I have recently taken up, again, my search for Agnes' "foster son" Sean. More importantly, I have decided to attempt to understand what may have actually gone on between Agnes and Sean. The termination of contact between them was immediate, complete, and has all the indications of being a scar on the soul for both of them. I think it is safe to say that Agnes' age had as much to do with it as Sean's childhood neglect, before joining Agnes' household, did. It seems a logical place to begin as any. So let's start with Agnes' style of parenting.
Agnes was born in 1900. Her mother, Mollie, was born in 1883 and her father, John, in 1869. Both Mollie and John would have been reared in a Victorian household. The Victorian era encompasses the years 1837 to 1901 placing John and Mollie's childhood squarely in the middle of it. Victorian society was rigid, to say the least, and their mode of child rearing would scare the pants off of any child walking the face of the planet today. It appears harsh because it was harsh and the psychological damage done to children would take a lifetime worth of psychoanalysis to over come.
The morally strict Victorian age presented the conviction that anything that remotely smacked of feeling, desire or need in children was something that required repressing and controlling. Often children were controlled via the infliction of guilt, threat or spanking, however, Victorian parents were definitely not above using other forms of punishment such as locking a child in a closet or tying them to a bed. They became stellar at inflicting mental and emotional abuse as a means of control though because it was so very effective.
Victorian parents weren't strict because they didn't love their children. Victorian parents would, in fact, insist they were strict because they did care for their children.. For them it wasn't about rearing a child who was happy on the inside, it was about rearing children to look good and do well on the outside. The perfect Victorian child was well taught and well mannered
This style of parenting evolved at the beginning of the twentieth century to include a scientific approach to child rearing which included the mind set that showing love and and affection was actually dangerous. Having too much affection from a mother would lead to a spoiled child. Assorted manuals began to be published during the early twentieth century. They were overly occupied with the emotion of the child, in particular fear, anger and jealousy. These manuals were not written to advocate for the acceptance of emotion in children, instead, they advocated just the opposite by insisting that emotion was destructive of order, predictability and sound moral judgement. Even something as positive as love was potentially dangerous. Emotion was a sign of weakness, a sign of not being in control of oneself. A Victorian parent displayed an outward detachment and coolness toward the child. It is an unfortunate fact of human nature, though, that you cannot control emotion forever. The parent would only be successful until they had bottled themselves up to the point of explosion then BOOM, off comes the lid. The end result would be roller coaster like swings of complete detachment followed by anger and intrusion. I doubt that anybody came out of a childhood like this without emotional scarring.
This then would be the style of parenting that Agnes would have been exposed to, familiar with and subsequently emulated. This combined with Sean's early childhood experiences would be an emotional Molotov cocktail.
Fire and Gasoline
We know from Agnes that Sean had been in two or three foster homes before she took him in. We also know that Sean was in poor physical condition suffering from malnutrition, vision problems, anemia and a spot on his lung. Reference is made to the fact that his family was quite large and could no longer afford to care for either Sean or his sister. It is pitifully apparent to anyone that a child doesn't suffer malnutrition or anemia in a normal setting nor would a situation affording that little concern for a child's well being be in a position to maintain a large family of any variety. I'm sure if we could find any record at all of any of this we would find that many children, if they actually existed, from the same family would have ended up in foster care or hospitalized. In addition it speaks volumes about any foster care that Sean may have been inflicted with that they would allow him to remain malnourished and anemic. This boy and his sister had been in some deplorable conditions for either or both of them to be ill enough to be hospitalized.
Sean and his sister, like many before and since, were likely removed from their environment because of neglect. The impact of neglect and , potentially, abuse will scar a child for years to come even if they are very young when they are removed. A child who suffers neglect usually will respond in different ways depending on developing characteristics of the child. There are two types of these characteristics: active and outgoing and the reserved cautious type. The outgoing active child will become assertive and attempt to control their experiences. The reserved cautious type will become anxious and withdraw. Regardless of which type of child receives the neglect it will lower their sense of self worth. If the parent is unresponsive to the needs of the child the child develops a sense of worthlessness. If the parent is unreliable and inconsistent the child develops the sense that the environment is unsafe and will experience anxiety. If the child fears the parent the response will be to view themselves as weak and ineffective. The cautious child will likely become nervous, upset and develop mental health problems. The active child will become aggressive, controlling and develop behavioral problems. Often times a sense of inadequacy demonstrating a dependency more pronounced than would be typical of the age of the child will present itself.
