Parents' Perspective 2

Developing good child-parent relationships: What helped?


Despite some initial difficulties, adoptive parents, foster parents, and birth parents all said that they had eventually felt an emotional connection (bonded) with their children. Of the factors that they thought had helped, the child’s age was identified as particularly important for adoptive and foster parents.  The younger the child was, the easier the process of bonding.

What the adoptive parents said:

Some adoptive parents described an ‘instant’ or very quick sense of bonding over time from first meeting the child.  Others described the bonding process as something that was often difficult at first and required sustained input. All felt that they had developed stronger bonds with their children over the course of the placement.  A number of key indicators of bonding emerged from their interviews, such as:

  • loving the child;
  • identifying the child as their ‘own’ child and not somebody else’s;
  • feeling as though the child had become part of their family and central to their life;
  • developing a reciprocal and trusting relationship with the child;
  • feeling protective of the child;
  • being committed to identifying and addressing the child’s needs and the various demands placed on them by the child; and
  • feeling as though such commitment was rewarded.

“I don’t know, it’s like an inner warmth, you get so much satisfaction out of seeing what it’s like watering a flower from wee seeds – the more you water and care and nurture that the more it’s going to blossom… And I feel it’s like that, the more I water and more input we put in as a family and it’s so rewarding.  Simple wee things are so rewarding and so warm.” (Adoptive parent)

“Because we got him from a baby he was just ours from the beginning ... he moulded into our way of life.” (Adoptive parent)

The adoptive parents identified a number of factors as influential in the bonding process, including:

  • the child’s age at placement;
  • the security afforded to the parent by a legal adoption;
  • the extent to which the reality of the adoption matched the parents’ prior expectations;
  • well wishes, support and positive feedback from friends and family;
  • qualities of the child (such as being ‘loving’, ‘trusting’, ‘positive, ‘cheerful’ and resilient); and
  • sharing common interests/spending time with the child.

What the birth parents said:

Birth parents thought that their children had bonded again with them ‘straight away’ when they returned from foster care, and had re-established good relationships with siblings, although in some instances the relationship had needed to be rebuilt.  For instance, one birth parent described a process of having to ‘earn their children’s trust all over again’.  The majority of birth parents felt the bond with their children had grown stronger and felt that the children respected them more since they had returned home. 

What the foster parents said:

Whilst foster parents would be expected to provide affection to children and to act as positive attachment figures to assist healthy development, many found this quite difficult and felt that Social Services did not always provide the necessary support when they were having difficulties forming a relationship with the child.  Most foster parents reported that the foster children had bonded well with other family members, and said that they ‘got on well’, even ‘extremely well’ or ‘terrific’. 

“He came so young, I mean he’s never known any other parents only us ... He came at five months so he’s grown up here, so I mean this is his family.  It’s different if you take an older child.” (Foster parent)

 “[our children] would see [our foster child] as their brother, he sees our older daughter as his big sister, they all get on very well … [our children] treat him as a small brother, there’s no conflict.” (Foster parent)

Foster parents raised a number of factors that they felt were important to the bonding process:

  • the difficulties that the children came with;
  • the immediate ‘liking’ they and their families took to them; and
  • the relationships developed between the children and other relatives and children living in the home, whether they were also adopted children, were being fostered, or were the foster parents’ birth children.


In terms of the development of an attachment relationship between the child and themselves, i.e. the extent to which the child had developed an emotional connection to them, adoptive parents identified some indicators of attachment, such as:

  • the child referring to them as ‘mum’ or ‘dad’;
  • their knowledge of their child’s feelings and behaviours; and
  • knowing that their child felt secure in a safe home with committed parents.

“I suppose the fact that she talks less about the foster parents now … they’re still her memories … but you can see how it has transferred over ... and the dependence ... she has been prepared to transfer it over.  And it’s Mum and Dad, and it has been for a long, long time.” (Adoptive parent)

The adoptive parents identified a number of factors they felt had assisted the attachment process for the child. These included:

  • open, honest communication;
  • preparation for the transition from foster care to the adoptive placement, including life book work;
  • coming to terms with having multiple parents;
  • feeling secure about their ‘forever home’;
  • discontinuation of social worker involvement; and
  • learning healthy attachment behaviour through the example of other children. 

