Parents' Perspective 3

School and friendships

Most parents believed their children were getting on well at school, although problems and difficulties with school work were reported. Reasons for these difficulties included: dyslexia, hyperactivity, ADHD, difficulty concentrating and retaining information, missing school due to ill-health, inability to cope with changes of school routine and side effects of medication.

They explained how they used different resources to help their children with school; including classroom assistants, extra tuition, support for language, and learning and speech therapy.  Where additional support had been provided to the children, improvements had been made.

 “She’s getting help with her reading now and it’s on a one-to-one, so of course one-to-one she does brilliantly, so it has really brought her on and she’s doing really well now with that … so hopefully that’ll just give her the help that she needs.” (Adoptive parent)

“His speech was quite delayed, we have had appointments with speech therapists, it seemed to click into place last summer, he loves school, settled into P1 so well, we thought we were going to have major behaviour problems but it just didn’t happen.” (Foster parent)

Adoptive parents, birth parents, and foster parents noted that the children were forming friendships within the family circle, at school, nursery and at various activities, some having ‘lots of friends’ and being ‘a very popular child’.  Some of these children were going to each other’s homes and attending birthday parties. Foster parents said that moving school had made it difficult for the child to make new friends, and both foster parents and birth parents were concerned that the provisions of a Care Order, and the perceived need for police checks, were limiting activities such as ‘sleepovers’.  The fact that there is no legislative requirement for these police checks highlights a degree of confusion in relation to parental autonomy, for both foster parents and birth parents in the context of a Care Order. 

“She has a friend who would come on a Friday, she doesn’t really go to the friend’s house because they’d have to be police checked and it’s not really nice to start bringing that into families.” (Foster parent)

What support was provided?

Support from Social Services was, in general, not initially wanted by many adoptive parents; deemed insufficient (or nonexistent) by most birth parents; and mostly basic by foster parents.

Some foster parents said that they did not rely on Social Services support that much, but they felt reassured by the knowledge that support was there if needed.  Most felt that the financial support was little more than adequate and far from generous.

“I suppose it meets the needs but only the needs ... you don’t get any money for taking them on holiday, if you’re going on a special holiday or anything like that ...” (Foster parent)

Most adoptive parents felt support was more intense and frequent at the start but that it petered out afterwards, although they felt that help was still available ‘at the end of the phone’.  Many adoptive parents had not needed nor wanted support.  They were quite keen to have Social Services out of their lives in the beginning, so that they could get on with a ‘normal’ family life.  However, a few adoptive parents whose children had more difficulties (i.e. disabilities, poor health, behavioural problems), were not happy with the level of support available to them.

“I needed a lot of support and encouragement I think in the early months, just about the way I was feeling and whether that was normal, and that (support) was available for us.” (Adoptive parent)

 “Since the day your adoption is stamped and sealed that was the end of their job and I’ve never seen her since, or heard anymore ... apparently that’s it.  They’re adopted now, the child’s adopted, and that’s your problem.” (Adoptive parent)

Some birth parents felt that Social Services failed to give them the practical help needed to prevent their children being taken into care in the first place.  Most commented that they did not get any support to get their children back.  For those parents whose children eventually returned home, many felt Social Services were only concerned about checking up on them, rather than providing practical help.  Because of the perceived pressure ‘not to slip up’, some were afraid to ask for support and lived with an ongoing fear of losing their children again.  Most said they needed respite care that would give them ‘a break’.

“It’s just Social Services don’t want to know us now because they say we haven’t given them any more trouble.” (Birth parent)

While foster parents and adoptive parents tended to have the support of family and friends, many birth parents did not have this source of support and felt that that they had been left to struggle on their own.