There is always an large amount of transitional stress when a child is first removed from a home. These transitions can leave and emotional mark on the child adding to apprehension and anxiety. Often a child will begin to react in the same manner they reacted in their original home once they have transitioned to a new environment. If they were aggressive and demanding they will likely become that way again once they are placed in a new environment. If the child learns they will have their needs met without displaying these traits then they will learn the traits are not needed, however, if they are not conditioned that way they will continue to act out.
The signs of problems can be many and varied. Four categories are typically identified and they are:
1. The anti-social child may initially present as charming and compliant but after the shock of transition wears off, will become passive-aggressive, manipulative, resentful and untrusting. They may demonstrate:
- Sadistic behavior and violence
- Compulsive lying and stealing
- Sexually obsessive
- Seemingly lack empathy or conscience
- Oppositional behavior
- Controlling behavior
2. An overanxious and insecure child may demonstrate panic when separated from caregivers. They many develop school avoidance, night terrors, thoughts of losing a parent and frequently ambivalence in the relationship with a caregiver. They may demonstrate:
- School anxiety
- Fear of being alone
- Depression over separation from a parent
- Nightmares with the theme of loss
- Intense love/hate relationships with caregivers
3. The asocial and withdrawn child may become cool and indifferent. They may demonstrate a remarkable lack anxiety about being isolated from others. They will likely develop a thick emotional barrier to protect themselves. They may appear emotionally blunted, socially inept, and have a deep distrust of others. They may demonstrate:
- Defects in their capacity to develop relationships
- Lack of strong social desire
- Lack of concern over isolation
- Few observed needs for affection and emotional attachments
- Obliviousness of others
- Lack of self awareness
4. The inadequate or dependent child clings to caregivers and exhausts the foster parent with needs. They can cling to anyone instantly but will usually be superficially attached. They require guidance and constant attention. They can be submissive and unwilling to show signs of rebellion or a difference of opinion. They will demonstrate very little confidence. They may demonstrate:
- Insatiable neediness
- Flatness of emotions
- Unwillingness to negotiate the environment
- Low self esteem and confidence
- A sense of apathy
There are still other children who demonstrate a combination of factors, and, as such, their behaviors may be hard to predict. Children may demonstrate differing degrees of reactions, with some strong in their reactions and others milder. It is likely that most children who are placed in care will demonstrate some reaction to the transition to care and carry over their legacy of responses from the home of origin.
Infants and toddlers very quickly come to view the caregiver providing for their daily emotional and physical needs as their primary attachment figure and subsequently a return to their parents or placement in an adoptive home constitutes an attachment disruptions. Disruptions in attachment relationships has been associated with and increase in mental health issues. Repeated disruptions can lead to Reactive Attachment Disorder of Infant or Early Childhood. This disorder can result in severe disturbances in relationships with caregivers.
The quality of care children receive in foster care is a huge factor in the type of relationship they develop with their foster parent and their basic psychological adjustment. Care that provides for physical need but is relatively insensitive or unresponsive to attachment signal and emotional need can lead to an insecure caregiver attachment. There are many factors associated with the quality of the child's attachment with the caregiver including the foster mother's attachment style, the foster mother's responsiveness to the child's needs, the commitment to the child and the foster mother's delight in the child.
The combination of Sean and Agnes appears to have been the same effect as throwing gasoline on a fire. Agnes was largely absent when Sean was young. She provided for his physical needs but her upbringing, Victorian, combined with the likeliness of him having an attachment disorder doomed them from the beginning. She was never going to be what he needed and he was never going to be what she required.
The fact that Sean was able to walk away without ever looking back is indicative of a detachment most people don't understand. He was tremendously damaged and I don't think he ever became that emotionally attached to Agnes. It appears that he had only one close friend and that he was not well liked by most. Sean apparently had great emotional problems. As a child he sent pleading letters to Agnes begging her to come home. As a teenager he couldn't get away from her fast enough. He turned his back on her and she on him. Not even the knowledge that she was dying prompted her to reach out. I think she knew, she understood that he was not emotionally attached to her and it broke her heart. She was a kind woman but I think child rearing was so far out of her depth that the damage done to both of them was something that could never be recovered from by either of them..