First Blog

Before this website went live I introduced it on the Home Page as “An Irish resource for foster carers, social carers and all seeking to effect change through loving relationships”. I was quite pleased with that, thinking it summed up its primary task in a sentence. But I must have been a bit uneasy because I showed it to friends, family and colleagues and they all dutifully said how lovely it was. But when I pressed them on what they thought of the title, their responses then broke into three almost equal categories. The first still loved it and asked what’s wrong with that? The second said no, you can’t use ‘love’ it’s not professional – you can only love your own children. And the third group cautioned me as a friend that it could be misunderstood, misinterpreted and defeat my purpose of getting really good information out and effecting change in everyday practice. So, I compromised and substituted ‘love’ with ‘nurturing’. But I am left uneasy that I may be colluding with the status quo when my aim has always been to change it where it is clearly not ‘good enough’.

What I mean by a loving relationship, in the context of professional care,  involves working to engage with and support the loveable part of the client. Psychotherapists know that they must work at this, that they must struggle though their subjective counter-transference, believing from experience that the loveable human being will eventually emerge but only if you assume from the beginning that she or he is there, now, waiting and deciding whether to trust you or not. Also, many clinicians believe that “…it is only a deeply ‘loving’ motivation that sustains a psychotherapist through the turbulent vicissitudes of the healing relationship over time” (Clarkson, 1995, P 23).

In my experience the  word ‘love’ only seems to come up when a child asks his or her keywoker, ‘Do you love me? This unexpected question often throws the keyworker and this is why we need some clarity and discussion on this contentious subject. I usually ask the keyworker ‘Well, do you?’ and if the answer is ‘Yes’ I suggest replying ‘Of course I do – because you are very loveable’. If the keyworker’s answer is ‘no’ they need to think about why that is so and maybe take it to supervision. In the meantime the response ‘I don’t know you well enough yet for me to be able to say that now’ works well for both. Social pedagogues write about working from the heart as well as the head. I know that my heart goes out to a child I haven’t  even met yet when I hear of the terrible circumstances they have endured and are now affected by. I assume they are probably blaming themselves for not being loveable enough and so I will turn up to work with them assuming that they are loveable.

This issue has been well aired in the Scottish Journal of Residential Child Care 2016 Vol 15:3 and I particularly recommend the paper by Mette Lausten and Signe Frederiksen from Denmark, Do you love me? An empirical analysis of the feeling of love in out-of-home care.  The Welltree Model of Care, currently being introduced in state care for children in Ireland,  proposes “the provision of unconditional positive regard” as part its methodology. Holding an attitude of unconditional positive regard for a troublesome and rejecting young person in your care is not a box you can tick or something you can do without genuinely feeling that way towards the young person. Perhaps this thinking could offer a bridge between the mostly inadequate medical model which is not meeting the therapeutic needs of children in care and the psychodynamic therapeutic tradition I am promoting.

My heroes from that tradition had no qualms about using the word ‘love’. W. David Wills, a Quaker and a conscientious objector during the Second World War looked after what were then called delinquent youth in the absence of borstal staff who were serving in the armed forces. He wrote at the time (Wills, W.D. 1945) that if he was only permitted to write one sentence and not a book, he would quote Augustine of Hippo: “Love, and do what you will.”. Wills continues:

It is not enough for a child to be loved; the child must know himself to be loved. That is why I say that if a child seems almost unloveable, at least we can try to go through the motions. It is better to create a false impression that a child is loved (though I doubt whether that can ever be done successfully) than to create a false impression that he is not (p.64).

Today Wills might say ‘fake it till you make it’. But I encounter resistance to this way of thinking much more among professionally qualified care workers than I do among foster carers. I remember a young keyworker telling me that he never ‘took’ to his key child as if it was the child’s failure.  I attribute this phenomenon to two reasons: social care worker’s professional training and their own sense of self. At college they will possibly hear of Kellmer-Pringle (1975) and her insistence that love is a basic need of children. But the undergraduate training is often more focused on academic learning and what to do with all this hard-earned learning rather than how to be with the people they will be caring for. Psychotherapists in training need to work hard at coming to terms with their own childhoods and subsequent life experiences and it is a truism that unless you can love and unconditionally accept yourself it will be a struggle to do that for others. Generally, social care workers are not seen to need the same developmental process and we are fortunate to have so many social care workers who are intuitively therapeutic and effective. Psychotherapists are interviewed and screened before training – would- be social care workers only need the requisite points to be accepted for training. Both professions can find themselves working with deeply hurting and vulnerable clients. But social care workers can be far more exposed in the professional living space to trauma and become more emotionally and sometimes physically affected than therapists ever are.