“Because I’m obviously a single parent and her dad’s never been there, my family aren’t there to support her, I feel like I’m having to play the role for so many people ...” (Birth parent)

Parental stress

The parents interviewed in this study completed a questionnaire that measures parental stress in relation to interactions with their children. The Parenting Stress Index/Short-Form (PSI/SF) measures stress in the parent-child system, and provides a Total Stress score (overall level of parenting stress experienced) in addition to the subscales:

  • Defensive Responding (the extent to which the respondent attempts to minimise indications of problems and to present a favourable impression);
  • Parent Distress (the distress an individual is experiencing in his or her role as a parent);
  • Parent-Child Dysfunctional Interaction (parents’ perception that their child does not meet their expectations and that the parent-child interaction is not rewarding); and
  • Difficult Child (an indication of parents’ perceptions of child difficulty based on child characteristics; including temperament, defiance, compliance and degree to which the child’s behaviour is demanding).

The normal range of scores is within the 15th to the 80th percentiles. High scores are considered to be scores at or above the 85th percentile.

The figures show that, compared to foster parents and birth parents, adoptive parents experienced significantly less overall parenting stress, and were significantly more likely to perceive that their child matched their expectations and that interactions with the child were rewarding.  Adoptive parents also experienced less distress in their role as a parent to their child, and found their child to be easier to manage.  However, a percentage of adoptive and foster parents were found to be experiencing significant problems in relation to parenting stress.

Birth parents experienced very high levels of stress, parental distress, a perception that their child did not meet their expectations, that the parent-child interaction was not rewarding, and that the child was difficult to manage.


High levels of parental stress affect the physical and mental health and well-being of both parent and child (Kwock and Wong, 2000), parental functioning, the general mood of the home, parental expectations and parent-child interactions (Abidin, 1995; Rogers, 1998).

These findings highlight the need for support in relation to these aspects of parenting, and the development of an advocacy service for the parents of children who return home from care.  Increased support has been found to reduce parenting stress and to mediate the influence of stress on parenting behaviour (Bonds et al., 2002; McNamara, 2000; Muslow et al., 2002).

The findings presented here predate the recent investment in the support of foster parents and the resourcing of foster placements.  It will be interesting to see the outcomes of this investment.  However, much of the stress appears to be related to the fundamentals of long-term foster care: the foster parents’ limited autonomy as parents and the essential insecurity of the foster child/foster parent relationship.   


Abidin, R. (1995)  The Parenting Stress Index Short Form, Third Edition.  Odessa, FL: Psychological Assessment Resources.

Bonds, D., D., Gondoli, D., M., Sturge-Apple, M. L. and Salem, L. N. (2002)  Parenting stress as a mediator of the relation between parenting support and optimal parenting.  Parenting: Science and Practice, 2, 409-435.

DHSSPS (2006)  Adopting the Future.  Belfast: Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety.  An Roinn Sláinte, Seirbhísí Sóisialta agus Sábháilteachta Poiblí.

Kwock, S. and Wong, D. (2000)  Mental health of parents with young children in Hong Kong: the roles of parenting stress and parenting self-efficacy.  Child and Family Social Work, 5, 57-65.

McNamara, S. (2000)  Stress and young people: What’s new and what can we do?   London: Continuum.

Muslow, M., Caldera, Y., Pursley, M., Reifman, A. and Huston, A. C. (2002). Multilevel factors influencing maternal stress during the first three years.  Journal of Marriage and the Family, 64, 944-956.

Rogers, A. Y. (1998)  Multiple sources of stress and parenting behaviour.  Children and Youth Services Review, 20, 525-546.

The PSI/SF can be purchased online from:

Children’s strengths and difficulties

The birth parents, adoptive parents, and foster parents interviewed also completed a questionnaire that evaluates children’s pro-social behaviour, and behavioural and emotional problems that they might have. The Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ) is a brief behavioural screening questionnaire completed by parents for assessing children and adolescents.  It is composed of 25 items divided into 5 scales:

  • emotional symptoms (complains of headaches/stomach aches, often worried, unhappy, downhearted, nervous/clingy in new situations, many fears/easily scared);
  • conduct problems (temper tantrums, disobedient, fights with/bullies other children, lies/cheats, steals);
  • hyperactivity/inattention (restless, overactive, constantly fidgeting/squirming, easily distracted, poor concentration and task completion);
  • peer relationship problems (solitary, picked on/bullied by other children, gets on better with adults than other children); and
  • pro-social behaviour (considerate, shares readily, helpful, kind). 

