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Understanding Dynamics in Residential Childcare and Fostering: A Psychodynamic Perspective

By Richard Cross

Understanding group dynamics from a psychodynamic perspective is essential in residential childcare settings. This understanding is crucial for providing effective care to children who have experienced maltreatment, neglect and abuse.

Group dynamics refer to a group’s interactions, relationships, and behaviour patterns. The psychodynamic approach focuses on the unconscious processes that influence these dynamics. Residential childcare workers and foster carers play a vital role in creating a therapeutic environment for children (the healing power of relationships). This understanding can support and enhance our ability to support the emotional and psychological needs of the children in their care by developing a deeper understanding of psychodynamic concepts such as projective identification, transference, and countertransference.

We cannot be immersed in the emotional task of helping children who may have experienced trauma not being touched by it; this, though, doesn’t mean we need to suffer as practitioners. To not acknowledge this sets unreasonable expectations. As Naomi Remer says, it is as “unrealistic as expecting to be able to walk through water without getting wet.”

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Projective Identification

Projective identification is a complex psychodynamic concept that refers to the process of projecting one’s own unconscious feelings or characteristics onto another person. This person then internalizes and manifests these projected feelings or characteristics. In the context of residential childcare or fostering, projective identification may occur in various ways. For instance, a child who has suffered from abuse may project their feelings of fear and helplessness onto a caregiver.

The caregiver may start to feel overwhelmed and powerless without realising that these emotions are not their own. This process can create tension and conflict in the caregiving relationship since the caregiver may struggle to understand that the child’s projections influence their emotional state. This can often create an ‘unsettledness’ in the practitioner, which, if not identified and worked through, can mean the ‘carer’ continues to carry these feelings around.

Residential childcare workers must understand projective identification. This understanding helps them recognise when they are unconsciously influenced by the emotional experiences of the children they care for. By being aware of and comprehending the dynamics of projective identification, workers can develop effective strategies to manage and control the projected emotions, which often can feel powerful. This enables them to respond to the child more thoughtfully and compassionately (I have written more about this in the ‘free book’ available to all staff and carers which was published this year).

Transference and Countertransference

Transference and countertransference are two essential concepts in psychodynamic theory. German psychiatrist Paula Heimann wrote about countertransference in 1950, suggesting that the therapist’s emotional response to the client can provide information for understanding the client’s unconscious world. He viewed this not as an obstacle to therapy but as a tool. Around the same time, British psychoanalyst Donald W. Winnicott also argued for the benefits of countertransference. For example, he believed therapists can use this understanding for their clients.

Whilst residential staff and therapeutic foster carers might not be seeking to be psychotherapists, they are all working 24/7 in the therapeutic primary task of supporting the recovery of the child from past transgressions. Often, staff have come to reflective spaces, unsure of ‘sharing’ how they feel in the work with the child; they can often fear sharing their thoughts and worry about judgements. Our reflective spaces focus on the initial step of creating a boundary. In this consistent and clear space, unthoughtful action can become thoughtful inaction to make sense of what is happening in the relational dynamic between the child and practitioner.

These concepts have significant implications for relationships within residential childcare settings. Transference happens when people redirect their feelings and attitudes from past relationships onto a current relationship, often without realising it. In the case of children who have experienced maltreatment, neglect, and abuse, transference can lead to the reenactment of past traumas within the residential care environment. For instance, a child whose parents have neglected them may transfer feelings of abandonment onto a caregiver, leading to behaviours designed to test the caregiver’s reliability and commitment. The behaviour and emotional experience might be saying something like to earn‘basic trust’ I need to know you are not going to turn into a ‘neglectful and hurtful’ object, emphasising the reality that for some children the ‘unconscious’ repeated patterns of testing the security of the relationship may be present.

Countertransference is when a caregiver unconsciously reacts emotionally to a child’s transference. This can be difficult for residential childcare workers, especially when caring for children who have experienced trauma. Without being aware of it, countertransference can lead to unhelpful behaviour patterns such as overprotectiveness, withdrawal, or frustration. These patterns can further worsen the child’s emotional distress. Recognising and addressing transference and countertransference dynamics when dealing with children in residential care is crucial. By understanding the child’s emotional reactions and their own responses, caregivers can create a therapeutic environment and develop interventions that help the child make sense of their experiences and build healthier relationships. For instance, caregivers who recognise their countertransference reactions may seek supervision or support to process their emotions and develop more effective ways of responding to the child’s needs.

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Applications in Residential Child Care and Fostering

When it comes to applying psychodynamic concepts in care, it’s essential to take a thoughtful and reflective approach. When working with children who have experienced maltreatment, neglect, and abuse, residential childcare workers must be supported within an environment that recognises the complexity of the children’s emotional and psychological needs. By understanding dynamics from a psychodynamic perspective, carers can employ strategies that promote the healing and growth of the children under their care.

