Challenging behaviour in looked after young people, feelings of parental self-efficacy and psychological well-being in foster carers.

Author:Morgan, Kate


Children who are 'looked after'

Government statistics show that in March 2010, 64,400 young people were looked after in England, of whom 73 per cent were placed with foster carers. Over half the children in care (60%) were aged ten or over, 61 per cent were registered under the category of 'abuse or neglect' and 12 per cent under 'family dysfunction' (Department for Education, 2010).

Evidence of emotional disturbance in the care population has consistently been found to be higher than in the general population (Schore, 1994; Meltzer et al, 2003; Department for Education and Schools [DfES], 2007). Being separated from a primary caregiver and/or experiencing abuse and neglect can have lifelong relational and mental health consequences for children (Schore, 1994; DfES, 2007; Macdonald and Dennis, 2009). Moreover, their lives are often subject to instability, with numerous moves, placement breakdowns and poor achievement in all areas of life and development (Performance and Innovation Unit, 2000).

Attachment disruption and foster care

When children are taken into care it is anticipated that foster families will help to provide compensatory experiences of care that enable their positive development. While this sounds straightforward enough, attachment theory (Bowlby, 1969) suggests that children in neglectful or harmful environments develop survival strategies. These may help them to manage life in their family of origin but can make it difficult for children to build new attachments with their foster carers (Macdonald and Turner, 2005):

Children with insecure attachments frequently show behaviour that repeatedly challenges their relationship with carers, which can be a way of testing the carer's commitment to them. (DfES, 2007, p 18)

Research has demonstrated that early maltreatment can lead to the child rejecting and alienating the foster carer (Stovall and Dozier, 1998; Newman and Blackburn, 2002; Schofield and Beek, 2005), which, in turn, may result in the child experiencing numerous placement breakdowns (Holland et al, 2005; Macdonald and Dennis, 2009). Since placement breakdowns are associated with poorer outcomes, minimising their number is a high priority (DfES, 2007). This means equipping foster carers to manage the challenging behaviour that is such a strong contributory factor (Macdonald and Turner, 2005) and supporting them in the process of relationship building with their looked after child (Golding, 2008).

Placement stability, foster carer well-being and parenting style

It has been demonstrated that both carer and child factors contribute to the success of foster placements. Wilson (2006) found that even when children displayed challenging behaviour, placements in which foster carers provided greater warmth, persistence and consistency were rated as more successful in terms of improvements in children's well-being and behaviour, leading to a reduction in placement breakdown. On examining foster carers' responses and challenging behaviour at initial placement, Quinton and colleagues (1998) also found a close relationship between children's behaviour, parenting style and placement stability, with placements being more likely to break down when the behaviour was more challenging in the context of less sensitive parenting.

Lipscombe et al (2004) assessed the foster carers of 68 young people and found that high levels of strain had a significant impact on the parenting that carers were able to provide. In addition, Schofield and Beek (2005) concluded that 83 per cent of foster children placed with carers who were rated as sensitive early on in a placement were more likely to be making good progress after one year, compared with 50 per cent of those living with less sensitive carers. The complex interaction between carer strain, parenting capacity, placement breakdown and challenging behaviour in children indicated by these findings has not been adequately investigated, yet may well have important implications for parenting behaviour and placement stability.

Parenting and self-efficacy

Self-efficacy was conceptualised by Bandura (1977) and refers to an individual's belief in his or her ability to perform a particular task successfully. Self-efficacy has proved to be an important variable in predicting behaviour and understanding psychological well-being, particularly in relation to parenting (Coleman and Karraker, 1997). In a review of the literature on this topic, Coleman and Karraker (1997) found that feelings of self-efficacy in parenting can act as a buffer against adversity, helping parents to promote children's well-being. They conclude that self-efficacy is a potential variable for explaining a significant amount of variance in parental skill and satisfaction. Given the discussion above, this is also likely to be relevant to the role of foster carers.

