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138 AUGUST 2010
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The resilience of children in care: The influence of adult attachment figures

Lorea Boneke

There are many different factors that contribute to children and young people in care being a disadvantaged group. It is noteworthy to highlight that social circumstances in a child's life can influence their exposure whilst being looked after at any time in their childhood. The majority of children in care appear to be from families that in some way may not only have psychological problems, but also socio-economic disadvantages too. As this area of discussion is very broad, this paper will focus on the socio-emotional development throughout the lifespan of children in care and examine their ability to cope with and successfully survive the many adversities in their life.

“What is it like to be separated from your family surroundings and the next day to be surrounded by strangers?”

This is probably a question that only children who experience being in care can answer. However, they may not know how to express their initial feelings of loss, anger and resentment. Due to individual circumstances children away from home are being forced to discontinue the attachment bond between their loved ones or care giver, affecting the child's future physical, psychological, and cognitive development. The experience of the breakdown of family bonds, together with the act of being removed from your home for whatever reason brings the child or young person a huge amount of emotional distress.

Therefore, this paper mainly addresses the importance of identity and attachment in human life, and the distressing emotional responses which children and young people in care experience when those ties are ruptured.

The vulnerability of children taken away from home : coping with adversity
Children who have been taken from their home environment are extremely vulnerable; firstly due to their experience prior to care, and secondly due to the separation and loss of their family ties. Many children in care are more than likely to experience more than one placement ; each placement serving to increase their vulnerability as their perceived loss and alienation increases. All this becomes more complex if there are shortcomings in their care regarding for instance, the taking into consideration of race, culture, religion and language, since racial and ethnic identity formation is an important and necessary development process for all children and adolescents.

Some studies argue that not all children deal with the consequences of poor early experiences in the same way. Coping with adversity is called resilience. Smith (2009) suggests that some children cope with disadvantages in childhood with more resilience than others and observes that a number of factors are identified with resilience, some to do with individual temperament and others associated with environmental features.

It may be useful here to explore some of the issues which might influence a child's capacity for resilience. It is in our nature to expect that as a child your family will bring you up until adulthood reaches is reached and the individual is able to establish his or herself away from the family home. However, some children will not be able to experience this particular life event and they will live a part or the entirety of their childhood or adolescence or both away from home. Children in these circumstances are considered to be in need as their family experience, for whatever reason, seems to have been unable to provide the necessary care for them.

These children may experience educational difficulties, family disruption, physical and emotional abuse and behavioural difficulties or a combination of any of them. However, there are several studies in the United Kingdom which suggest that the most significant proportion of children who enter the care system for the first time every year – 12,000 out of 30,000 – have suffered some form of either physical or emotional abuse (Farmer and Pollock, 1998; Horgan and Sinclair, 1997). These are all factors which may influence their capacity to be resilient because :

Children in care have a lack of a consistent parenting figure in their lives and this can mean that they are disadvantaged through having experienced little exposure to controlled “risk” situations. They do not have the chance of becoming aware that when things go wrong, they can be satisfactorily repaired, and their unconscious fears do not allow them to become resilient. The child in whom no sense of danger has developed does not take dangerous actions because he is a risk taker but because he has no sense of risk and so his potential to survive or thrive is limited.

The kind of care that parental figures provide for children, as well as the nurturing towards developing the skills to understand and manage their environment, helps children to develop this sense of risk. This is important because if they are not able to take on some of the risks they are exposed to in life they will not flourish emotionally or socially. They may for instance be fearful of developing relationships with others because they cannot trust the world outside of that which they experience with their real and psychologically “internalised” parenting figures (see for instance Klein,1946, Erikson 1950, Winnicott,1965).

This state of not being able to experience a satisfactory attachment bond with a parenting figure or an adult can have detrimental consequences for the child or young person when taking their first steps towards socialization (Fonagy, 2003). To have a lack of consistent support and encouragement from adults can make children unable to feel confident and to take the risk of engaging with others while children who experience consistent parental care can develop a trust of in the world around them. This represents, as the psychoanalytic theorists Klein and Winnicott understand it, the children's move from being “unintegrated” towards being “integrated” In simple terms integration may be understood to be the development of an understanding and acceptance of the place of one’s self and others in the social environment and that this environment is generally safe (Klein, 1946 , Winnicott, 1965).