Developing self-awareness is an essential quality for residential childcare workers. It is crucial to understand one’s unconscious motivations, biases, and emotional responses to recognise when they are influenced by projective identification, transference, or countertransference. Self-awareness enables workers to separate their own experiences and emotions from those of the children, allowing them to respond to the needs of the child more empathetically and appropriately.

Furthermore, creating a therapeutic milieu within the care setting is essential. This involves establishing an environment sensitive to the children’s emotional and psychological needs, providing a sense of safety, predictability, and opportunities for positive attachment experiences. By recognizing the impact of past traumas on the children’s behaviours and emotional responses, workers can create interventions that help the children process their experiences and develop healthier ways of relating to others. For example, a child who experienced physical abuse may exhibit aggressive behaviours as a means of coping with their trauma. By understanding the concept of transference, a worker can recognise that the child’s aggression may stem from feelings of powerlessness and vulnerability and maybe a way of testing the caregiver’s ability to provide safety and containment. Through a psychodynamic lens, the worker can respond to the child with empathy and understanding, helping the child express and process their emotions in a safe and supportive environment. Note this to be therapeutic: it is to ‘connect’ with the child and provide ‘emotional holding and containment’, which also means boundary maintenance.

The task is both being able to hold in mind (empathic attunement) and also hold the line (focus, limits and boundaries). This is particularly important for leadership and management to model these so it is a felt experience to all staff and carers (a two-handed approach).

Supervision and reflective practice

Supervision and reflective practice are also essential to implementing a psychodynamic approach in care environments. Regular supervision sessions allow workers to explore their experiences, emotions, and reactions within their caregiving roles. Supervisors can help workers recognise and understand the impact of projective identification, transference, and countertransference in their interactions with the children, offering guidance and support to ensure that their emotional and psychological needs are being met effectively.

In addition, reflective practice encourages workers to critically examine their interactions with the children, fostering a deeper understanding of the underlying dynamics at play. Through reflection, workers can gain insight into their emotional responses and the motivations behind their behaviours, allowing for personal growth and developing more effective caregiving strategies. These types of supervisory and reflective spaces require the embracing of a concept called a ‘culture of enquiry’, where there is an acceptance that such material is welcomed to be considered and thought about

Case example (fictional)

Consider a residential childcare worker, Sarah, who is responsible for caring for a young girl, Maya, who has experienced severe neglect and emotional abuse. Maya often exhibits withdrawn and avoidant behaviours, refusing to engage with others and struggling to trust the adults around her. Sarah notices that when she tries to engage Maya in activities or conversation, she experiences feelings of frustration and helplessness, unsure of how to break through Maya’s emotional barriers.

Through supervision and reflective practice, Sarah begins to recognise her countertransference reactions. She realises that her feelings of frustration are linked to her desire to help Maya and her discomfort with Maya’s emotional withdrawal. With the support of her supervisor, Sarah explores her experiences of attachment and learns how to separate her emotional responses from Maya’s behaviours.

With this newfound awareness, Sarah changes her approach to Maya, understanding that Maya’s withdrawal is a defence mechanism developed in response to her past experiences. Sarah creates a safe and consistent environment for Maya, allowing her to build trust and develop a sense of security gradually. By acknowledging the transference dynamics at play, Sarah helps Maya express her emotions and fears, fostering a therapeutic relationship that supports Maya’s emotional healing and growth.


In residential and fostering childcare settings, understanding dynamics from a psychodynamic perspective is essential for providing adequate care to children who have experienced maltreatment, neglect, and abuse. By recognising and addressing concepts such as projective identification, transference, and countertransference, residential childcare workers and foster carers can support and increase their understanding of their experience within the primary task.

Developing self-awareness, creating a therapeutic milieu, and engaging in supervision and reflective practice are crucial to applying a psychodynamic approach in residential childcare. Through these strategies, workers can gain insight into the unconscious processes that influence their interactions with the children, allowing them to respond to the children’s needs more empathetically, attuned, and effectively.

Ultimately, a psychodynamic perspective empowers residential childcare workers to understand and address the complex emotional and psychological needs of children who have experienced maltreatment, neglect, and abuse. By creating an environment that acknowledges and responds to the unconscious dynamics at play, workers can support the healing, growth, and development of the children in their care, laying the foundation for positive and transformative experiences shaping their future well-being.

In conclusion, a psychodynamic perspective offers valuable insights and tools for residential childcare workers as they navigate the complex dynamics of caring for children who have experienced trauma. By embracing the principles of psychodynamic theory and applying them in their work, caregivers can create a nurturing and therapeutic environment that fosters healing, growth, and resilience in the children they serve.

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