The good relationship that foster parents described between the children they were fostering may reflect the relative stability of these placements (All these foster children had been with their foster families for at least two years.).  A majority had long-term care plans in place, one foster family had applied to adopt the child they were caring for, and two other foster families were also considering this option. However a number of foster parents, for whom the plan was for the child to be adopted by another family, raised concerns about the increasing length of time that the child was remaining within the foster family, and the anticipated difficulties that may emerge once the child had to move on. These tended to be older foster parents who would ideally have preferred the child to stay with them indefinitely, but were worried that their age would restrict them from being able to provide the best care for the child.

Contact : What helped?

The issue of maintaining contact between children who are looked after away from home and their birth families is contentious and has generated some debate within research and professional circles.  While some argue that it is crucial to maintain contact with the birth family (on the basis of the strength of the research evidence regarding its positive effects), others contend that contact might destabilise the new relationship with the foster or adoptive family (Browne and Moloney, 2002). In fact, there is a dearth of empirical research on either the beneficial or adverse effects of contact (Quinton et al., 1997; Biehal, 2006).

What the foster parents said:

Often, the frequency of the contact visits was determined by court decisions, and both foster parents and social workers alike felt obliged to follow these decisions, regardless of whether or not they thought the child benefited.  In cases where direct contact between foster parent and birth family was not possible, Social Services transported children to and from contact visits.  In other cases, foster parents were expected to transport children to and from birth parents’ homes for contact visits.  Some foster parents said that contact visits disrupted the children’s routines and explained how children were sick and aggressive after they returned from the visits.

“That was extremely difficult when he came back [from contact with birth mother].  He would have been very hyper, very cheeky, he just really didn’t know what to do.” (Foster parent)

Some foster parents felt that the disruptive effects of contact visits wore off once a child had settled long-term in a placement; and others also suggested that the age of the child when placed with the foster family was an important factor in determining the impact that contact had upon the child.  Children who were placed at a very young age often saw contact simply as being akin to visiting an aunt or uncle, and tended to be less negatively affected.

Contact visits often also raised problems for the foster parents themselves. Some felt they were a burden and ‘disturbed the lifestyle’ of the foster family.  For others, their wish to protect the child often placed them in a somewhat precarious position.

 “Well I felt over the years I was asked to do things that really I shouldn’t have been asked to do.  I was asked to drop the children off with mum and I would have found myself in situations of arriving at mum’s door, and maybe there’d be the smell of alcohol in the house, but not knowing whether she’d drink on her.” (Foster parent).

The foster parent quoted above was convinced that the contact visits were not in the child’s best interest and put him at risk, particularly when the child had to be left with the birth mother, even though she ‘reeked of drink’.  In a similar case, the birth family was granted unsupervised contact visits and, according to the foster parent, the child did not want any contact at all due to bad memories of the birth family.  These examples suggest that even though the interest of the child is paramount, children themselves may not be given a voice to express their own wishes about contact.  It also reveals the difficult role that the social worker is required to fulfil in trying to support the foster parents while, at the same time, ensuring that the birth parents’ right to have contact with their child, often sanctioned by the Court, is also maintained.

Despite their concerns regarding the disruption that they perceived contact visits to have, most foster parents were genuinely involved in negotiating and providing access to the birth family, and some were aware and recognised that the children may also have happy memories of their birth parents.  Some foster parents were positive about contact, and had even invited birth parents or grandparents to celebrate significant occasions for their children with them, such as birthdays, First Holy Communion, and Christmas. 

“If the whole situation was warranted we have let her have sleepovers ... not overdoing it, but just giving that wee bit extra, which maybe would help to gel with the mother and brother, to keep contact alive, you know?  It has worked out fairly well up until now ....” (Foster parent)

What the adoptive parents said:

Adoptive parents had a range of contact arrangements for their children.  Only one of the adoptive parents interviewed stated that no contact arrangements had been in place at any stage following the adoption.  Face-to-face contact with the birth family included contact with birth parents (usually birth mother), either yearly or twice per year, as well as contact with siblings, grandparents and/or extended family, at a frequency that ranged from weekly to yearly.  Letter box contact with families was more common.  Many of the adoptive parents interviewed described some form of contact with previous foster parents, with face–to-face contact being more common at the start of the placement.  This usually took the form of telephone conversations either between the adoptive and former foster parents, or between the foster parents and the child.  Whatever the arrangements, adoptive parents felt it was important to have a sense of control or ownership over the contact arrangements.

