Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Trust vs. Mistrust, and the impact of foster care

To fulfill the requirements of her Masters in Family & Children Development, Michele Henryette Coleman wrote a thesis in May 2000, called "A chance for change: The role of trust in foster care."

As mentioned in my previous blog entry, the first stage of Erickson is "Trust vs. Mistrust."

In her thesis, Michele's hypothesis was that many children entering foster care had learned by experience to mistrust to their biological families, and had learned to keep adults at a distance. Because of this, foster parents might find it more difficult to build trust with these children (reactive attachment disorder).

Coming at it from an outside perspective, Michele's primary concern was the perceived complexity of the child's behavior, including coping behaviors such as:

- anger
- oppositional behavior
- the need to be in control
- the avoidance of intimacy
- provocative behaviors

Michele noted that within the child's first home, such behaviors might have been vital in order to maintain physically survival, but that they might later prevent a child from adapting to a new caregiver.

- A child might seek negative attention, rather than positive attention.
- A child might be conditioned to avoid direct expression of feelings; to fear vulnerability
- Feelings might be expressed indirectly, in ways that undermine the placement

This might sabotage foster care placements, because foster parents desire a certain level of closeness and reciprocity.

Attempts by the foster parent to bond might elicit memories of abuse and be viewed by the child as a threat. When a child withdraws, the foster parent might feel rejected and discouraged: I just can't reach her.

Please note: All of this assumes that the child has been placed in a safe and healthy foster placement. This is not always the case. Sadly, while some foster homes provide healing, others deepen the damage. I would argue that some mistrustful behaviors might be born in an unsafe foster home.

However, the best foster parents out there are those who are in it for the right reasons. They are hoping to make a difference in the life of the child. They want to contribute to healing and growth.

But even the most well-meaning foster parents might be alienated if they just don't feel like they can make a difference in that child's life.

How this relates to stage #6, Intimacy vs. Isolation: The same behaviors that help a person survive in foster care might later on sabotage intimate relationships.

Coleman, Michele Harryette*. A chance for change: The role of trust in foster care. Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, VA, May 2000.

*Married name: Michelle Coleman Sharp


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