Blog 35: Foster Children and Teenagers

Written by Jim Sheehy

There are over 5000 foster children and teenagers in the Republic of Ireland.  They are a sub-culture that society tries hard to support through a network of adult strangers: foster-carers, social workers, therapists and legal guardians.  They arrive into the system as babies, children or teenagers.  The history in their short lives has seen them severely hurt by the parents who themselves struggle with life and the legacy of their pain.  The social care system in this country is not perfect but tries hard to take these young persons and create a framework that substitutes, not replace, an average family upbringing.

My work as a therapist brought me into the thinking and feeling worlds of children in care.  Through no fault of their own, they arrive into a maze of relationships that are unnatural and frightening.  Their autonomy is dictated by protocols that would bewilder adults.  Taken from a birth-family, they can be conflicted inside their thinking and feeling worlds.  The primal need and desire to love Mam and Dad clashes with a lived experience of deprivation when living with their mother and father.  The State intervenes and tells them to live in a strange setting called a foster or residential home.  So, start again for these children and teenagers. 

Foster parents and families are generally skilled in providing an atmosphere of acceptance and belonging.  But there is an artificiality about their circumstances that can’t be ignored.  When I work with foster children and teenagers on their sense of ‘family’, what emerges is a fluid and ever-changing network of people: some from foster-family, some from birth family.  In a normal family set-up, a child and teenager develop identity by fostering their own inner world and learning boundaries as to all that happens when the ‘I’ meets the rest of the family.  The skills around intimacy – communicating, relating, displaying affection, making decisions, resolving conflict, expressing emotions – all are learned first in the family.  If this is disrupted significantly, the child / teenager will not be comfortable either in their own skin or in close relationships.

Socially, at school, they are labelled ‘foster kids’ and attract negative comments or attitudes.  They often mix in a friendship group there’s a lot of diversity.  When a fostered teenage boy wants to have a girlfriend, he finds this very natural happening is subject to scrutiny by any number of adults – foster parents, social worker, possibly therapist and legal guardian.  That’s before we count the ‘potential’ girlfriend’s parents and how they view their daughter dating a boy in foster care.  I had a teenage boy in a residential setting and the home insisted he have an accompanying care worker in the same coffee shop as where he met the girlfriend.  Complex?  Very much so.  You can imagine the anger and confusion in the boy as he thinks: ‘I am trapped, weak, powerless’.

And then the foster teen reaches 18.  For many of them, it’s like a release date from prison.  They often fantasise what wonderful freedom and autonomy they’ll enjoy, leaving their cohort of interested adults behind.  Sadly, reaching 18 can be chaotic for some.  If they choose to enter any 3rd level educational programme, the care system will continue to financially support them.  But unless the preparatory work internally has been done, the 18+ group can struggle with their new-found freedom.  So, as I said earlier, the care system in this country is fairly robust and resources are generous in trying to provide experiences that replace, however inadequately, a normal upbringing. 

As a therapist, I have grown fond of these children and teenagers.  They oscillate between victim mode ‘what’s wrong with me?’ and survivor mode ‘what happened to me?’  They experience intense anger and deep depression at times, but they discover a personal resilience that is indomitable and admirable. They are very slow to trust, understandably, another human being, but trust they must if life is to have much joy and meaning.  As to the rest of us who know anybody who is or has gone through this fostering experience, we are invited to be grateful for our own relatively happy birth-family journey and challenged to go the extra mile in supporting this minority tribe in society.

I conclude by paying tribute to the foster carers, social workers and legal guardians I have encountered while counselling foster kids from age 4 to 18.  The vast majority are well-suited to supporting these young persons’ roller-coaster experience.  And to birth parents of children who are taken into care and who do serious work on themselves to better manage their inner and outer worlds, I entrust this message of hope: you are trying to gain more access to your children but find obstacles to achieving this goal; if you allow the child / teenager in foster care to connect, attune and begin to trust you very gently and sensitively, your child will probably reach out in their own time; so be patient and focus on managing your adult life.  The evidence you are trustworthy must be very consistent because, at some point, your child did not have their essential needs met.  It’s a purpose and challenge worth fighting for.

If you enjoy the material, please get the word out there among those you care for.  You can contact me with comment or suggestion via Facebook at Jim Sheehy Therapy and on Twitter @jimsheehy2017

Take care,

Clarifying Disclaimer:  While the material I am presenting is well-researched and suitable for the general population, I believe each person’s issues and needs are unique.  I encourage you to seek medical and/or therapeutic support if you struggle with an issue or condition that negatively and seriously impacts your life.



Contact me:

Jim Sheehy M.Ed. MIACP
Co Donegal 
F94 WV99

087 2137922


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