For many children and young people in care the achievement of integration can be a difficult step. They are uncertain of their place in their world and it is a world that seldom feels safe. Without integration children will not develop what Erikson (1950) calls a “basic trust” in their world. This development is essential for their future well being and for their capacity to be resilient. It is the consistency and the quality of concern shown for the growing infant by the main parenting figure which determines the level of integration a child may achieve. Children who struggle to achieve full integration, who emotionally continue as Klein would say, to reside in the “paranoid-schizoid position” do not develop this basic trust because they continue to feel threatened and persecuted by the world around them. They may express themselves in a terrorised or terrorising way because they have not developed a healthy sense of risk and consequently have little or no resilience to the world around them (Klein, 1946).

Can a placement in care help a child become more resilient ? Tiet et al (1998), as cited in Atwool, 2006) suggest that external support such as additional adults in the family, care workers and mentors can provide some of the emotional support and guidance that children looked after in care need in their lives. Other studies have shown that for children in care age and placement stability are key factors. (Triseliotis, 2002; Lowe and Murch, 2002 as cited at Liz Webb). Being given consistent warm caring experiences and the sense of belonging this brings along with it can allow children to cope with the new changes which are brought about by entering the care system for the first time. If children can be helped to cope with this dramatic change in their lives, it is likely that they will become more resilient to change as they grow up. It is significant that placements in care are normally more successful if the child is an infant. These studies suggest that children in middle and late childhood experience a higher level of placement breakdown as their needs are more demanding due to their relatively higher level of emotional and behavioural problems. These problems may have roots in abusive and neglectful familial experiences as well as experiencing several chnages in care placements, but they come at time when all children of this age are beginning to go through the throes of adolescence. They are becoming very aware that their parents are not perfect! While this is as it should be. Nevertheless this adds to the complexity of the development of resilience in children in care and to the task of those encouraging this development. An idea which may be of help in this is D.W. Winnicott’s proposal that our parents should not be perfect but they must be “good enough” (Winnicott, 1965 as cited by Sharpe, 2004). Recent investigation shows that young people in foster care can be helped to develop relationships and become able to recognise and accept that others as well as themselves are not perfect. The realisation that their parenting figures are “good enough” but not perfect holds out the promise that new and good relationships with others is a possibility. It is perhaps for this reason that there is evidence that foster care placement in adolescence can lead to adoption (Triseliotis 2002as cited at Liz Webb 2004). These studies suggest that adolescents experiencing a positive and secure attachment with care givers present themselves as being confident and self-reliant, able to handle fear and worry, able to attain full intellectual potential and able to access support from others when necessary (Allen and Land, 199 as cited at N. Atwool, 2006).

Often, children and young people, even when they have in the past suffered long term abuse, experience the benefit of a strengthened sense of self-esteem afforded by consistent care and the development of a healthy attachment with parenting figures (Schofield, 2002 as cited at Frey and Cushing, 2007). This benefit is what Bowlby (1969) called a secure base. Healthy and loving relationships developed and experienced through foster care can allow a child or young person to form a strong belief in and acceptance of these caring emotions. This leads in turn to a firm sense of security (Bowlby 1969; George 1996; Howe et al. 1999 as cited at Frey and Cushing, 2007). Such relationships which include the qualities of being listened to, valued and accepted can help a young person to develop positive self-esteem and a strong sense of identity. Placement stability is a major factor in contributing to children and young people in care being able to cope with and successfully survive adversity.

The aim of this paper has been to show how the resilience of children and young people in care is influenced by the consistency of attachment they experience with their substitute parenting figures and to demonstrate the emotional distress which is experienced when attachment ties are ruptured.

It is important to mention the different issues at stake for infants and adolescents who are in care. Their level of risk and their level of need very much depend on each individual,who has a unique story to tell. Each child who is being looked after has a unique relationship with his or her family and while the quality of the child's relationship with his parents may be close, healthy and positive, for others there may be little or no emotional engagement. Therefore during a placement in care it is very important that the adults who look after the child are able to give child the kind of “good enough” parenting necessary to create a good and trustful relationship between adult and child and so enable the child to have the potential to form relationships in adult life. The challenge of having to trust yet another adult tests the difficulties the child faces in dealing with his or her emotional response to any new situation which arises. In many cases these issues are made worse by the frequent change of placement, leading to a lack of emotional stability, identity, and adults to trust.

The way the parents and caregivers bring up a young person will affect all aspects of their lives, present and future. It is important to emphasise the significance of attachment throughout childhood and how important it is to maintain a sustained and nurturing significant relationship in a child's life, as a repeated rupturing of attachment can further harm the child or young person. The attachment that is formed in childhood carries over into adulthood and reflects upon the offspring of these individuals. The problem or the joy is, as Bowlby put it (1969), “How we start, we tend to go on”.


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This feature: Boneke, L. (June,2009). The resilience of children in care: The influence of adult attachment figures. The goodenoughcaring Journal.

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