Adoptive parents felt apprehensive about the effect that contact could have on their children.  In particular, they were concerned that:

  • The child would be too young to make sense of contact;
  • The child might be upset by parent(s) not availing of contact;
  • Contact may raise some difficult issues for child in the future, including coming to terms with their memories and with the reality of their birth parents not always wanting to avail of contact with them; and
  • Contact with siblings may raise issues such as rough play and jealousy.

“emotionally [our daughter] can’t cope with (contact) ... something about that particular contact I feel that she just can’t come to terms with” (Adoptive parent)

“There’s a bit of jealousy ... We had one contact visit here and that’s not fair on the sibling, because he was obviously seeing what [my son] had and the lifestyle that he had, and it was different.” (Adoptive parent)

Given the relatively small size of Northern Ireland, some adoptive parents were concerned about maintaining anonymity once contact was in place (in the case of letter-box contact), particularly as children were getting older.  Others argued that contact complicated life; and some found that contact raised issues in relation to their parental role identity.

“Sometimes I feel our life is very crowded ... You’ve got all these complicated extra relationships that other people don’t have ... it just gets very bitty, trying to fit it all in.” (Adoptive parent)

Adoptive parents also mentioned a range of benefits of contact with the child’s birth parents or previous foster parents.  Contact:

  • was seen as a useful source of information on the child and his/her background;
  • was perceived to facilitate an ongoing exchange of information between the child and his/her birth family;
  • helped some adoptive families to ‘gain a granny’ and enjoy the practical and emotional support of the child’s birth family;
  • helped the children to make sense of the key people in their lives;
  • enabled children to gain meaningful memories of their birth parents following the adoption;
  • enabled children to benefit from witnessing a rapport, sense of unity, agreement, and friendship among the key adults in their lives;
  • could reduce feelings of abandonment; and
  • was regarded as helping ease some of the children into the adoptive placement.

 “As I say it’s never an issue, he’s happy to go and see (birth parent) ... and yet if you say to him ‘do you know who you’re going?’ ‘Aye that was my daddy’ ...” (Adoptive parent)

What the birth parents said:

Only a few birth parents were still in contact with their children’s foster parents.  One birth mother said that she had problems with a previous foster parent wanting to have continued contact when the child returned home.  She said that she had felt hurt by this, but did not feel that she had the strength or authority to deal with this. Other interviewees had contact with foster parents after their children came back home but the contact eventually stopped. 

For some birth parents interviewed, contact visits, despite representing the only opportunity to see their children, were emotionally difficult and stressful, particularly when contact sessions were regulated, highly supervised, in awkward and hard-to-reach places, and fairly short in duration.  They felt that this often put restrictions on the communication between themselves and their children, and they felt intimidated by the continual surveillance from social workers.  However, for one birth parent, contact visits with the child were fairly regular (two days a week) and unsupervised.  The child would be picked up in the morning, and spend the whole day with the birth parent. 

“Seeing him like in a wee ... children’s centre up there for an hour in a wee pokey room with somebody sitting watching us ... you weren’t allowed to take them out ... I felt strange when I did visit them.  You didn’t know what you could do with them and what you can’t do with them.” (Birth parent)


Biehal, N. (2006)  Reuniting looked after children with their families.  London: National Children’s Bureau.

Browne, D. and Moloney, A. (2002)  'Contact irregular': A qualitative analysis of the impact of visiting patterns of natural parents on foster placements.  Child and Family Social Work, 7, 35-45.

Quinton, D., Rushton, A., Dance, C. and Mayes, D. (1997)  Contact between children placed away from home and their birth parents: Research issues and evidence.  Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 2(3), 393-413.


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