of caring for children who have come from abusive or neglectful homes is much more complex. They might push back against usual boundaries or find it hard to know how to behave in response to affection. It doesn’t mean that these things are unwanted or unimportant, but to persevere with showing care in these circumstances might be hard for caregivers to do. If love isn’t enough on its own, then what else matters? Which bits of the relationships with key caregivers are the most important?

Kevin Wright is a foster carer who is also a trained psychologist, psychotherapist and social worker. While he agrees that relationships are crucial, he says it’s important to be clear that it’s what you do, not what you say, that really counts. He thinks foster carers don’t get anything near enough support to understand all of this. “It is tough, when someone is in your home and acting out – it’s not easy for people to know how to react when they’re aggressive,” he says.

“It is extremely simplistic to say they need a loving relationship… I don’t know what that actually means in real terms. What I do know is what a child needs.”

Wright has just finished two years of fostering a teenager who started his foster placement very aggressive, drinking and staying out until all hours. He now lives independently and pops back a lot to visit.

“I do have one word which I would say is critical, and it’s respect,” says Wright. “Because the one thing with kids who’ve been very disturbed… is nobody gives them any respect. And respect means listen, validate their perspective.”

For Wright, respect means no shouting, and clear, consistent expectations of behaviour and boundaries, with positive regard for the young person. He doesn’t use punishment – he uses praise and reward: “I don’t do sanctions, I do positive reinforcement for positive behaviour.” Often, this can be monetary, but the real point is to be rewarding a specific behaviour and praising it, modelling clear boundaries and a sense of respect. Wright did this with the boy he’s just fostered: “We agreed with him what he would get bonuses for – like telling us where he was, coming in so we didn’t have to call the police about him… When he started doing it and started getting his bonuses he started behaving. He took me literally – I said I don’t want you coming home drunk, so when he was, he didn’t come home!” Wright laughs. But the boy learned not to have to use drink and to come in on time, and he was rewarded with extra pocket money.

“You can’t expect to get respect if you’re not treated with respect, and most of the time that’s not what they’re getting,” says Wright, who also has four children of his own. “With teenagers, whatever you’re doing – you cannot expect to see the fruits of your labour until many years later… Be patient, don’t get frustrated, validate.” 

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