Secret Foster Carer: ‘Self-harming is a huge concern in fostering’

Disturbing incidents of self-harm remind the secret foster carer of the pain and distress foster children may be experiencing

There’s a famous advertising slogan that goes: “It does exactly what it says on the tin”. That’s as may be, but modern life means you have to know what it doesn’t say on the tin.

Alarming incidents

Parents and foster carers have to be especially alert to what it doesn’t say on the tin. Earlier this week, one of our foster children asked me if I had any cinnamon. I had a hunt around the back of the larder and found a couple of sticks. The child said: “That’s not cinnamon, cinnamon is a red powder.” The child wanted ground cinnamon.

Normally I would have asked what the cinnamon was for, but this particular child tends to be a closed book and resents being questioned. Anyway, what could anyone want cinnamon for but biscuits? I wrote it on the shopping list and spent £1.89 on a tiny jar (and mentally rehearsed doing some baking, a joyful thing to do with children, especially if it’s their idea).

Only the child wasn’t planning to use the cinnamon for baking, it was used to self harm. That was definitely not on the tin.

Pain they can control

Self-harming is a huge concern in fostering. One’s instinct is to try to prevent the child from self-harming, to hide everything that might be used, suggesting, instructing and eventually begging the child not to do it. But one’s instinct is wrong.

We should refrain from disapproval. If we come across a foster child in their bedroom with blood coming from their arms, we should stay calm and neutral, ask them if they’re OK, fetch some towels and then follow the appropriate medical course of action.

This particular foster child is a delightful person who, with a bit of luck, will grow to become the person they were destined to be. That is, before something led them to doubt their worth and created a desire to feel pain they could control.

That, we are told, is what is usually going on when children and young people cut themselves. Or chew through their own cheeks. Or burn themselves, punch themselves, swallow things or put things into their body in other ways.

Moral dilemmas

Or ask for cinnamon, which was neither eaten nor inserted by the way. I know how it was used to self-harm because this particular foster child trusts us enough to do it openly, even asking me if I wanted to try.

And here’s another dilemma: do I explain how the cinnamon was used even though there’s a risk that a vulnerable person may read this? Well, I’ll tell you how this everyday household ingredient was used. It could be a helpful forewarning and the information is already in the public domain anyway.

A small amount of salt is placed on the forearm, then sprinkled with cinnamon. An ice cube is also involved and the mixture creates a benign burn, which leaves a red mark that stays for several days.
I called my social worker for advice. She advised: “Don’t make a thing out of it. And don’t run out of ice or cinnamon; the child might be tempted to go on to something worse.”

What it doesn’t say on the tin…

I squinted at the small print on the little cinnamon jar. It said: “Rub into a leg…” and I thought to myself, “Aha! They are clued up about this!” Then I turned the jar round to read the rest of the advice. “Rub into a leg…of lamb for wondrous winter flavours.”

The secret foster carer is a blogger and registered foster carer with Blue Sky Fostering.

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