Transference

Transference

As foster carers you experience a range of challenging behaviours and one such behaviour we started to see on an increasing basis was transference. A simple example of transference is having a bad day at work only to come home and vent at your spouse because you have pent-up frustration. Taking this example a step further transference may involve speaking or acting to one person as if they are a completely different person. This is known as transference.

With David, the 12 year old boy currently in our care we mostly experienced these as ‘yellow zone’ moments (for those unfamiliar with the ‘arousal zones’ in therapeutic parenting in summary there are 3 zones: ‘green zone’ – the child is calm and thinking logically, ‘yellow zone’ – the child is emotional and in a heightened state and ‘red zone’ – the child is in survival mode and is not thinking rationally). I’ve shared earlier about our Life in the red zone with David, and while sometimes these could be triggered like a switch more often then not it was a gradually transition from green->yellow->red. This could occur over a number of a hours or minutes. The point here is that yellow zone behaviours are a big warning sign for potential red zone outbursts and transference was a common yellow zone behaviour.

“…yellow zone behaviours are a big warning sign for potential red zone outbursts and transference was a common yellow zone behaviour”

The most common instances of transference behaviour we would observe was in the early evening around dinner preparation time where David generally had some free time before dinner time where he would often play his iPad. If we walked past, without engaging us he would start firing off silly comments (mostly nonsense) or respond to us as if we had just said something even though we hadn’t. Examples would be “why would you say that?”, ” why don’t you love me?” and “why would you do that to me?”. It is difficult to describe the intensity of the transference, but it was like he had physically heard us say something which someone else had said to him in his past.

Over time we learned these were indications he was in yellow zone and there was the potential to evolve into red zone we took these warning signs very seriously. However, honestly it was a struggle to work out what could help in this situation. We tried just about everything we thought might help and although sometimes things might help once, the next time they would make things worse. We tried things from completely ignoring the comments, answering the questions, providing reassurance, to attempting to divert attention. Unfortunately very few things we tried seemed to avoid the transference or prevent yellow zone behaviour from further escalating into red zone behaviour. It could be misunderstood as some form of boundary testing, but it became clear to us that he generally wasn’t even aware of what he was doing.

We carefully documented these instances and shared them with our care team (who we were working closely with – see The big day). We were reassured that these kinds of transference behaviours are quite common. What is happening is David is associating the parent-child relationship we have with past relationships, and this triggers regression of memories and emotions (not necessarily positive ones). The best thing to do is to understand what is happening and realise past anxieties and fears are being brought up and it is important to try and provide comfort and reassurance that those anxieties are unfounded in their new environment and relationships. However, this is difficult and it will take time for children to associate positive outcomes when past anxieties are brought up.

“The best thing to do is to understand what is happening and realise past anxieties and fears are being brought up and it is important to try and provide comfort and reassurance”

It is also important to not take the transference behaviours personally – this can be particularly challenging. As time went by and my wife and I attached more to David we observed increasingly negative behaviours directed particularly to my wife. It become clear that this was due to past negative experiences with mother figures in his life and associated emotions around these past experiences. These emotions were constantly being brought up in the relationship between my wife and David, often in unprovoked ways (refusing to eat food cooked by my wife and being sworn at when attempting to wake him for school for example). This was something my wife and I really struggled with as it is difficult to come to terms with the anxiety and anger being directed at you personally is actually not indicative of their current relationship with you.

In our situation we did not see major improvement from what we were trying but there were other underlying issues which needed to be addressed also. However it is very helpful to understand what is going on with transference, why it happens and what is the ideal way to react to such challenging behaviours. Over time reacting in a consistent and reassuring manner will help to reduce the fear and anxieties which we are being brought during those moments of transference.

 

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Image: iStockPhoto

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