Social Care training in Ireland is also located in the dominant paradigm of the Medical Model which looks at what is ‘wrong’ with the person and not necessarily what the person needs. It implies that people are broken and need to be fixed. This model works well when we are seriously ill but less so when we need unconditional love and care. We are daily injuncted on Irish national radio to ‘Love your orchestras’, people who bring us joy but who don’t really need our love. There are approximately 6000 children currently in Ireland not living with their families but in alternative care who certainly do deserve to be loved. According to TUSLA’s most recently verified figures (2017) 62% were admitted for child welfare concerns and 38% due to child abuse, meaning physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse and neglect (Department of Children and Youth Affairs). My website is encouraging an approach that should consciously be more concerned with therapeutic care and healing much more than the present preoccupation with managing behaviour. There has not really been the significant sea change that the atrocities and failures of the past warrant and our current children deserve. There has been a profound paradigm shift in the literature from how we once negatively understood ‘misconduct’ as bad and to be sanctioned.  Attachment Theory (Bowlby, 1988) stressed the need for warm, secure and reliable relationships. Winnicott (1990) way back in 1967 spoke of ‘Delinquency as a sign of hope’ and how all behaviour, good and bad, is a form of communication that needs to be responded to, not punitively reacted to. Allan Schore (2012) argues that tuning emphatically into the emotional right brain of the child from your own emotional right brain can repair early miswiring damage and help the child to self-regulate better.

So in practice love is not something you do but an attitude you strive to sustain, such as driving to work already tuning into and thinking well and with emphatic warmth about the people you may be well paid to care for. I believe you would if you loved them. And I think that no child or young person would ever have been hurt and abused had they been loved in this way.

Paradoxically, in my experience, the most common problem foster carers encounter also concerns love. They seem to have no problem talking about love and many claim the only reason they persist against great odds is because they love the children in their care. Where it gets tricky is when they believe that the children are not returning their love and are in fact rejecting it by being anti-social and ‘bold’. In these situations, they need to learn from Bruno Bettelheim that Love is Not Enough (1950). Foster carers are increasingly being asked to care for very troubled children who in previous years might have gone to residential care. These children may have been so traumatised and neglected that they survived by building defenses designed to repel love, while desperately needing it. What too many foster carers encounter are children, after the ‘too good to be true’ honeymoon period,  who need to test them to see if they are safe to finally be real with. This testing can involve acting out from the trauma and defenses. This predictable behaviour is widely, but not always, misunderstood, by carers and professionals alike, as something ‘wrong with’ the child rather than evidence of how the child was ‘wronged’. Tragically for the child and the carers, the child is often moved on to another placement where the same behaviour and reaction will be repeated all over again.

Back in the early ‘70s I attended several ‘discussion evenings’ with W. David Wills where I literally sat at his feet on occasions, so crowded was the dingy room in the London venue. In real life I found him to be shy and a bit grumpy. He always admitted he was the worst advertisement for what he was espousing. However, he could also be inspiring and passionate as when he delivered a closing address to the Association of Workers with Maladjusted Children’s conference in 1968:

You may talk as much as you like about aggression and projection and transference and counter-transference and all the rest of it. And I do, and we must, and it is all very valuable and useful. But they’re only recently elaborated techniques which will tomorrow be replaced. They’re the best we can do in that line up to now. But Love is the dynamic that makes them work, and the psychoanalyst [who must have spoken earlier], in his curious roundabout way, says this very thing himself (Bridgeland, M. 1971 p.185).

I’m constantly amazed at the emotional quality and warmth of the young (and sometimes not so young) people wanting to train as  foster carers and as social care workers. They must know how hard and demanding the work is, yet they continue to come forward with idealism and a passion to make lives better. But some of the organisations they must train and work in may need to reflect on whether they are on task and fundamentally ask if they are meeting the needs either of their students or the young and older citizens they have been set up to meet. Finally, I welcome a discussion on this issue and offer this space as a forum for that discussion.



Balbernie, R. (1966) Residential Work with Children London: Human Context Books

Bettelheim, B. (1950) Love in Not Enough Illinois: Free Press of Glencoe

Bowlby, J. (1988) A Secure Base London: Routledge

Bridgeland, M. (1971) Pioneer work with maladjusted children London: Staples Press

Clarkson, P. (1995) The Therapeutic Relationship London: Whurr Publishers

Department of Children and Youth Affairs website.

Kelmer- Pringle, M.K. (1975) The Needs of Children London: Hutchinson

Schore, A. (2012) The Science of the Art of Psychotherapy London and New York: W.W. Norton

Ward, A & McMahon,L (Eds) (1998) Intuition is Not Enough London and New York: Routledge

Winnicott, D.W. (1986) Home is where we start from London: Penguin

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