Family membership is a vital strand of healthy emotional and psychosocial development. A child who has no close family relationships will carry feelings of psychological and social dislocation. In contrast, the certainty of unconditional family membership can provide anchorage and the reassurance of practical and emotional support throughout life, acting as a psychosocial secure base for exploration, identity and personal development.
When children are separated from their birth families, the family membership dimension refers to the capacity of the caregiver to include the child, socially and personally as a full family or residential group member, at a level that is appropriate to the longer term plan for the child. At the same time, the caregiver must help the child to establish an appropriate sense of connectedness and belonging to his birth family. In this way, the child can develop a comfortable sense of belonging to more than one family and a more coherent identity.
The child's needs and behaviour
Each child separated from their birth family will bring a unique set of experiences of family life and each of these experiences will have shaped their expectations of the new environment and their sense of what it means to be a family member.
It is important to remember that for most children, there will have been good times as well as difficult ones, positive memories as well as sad or frightening ones. For all children, the challenges of adapting to a new family or residential group life are enormous. Depending on their age and understanding, all children will be grappling with different degrees of loss, (of people, places, pets and friends), uncertainty (How long will I stay? Do they really want me?) and anxiety (Will I be safe? Will I fit in?). The simple tasks of getting up in the morning and having breakfast in an unfamiliar setting can be mountains to climb for a child. It is hard to over-estimate the potential stresses and strains that are involved in making the move into a new family, while managing feelings of loss and strong, though in some cases potentially rather destructive, ties to birth families.
Caregiver thinking and feeling
The balance between birth family membership and foster or adoptive family or residential group membership, will vary according to the nature of the plan for the child and the quality of relationships in both the birth family and the new family or residential setting.
For instance, a child who is to have a short stay in a foster family or residential unit will usually need a fairly close involvement with birth family members and events, but will also value being treated just the same as other family or group members. Children in long-term foster families will need and can be expected to be treated as full family members through to adulthood, even in the absence of legal parental responsibility for the carers. But in most cases they will have continuing contact and membership of their birth family over the years in care that has to be managed constructively. Adoption confers full, legal membership of the new family, with support provided into adulthood, but adopted children need also to achieve a sense of identity with their birth families both through contact arrangements and through open, reflective discussion within the adoptive family.
What is important in all cases, however, is the capacity of the caregiving system both to welcome and absorb new members and also to be thoughtful, reflective and open towards the individual child and his or her birth family. The thinking is therefore complex since it involves holding a balance between two powerful and sometimes conflicting ideas: this child is part of our family or group as well as part of his or her birth family.
For caregivers, the primary task is to provide an environment that is emotionally warm, physically comfortable, accepting, supportive of its members and sets clear but reasonable expectations for shared living. The variations on this model are enormous and span the full range of culture, class, language, social norms and religious practice. It is here that we see a clear link to attachment theory, since sensitive caregivers provide the sort of environment described above and yet also have the capacity to be reflective in relation to the child's needs and feelings about birth family membership.
Sensitive caregiving in this dimension therefore involves seeking opportunities to provide verbal and non-verbal messages of inclusion in both families. These must be sensitively adapted to the child's (often changing) needs and circumstances, with the aim of helping the child to feel a coherent sense of identity in what may be a complex network of relationships.
The child's thinking and feeling
The combination of inclusion and recognition of the possibility of being a member of more than one family can enhance the child's felt security – ‘I am safe and secure in this family or group, but I can also think and talk about how it feels to be a member of another family.' Over time, this will allow children to process their complex feelings, recognise and express different and mixed feelings and manage their dual or sometimes multiple memberships at a level that feels compatible with their particular circumstance, wishes and feelings. They can move towards a position where their thinking and behaviour reflects a coherent sense of self and acceptance that ‘I can belong comfortably to more than one family'.