Robertson Films Home Page



THE CONCEPT of the psychological parent (Goldstein, Freud and Solnit, 1973) is a useful one. Whoever loves and looks after a young child in the early years, whether she is the blood mother, adoptive mother or foster-mother, becomes the object of the child’s deepest feelings, his psychological parent. There are of course usually two parents, but during early childhood it is usually the woman who is the main psychological parent. This is the person the child cannot imagine being without whom he loves and wants to be with, whom he calls for when hurt or unhappy, whom he feels most secure with, whom he can most safely be angry with. It is she who shares the child’s joys and sorrows, is glad when he is happy, is angry when he displeases her, helps him to control his aggression and to tolerate frustration, from whom he learns to give and take within a love relationship. When this relationship is established it promotes, as time passes, his social, intellectual and emotional development.



Normally it is the blood mother who becomes the primary psychological parent. The child’s choice of psychological parent occurs alongside the parent becoming bonded to him within a context of care. But, paradoxically, a young child’s attachment does not depend upon the quality of care he receives.

He may progress emotionally, even within a relationship to an impoverished and unstable personality. If the psychological parent is incapable of making a stable, warm relationship, and by reason of her personality is a harmful influence, then in extreme circumstances the relationship may have to be broken. Yet however necessary the break may be it cannot be done without distress and probable damage to the child.



An infant adopted in the first few weeks of life stimulates in the adoptive mother feelings comparable to those of a mother who has given birth. The necessary anxiety is aroused by the infant’s helplessness and her responsibility for keeping him safe and well. Care-giving, at a time when every cry and gesture of the baby is genetically designed to elicit pangs of love and concern, sweeps the adoptive mother into the process of bonding. Thereafter the course of attaching and bonding will be similar to that in blood relationships.

If the infant is taken over later in the first year the bonding is likely to develop more slowly; and because the adoptive mother has not been exposed to the seductiveness of the infant’s behaviour in the first few months the bonding may lack something of the fullest commitment. Adoption still later, after the first year, is unlikely to result in bonding of the intensity of a very early adoption. But the relationship can be deep and satisfying, with the adoptive mother ultimately becoming the psychological parent, especially if the infant’s experience in the first year has been good and he transfers from one loving person to another. However, if the infant has made and lost a number of relationships his attachment to the adoptive parent may be marred initially at least by his lack of trust.



The phenomenon of attachment and bonding, which society welcomes for its binding effect in early adoption, is inconvenient in foster care. In recent years we have been made painfully aware that foster-parents can become psychological parents and the objects of the foster-child’s deepest attachment.

Foster-parents have long been expected to keep in mind that their function is only temporary, that they should remain clear about their role and not become ‘possessive’. But no matter how conscientiously restrained a foster-mother may try to be, if the child is very young he will become attached to her and the absent mother will gradually slip into unimportance.

If the foster-mother gives the quality of care needed and demanded by the very young child, she, like the adoptive mother, may be swept into a deeply bonded relationship. But, whereas society welcomes this when it occurs in adoptive relationships, attachment and bonding are not welcomed when equally irresistibly they occur in foster care. Social work and the law have been in painful confusion over the way in which these inevitable processes can interfere with plans for the child and his blood parents. There has been a struggle to find compromise solutions which take full account of the conflicting claims of blood parents and fosterparents. Insufficient attention has been given to the consequences of severing the child’s established relationships, whether they are in the blood family or in the foster-family.

Only a few years ago press and television showed children being wrenched with all the authority of police and social service departments from the foster-parents in whom all their expectations of love and security had been vested.



Maria Colwell was one such child. (In this discussion we are relying mainly on the official report into the case.) She had been with foster-parents since she was a baby, for as long as she could remember. She knew they loved her and she loved them more than anyone else and wanted to be with them. But when her legal parents claimed her, the social services decided to make the transfer. Maria resisted with the small voice of a six-year-old. Her wishes were ignored. Nobody except the foster-parents seemed to understand that for Maria the relationships to them were the only ones that mattered. The social workers who understood kept quiet, because they thought the law as it then stood would not uphold the relationships.

The social services department encouraged and expected Maria to change her allegiances, but of course she could not since the blood mother and stepfather meant little to her. Nevertheless, she was removed to their home. She escaped and tried to get back to her foster-parents, but she was forcibly returned to the blood mother and stepfather.

The running away, the unhappiness, the rejection of them and other difficult behaviour typical of a child separated from those she loved were highly provocative to the blood mother and stepfather. They had not shared in Maria’s growing up, had not looked after her, were not bonded to her. They had not become the recipients of her love. Maria’s trust and security were not vested in them.

The plight of this hounded child does not bear thinking about. Only death at the hands of her stepfather released six-year-old Maria from intense unhappiness and from a society which would not listen to her. With hindsight we can be shocked that so little understanding was shown of the child’s need to stay with her psychological parents.

We hoped it would never happen again. But we know that even today young foster-children can be put into states of comparable distress and danger when they are moved with insufficient regard for their attachments. It can too readily be overlooked that the feelings of a loved and attached very young foster-child are no different from those of a child living in the family into which he was born.

It can also be overlooked that it is being bonded to a child through the intimacies of day by day care that enables adults to love him and tolerate his behaviour and his demands (Robertson and Robertson, 1982). The prolonged absence of a child in a foster home and lack of involvement in his care can cause the parents’ feeling for him m become shallow. Furthermore, if there is a stepfather who has not had the experience of becoming bonded, he may be specially intolerant of the difficult behaviour of a newly returned child who is fretting for his foster-parents. If the stepfather is immature and prone to bad temper or violence the child will be at risk of being ill-treated.

The public are shocked and horrified when young children are killed in such circumstances (Blom-Cooper, 1985). But these are the tip of the iceberg. Other children similarly removed from loved foster-parents are in danger of abuse and ill-treatment which may go unnoticed because they do not result in death.

Foster care undoubtedly offers better possibility of stable relationships than institutional care, but there are hazards. Foster placements can result in young children being subjected to repeated changes of caretakers which are as painful and damaging as institutional care. These risks can only be minimized—if foster care is used with greater knowledge of the development of early relationships.