Self-efficacy, parenting stress and mental health

A number of studies have investigated the impact of parenting on psychological well-being. For example, Raikes and Thompson (2005) looked at the effect of parental self-efficacy on levels of parenting stress in a group of low-income mothers requesting support. They found that a significant proportion of the variance in such stress was accounted for by parental self-efficacy: mothers with high levels experienced less stress. Oyserman et al (2004) commented that parents who feel efficacious are less likely to feel overwhelmed by parenting tasks and may also be more warm, nurturing and less punitive in their behaviour management. On scrutinising the impact of efficacy on parental nurturing, they found that feelings of self-efficacy were related to lower levels of parenting stress. However, as these studies did not investigate the level of child behavioural problems in relation to any of the factors, it is difficult to know whether this influenced feelings of efficacy.

Kwok and Wong (2000) explored parenting stress and mental health problems in 526 parents of young children in Hong Kong, as did Wong et al (2003) in 131 Chinese fathers. Their research revealed that parents experienced more stress when they perceived their children to be demanding; those with poorer self-efficacy also reported poorer mental health.

These studies indicate that behavioural difficulties displayed by children can lead to elevated stress levels and poorer mental health in parents. They also suggest that self-efficacy may have an important mediating role in this relationship, with increased self-efficacy reducing stress and mental health difficulties.

The impact of parental psychological well-being on parenting style

Parental psychological well-being has been demonstrated to have an impact on parenting style and consequently children's behaviour (Kuhn and Carter, 2006). Olson et al (2002) found that mothers of children with high levels of behavioural problems had lower feelings of self-efficacy and more frequent punitive parenting strategies. Maternal caregiving behaviour and self-efficacy significantly predicted children's externalising behaviour. However, the mothers reporting low coping efficacy also had children with significantly more challenging behaviour, making it difficult to know which came first.

Jackson and colleagues (2000) investigated single black mothers living in poverty. Using structural relations modelling, they found that increased behavioural problems led to higher depressive symptoms. These resulted in higher levels of parenting stress and lower feelings of parenting self-efficacy, which predicted less competent parenting. When Anderson (2006) examined self-efficacy in relation to parenting competence and youth offending behaviour, he found that stress was associated with diminished parenting self-efficacy and augmented ineffective parenting behaviour. This, in turn, was associated with increased internalised and externalised behavioural problems.

The cyclical effect identified in all this research suggests that self-efficacy may well have an important role to play in buffering foster carers from the effect of challenging behaviour that could potentially lead to a reduction in sensitive parenting.

Children with behavioural problems and parental well-being

Investigations of parental factors in children with behavioural difficulties have identified challenging behaviour as a powerful source of stress in parents (Scheel and Rieckmann, 1998; Hastings and Brown, 2002; Paczkowski and Baker, 2007).

Spratt et al (2007) investigated factors associated with parenting stress in children with various medical and behavioural problems, including developmental delay, cognitive impairment, conduct disorders, heart functioning, learning and attentional difficulties, and spina bifida. They found that behavioural problems in children were the strongest predictor of parenting stress when looking at a wide range of other child, parent and demographic factors.

Similarly, when Hastings and Brown (2002) explored the role of self-efficacy as a mediating variable between behavioural problems in children with developmental difficulties, challenging behaviour and parental well-being, they found high levels of mental health difficulties in parents of children with challenging behaviour and that mother's self-efficacy mediated levels of anxiety and depression. Overall, the authors perceived that self-efficacy was an important concept in understanding the relationship between children's challenging behaviour and parental mental health outcomes. This study would appear to have direct implications for foster carers.

While all these studies have reached similar results, it is important to note that one highly relevant piece of research has produced somewhat contradictory findings. This was conducted in Australia and examined well-being and self-efficacy in relation to fostering (Whenan et al, 2009). Higher levels of self-efficacy were found to be associated with greater psychological well-being and regression...

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