All serve and no return

Interactions with the children we care for are like the back-and-forths of a tennis match.

Interactions with the children we care for are like the back-and-forths of a tennis match. But for adoptive parents and foster carers, sometimes it can feel as though it’s all serve and no return.

The way that our brains are designed is amazing. We're not born with a fully developed brain that will see us through the rest of our lives but instead one that grows over time based on what it experiences. Our brains are wired to mature and develop healthily through relationships. The interactions between children and their caregivers are the building blocks that form the architecture of the brain. These are often referred to as ‘serve and return’ interactions.

Imagine the back and forth of a tennis match; one player serves the ball over the net and the other seeks to return it. It’s not unlike the interactions between caregivers and children! From eye contact to pulling silly faces, making noises and singing songs to games of peekaboo, each of these interactions create moments of connection and, when reciprocated, build a safe, secure base relationally because of the foundations being built in the brain.

Initially, as caregivers, we can find ourselves doing a lot of serving without a great deal of returns coming back! However, as a child grows, they learn to return; they smile back, initiate interactions with toys and respond to our voice. This is the reason why it can be so rewarding to be a parent. You can be exhausted after no sleep, but then your child does something intentionally sweet for you or initiates a hug and all is forgotten (at least momentarily).

For care-experienced children, we know that the architecture of the brain has been negatively affected by their experience of trauma. There may have been limited serve and return interactions in their early days and/or other experiences outside their control which have meant those foundations in the brain aren’t as strong. The impact of this cannot be overestimated - it forms the base for the whole of the rest of life, the foundation for mental function and health, physical health, social well-being and so much more.

What we learn through these back-and-forth interactions is essential for how we create and sustain healthy relationships, and without them, these things become much more difficult for children. To continue the analogy, if you aren’t served these interactions as a child, then you don’t learn how to return. Therefore you don’t learn how to serve within relationships that you want (or need) to develop and sustain.

Another analogy used to illustrate the power of these interactions is imagining you and your child both have an invisible bucket (stay with me on this!). When that bucket is full, we feel happy, secure, can handle our emotions better and are more able to pour into other people’s buckets. One of the ways our buckets get filled is through these ‘serve and return’ interactions, from our earliest days through to adulthood.

For adoptive parents and foster carers, the limited ability that their children may have in these back and forth interactions, can make it feel as though it’s all serve and no return. Looking day after day for ways and opportunities to serve to their children with little or no return can quickly empty their bucket, and when there’s nothing in your bucket it’s pretty challenging to fill anyone else’s.

To take the bucket analogy even further; sometimes your attempts to fill your child’s bucket are not simply unreciprocated but met with a negative response. These responses can puncture your bucket, meaning over time it empties quicker. This is not the fault of the child. It’s not a battle they’re fighting intentionally, but it is a catastrophic impact of the trauma they have experienced and one of the reasons they need supportive, caring, serving and returning adults to help them.

However, the impact on parents and carers can be significant. The lack of ‘returns’ is a significant factor in compassion fatigue when it’s experienced by adoptive parents and foster carers. Compassion fatigue leaves adults unable to parent and care for their child as they need (and want!) to because they’re trying to do it from an empty, holey bucket!

What do I do?

Perhaps you’re a foster carer or adoptive parent and you recognise that you’re doing lots of serving and not getting much, if anything, back. The children in your care are precious and while some days are great, others are deeply challenging.

We get it.

You’re doing a much better job that you think you are. Thank you for all you do each day, most of which is unseen and probably feels underappreciated.

As an adoptive parent I'm learning to look for a different kind of ‘return’. The returns I get may not always be standard forehands or cross court volleys (have I taken this tennis analogy far enough yet?), so if I’m only looking for those, I will consistently feel discouraged and disappointed. I may want to initiate a connection or do something for my children that gets an immediate, particular response, but sometimes that comes later, separate to the moment I may have wanted it in and/or delivered in a different way. I may long for a hug, a ‘thank you’ or shared laughter, but maybe their return is, at best, a wry smile in the moment. But perhaps over time they start to stay slightly longer at the dinner table or complain a little less about putting a dirty cup in a dishwasher.

As I start to notice this different kind of return, these moments fill my bucket, perhaps not as much as a great backhand return, but when I change my perspective, it can be like plugging a hole. It also gives me the opportunity to learn new ways to ‘return’ too.

And in the times when it is largely ‘all serve and no return’, I must find other ways to fill my bucket to remove the pressure from my relationship with my children, because that isn’t fair on them. I need to learn what those things are and find ways to prioritise them amid the reality of family life. That helps me (re)connect with compassion for them, not to take it personally and to continue to be able to pour out because my bucket isn’t empty.

What can I do to help?

Maybe you’re reading this as someone who knows people who are fostering or have adopted and want to know how you could help. Here are 3 ways you could start:

1. Pick up some balls and return them!

Encouragement means to give courage – everyone needs it and too often we can assume others are doing OK because that’s how it seems on the outside. It’s OK to assume that an adoptive parent or foster carer has done more serving than returning and therefore to pick up some of the balls that have dropped and return them! Even if a parent or carer is doing well, no one has ever suffered from too much encouragement!

Encouragement is a powerful way to fill up someone else’s bucket so that they have more to pour into others. It’s even something that we’re instructed to do in the bible (1 Thessalonians 5:11)

2. Seek understanding by asking!

There’s no one size fits all approach to this, but by asking how someone is doing, how full their bucket is (with some context or it may make no sense!), you’re demonstrating your love and value for them in their situation. Find out what it’s like for them right now and make a point to check in regularly because caring for vulnerable children can be a rollercoaster! As you listen, you’ll learn and understand more and be able to support them in a more meaningful way.

3. Celebrate EVERYTHING

As you journey with a family caring for vulnerable children, you’ll learn that things that are celebrated as progress or significant achievements are not always the same as in other families. Successfully putting on shoes and socks and getting out the door with relationships intact may be a huge cause for celebration. It might just be a different kind of ‘return’ from the child.

When you get to join in these celebrations you’re valuing and honouring the child at the centre as well as being part of filling up their bucket and that of their grown up too. And I bet in the celebrating, your bucket will get filled too.

Claire for Home for Good

Date published:
1 July 2021



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