A Relational approach to Fostering and Adoption

Too often, fostering and adoption is seen as an easy route to fixing a damaged child, with insufficient attention paid to the nature of the fostering / adoptive relationship itself. Self-evidently, it is not the placement type in and of itself that makes a difference to the welfare of a child, but a parent-child relationship that is supported (or not) by the legal process. When the carers themselves become simply a role, rather than seen as people, who are both impacted upon and personally impact the relationship, then critical issues get missed, and ultimately, the child’s experience is not properly understood.



Looking after children who have been endangered, and moving to a family who are not your family of origin, challenges the attachment system of both children and adults in unique ways. Attention needs to be paid to the impact of the child on the foster parents / adopters, as well as the pattern of relationships of the carers themselves. Assessment tools are needed that shed light on what is going on between the carers and the child in order to understand struggling foster or adoptive parent-child relationships; and of the impact of the carers’ own experiences on their relationships, in the assessment of carers themselves.



Click here to download ‘The meaning of the child to the adoptive parent: understanding the contribution of the parent to the parent-child relationship in adoption” (Grey 2017), which describes and illustrates this approach in more detail.



‘I have trained in the MotC assessment with Cambridge Centre of Attachment, and also use them to code interviews with both parents and foster carers. I have found the measure extremely useful in understanding the ‘space’ between a parent and child, and have valued being able to discuss the results with Dr Grey and Juliet Kesteven to think about the management of risk, but especially to develop a plan for therapeutic work where appropriate.


Their skills and experience have helped me make sense of the most complex cases, and have enabled the multiagency service I lead to really help the parents and carers to find ways have an enjoyable and ‘good enough’ relationship with their children where this previously wasn’t possible.’
Elaine Sullivan – Clinical Lead, Fostering and Adoption Service, Suffolk County Council


The Meaning of the Adopted/Fostered Child

All children hold a psychological meaning to their parents (Reder and Duncan 1999), and this is no less true for adopted or Looked After Children. In the case of adoption, this is influenced both by the adoptive parents’ prior expectations of adoption (and motivation to adopt) and their understanding of the child’s history and parenting. Adoption involves taking into your home and heart, a child whom the carers have often been told comes from bad or dangerous parents. This runs against the grain of the biology of attachment, which can be seen, albeit crudely, as a behavioural system developed to enable the passing on of one’s own genes and protection of one’s progeny. In many, perhaps most, adoptions, the adoptive relationship progresses well and this does not present a particular problem. However, in some situations, when adoptive parents are struggling with the child, this can colour the meaning the adoptive parents give to these difficulties and they can feel, as one adoptive parent put it to us, that they are bringing up an ‘alien in [their] family’.



In addition, the adoptive relationship is first and foremost an attachment relationship, and like all such relationships involve intense emotions. As Bowlby first drew our attention to, looking after any child is an exhausting and emotionally challenging endeavour, but one that is managed because of the intense joy and pleasure such relationships can bring:

‘If it goes well, there is joy and a sense of security. If it is threatened, there is jealousy, anxiety, and anger. If broken, there is grief and depression’

Bowlby (1988) ‘A Secure Base’, p. 3

In relationships that cannot be reciprocal, as is the case in many adoptive relationships where the child is externalising their own trauma and abuse, cannot ‘reward’ the parent, and in some cases actively rejects the parent, this threatens the relationship and can break it, with all the attending feelings that Bowlby identifies. In fostering, these issues are commonly overlooked, as the foster parent is seen as a ‘carer’ performing a role, rather than a ‘parent’ involved in an intense relationship, which more closely characterises how things actually feel for both child and foster parent.



The need for substitute parents to be able to perceive, contain, and hold in mind the experience of a child whose history is in all likelihood very different from their own, makes the way in which the parent perceives the child’s experience particularly critical. Traumatised children need to externalise the traumatic feelings that they cannot process for themselves, and so tend to project them onto those caring for them (Fonagy et al. 2004). This can be an incredibly overwhelming and de-stabilising experience for adoptive parents especially, who find themselves treated as if they were the abusing parent, without always being fully prepared for this. A capacity for mentalisation – seeing the child’s experience for what it is, and putting it in its fullest context, can be key to managing this without needing to resort to either blaming and rejecting the child, or withdrawing from the relationship, defensive processes that will put the new parent-child relationship at severe risk.



These issues are examined and assessed using the Meaning of the Child Interview (MotC), which can be given both prior to placement (in relation to the carers birth children if they have any, and their expectations of the child), or within an established relationship. Again, the procedures identify what is going on in the relationship, often allowing the past and present experience of suffering to be given a voice and support offered, rather than engaging in any kind of fault-finding exercise. Often carers feel blamed because professionals (and even the society around them) impose their own expectations of a happy ending to their own experience of removing children from birth parents. Assessments like the MotC allow issues to this kind to be raised and sympathetically addressed.