A total difficulties score is based on the combined scores of each of the scales, except the pro-social scale. An impact score provides information on distress or impairment to home life, friendships, classroom learning and/or leisure activities as a result of difficulties. The scores on each scale can be classified as normal, borderline or abnormal. 

The results showed that all the parents thought their children were considerate of others, helpful and kind (pro-social behaviour scale).

Pro-social behaviour : scored within normal range

  • 100% of adopted children
  • 80% of foster children
  • 8 of 9 birth children

Children who had been returned to their birth parent/s appeared to have more difficulties than the adopted and fostered children in terms of behaviour problems, hyperactivity and overall difficulties.  However, a significant number across all three groups showed signs of hyperactivity (Adopted group 65%, Foster group 75%, Birth group n=9), behaviour problems (Adopted group 33%, Foster group 52%, Birth group n=9) and overall difficulty (Adopted group 33%, Foster group 44%, Birth group n=5).

Such difficulties clearly impact upon functioning, particularly in relation to educational attainment, and may also place strain upon the success of the placement itself. 


The high Strengths and Difficulties (SDQ) scores elicited from parents suggest that some children have serious levels of emotional and behavioural problems. 

The findings reflect other research evidence that children in care experience high levels of difficulties.  For instance, in Teggart and Menary’s (2005) study, 31 children in public care, aged 4 to 10 years old, were assessed by their carers and teachers as having higher levels of emotional symptoms, conduct problems, hyperactivity/inattention, peer relationship problems, and as having fewer pro-social behaviours, relative to age appropriate norms. 

Meltzer and colleagues (2003) found that children in care but living with their birth parents were more likely to be assessed as having a mental disorder and were more likely to have anxiety disorders and depression than those in foster care (20% and 9% compared to 8% and 2%).  The emphasis in child care policy and practice particularly since the Children (NI) Order 1995 has been on keeping children at home and returning them to their families wherever possible, if they do come into care.  This is based on the belief that it is generally best for children to be with their families with minimum interference from the state.  The findings presented here indicate some limitations of this policy direction.  The children who returned home had the most, not the least, difficulties and their parents were having the most difficulty coping.  In light of these findings, Health and Social Care Trusts and other relevant care agencies need to review the support structure for families when children return home from care. Again, the findings highlight the need for the development of an advocacy service for parents whose children return home from care.  

The high Strengths and Difficulties (SDQ) scores elicited from some of the adoptive parents are a reminder that adoption is not a ‘magic wand’.  Children increasingly come to adoption with a range of emotional, behavioural and health problems and adoptive parents, who often come to adoption because they cannot have birth children (Kelly et al., 2007), may be sorely tested.  The love and security on offer in an adoptive home will often need to be supplemented with accessible post-adoption services.  This has been recognised in the Government’s strategy for the development of the adoption service (DHSSPS, 2006).

All these findings highlight the need for increased post-placement support targeted at families with greatest need, particularly when children return home to their birth parents.


Children (NI) Order 1995.  Belfast: Stationary Office (available from: )

Kelly, G., Haslett, P., O’Hare, J. and McDowell, K. (2007)  Permanence planning in Northern Ireland: A developmental project.  Adoption & Fostering, 31(3), 18-27. 

DHSSPS (2006)  Adopting the Future.  Belfast: Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety.  An Roinn Sláinte, Seirbhísí Sóisialta agus Sábháilteachta Poiblí. (available from: http:// )

Meltzer, H., Corbin, T., Gatward, R., Goodman, R. and Ford, T. (2003)  The Mental Health of Young People Looked After by Local Authorities in England.  London: Office of National Statistics.

Teggart, T. and Menary, J., (2005)  An investigation of the mental health needs of children looked after by Craigavon and Banbridge Health and Social Services Trust.  Child Care in Practice, 11.1, 39-49.

The SDQ is available free online from:

(Return to Publications) Page: 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9.