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Experiment on a bilingual cross cultural approach in a foster care situation: an access to childhood’s memories (segregated systems) of maternal grandfather’s foster care family


Background[1]. It was October 1st, 2009 when I knew Anthony (A.), heard about him in «Le Rivage» Centre in Bruxelles where he had been treated with a psychotherapy for some months to face nightmares and a little regressive falling of abilities. His mother had another son and she was pregnant at the time, A. didn't call his mother Mom but he used her surname Céline. During the interview we were able to focus some problems, one of them was how to inform A. about this imminent birth of a new brother or sister.

A.'s father is the cousin of the current Céline's partner, he is an absent father and A. doesn't ask about him.

Thus the caregivers of A. are his grandparents as foster care family: they reported a risky situation about visiting occasions at the mother's house, indeed she had two or more men that habitually frequented her bed also at the same time. Grandfather Mr. G. declared that in the past little A. was exposed to sexual explicit scenes without any regard to his need of protection, it was clear from some descriptions about his mother's home life.

Little A.'s name comes from the Italian tradition to give ancestor's name to the new-borns, so this is the name of Mr. G's father. This is a crucial fact to activate Mr. G.'s operational internal models of relationship in his caregiver's role with little A. because of an explicit proposal, referred during the interview, to repair lacks he lived as a child. A.'s maternal grandmother during our visit was less interactive and not very interested on the experimentation because of her foolish aptitude towards the experience. It was clear to us that she wasn't able to give the properly emotional meaning to life events, she had a trivializing way to standardise all events, so we selected only Mr. G. to proceed in our study.

Aim. To improve the educational capacity of A.'s grandfather, Mr. G., we decided to try to recover his history when he was a little son of an Italian immigrant miner, because of his declared difficulty to be affectionate in expressing authority with A. We moved from the supposition that helping Mr. G. in taking awareness on his sorrows and fairs lived in his childhood, he would have an opportunity to revise some adulthood aptitudes producing a wider behaviour repertoire in his educational caregiver's role by a better integration of his personality.

It was considered that this experiment could have been a first pilot study to evaluate the opportunity to implement a transformative offer in favour of the foster care family (Mr. G.) to empower his caregiving competence involved with a better modulated educational role.

Our hypothesis was that if it had been possible to reach a past memory experience as a child, Mr. G. would had been able to be a better foster carer with his nephew A., 5 years old, because of the possibility to elaborate, and integrate in his internal world, his relationship with his own father and the related feelings (Bowlby 1988).

Method. To overcome some psychological barriers, based on a linguistic gap, and promote an integrative processing of old experience's memories, it was necessary to create a bilingual and cross cultural device formed by two psychologists that could interact with Mr. G. simultaneously in two languages: French as integration and actual language and Italian as mother tongue, the language his father spoke, a more «emotional» language (Moro 2004).

Tools. It was work out a semi-structured interview that could allow to reach information in both languages, French and Italian:

  • we planned two meetings of 1,30 hour length each one to submit the bilingual interview at T0,
  • we established to be free in word taking turn to facilitate with an easier and more natural context for Mr. G. to express himself.

That is why also we decided to not directly record the interview but, as soon as it was possible, once in our office, we wrote down the interview contents, trying to integrate our impression, emotional responses and remarks with the literal transcription of the interview.

The interview was structured in 2 areas:

1. Experience as foster care family, educational role

  • Competence to stay in tune with the child needs
  • Competence to offer limits and authority
  • Competence of holding and reassurance

2. Experience as little child, son of an Italian immigrant

  • Memories of feelings about beeing loved and holded from his father
  • Memories of feelings about father authority's exercise
  • Memories of feelings about beeing understood in his needs

The interview was composed of 2 open questions on any of 6 sections considered above. So 12 questions were proposed in two different sessions in two consecutive days.

Questions were proposed using French as priority language, but Mr. G. was encouraged to use Italian language too, e.g. to express himself when he shifted to Italian to use some dialectal expressions or to address himself to me as an Italian speaker, in this case I answered using Italian too. We noted that just knowing to have an Italian speaker was an incentive to use the Italian language as mother tongue and that it was an easy associative way to narrate about his childhood experience (Lotman 1980).

Follow up interview. After one month two interviews were performed to measure expected changes at T1 in managing the educational behaviour of the foster care family. Mr. G. was asked to share with us his observations about how and how much our intervention was useful in helping him to take a better way to be a foster caregiver.

The follow up interview was focused on a survey investigating the improvement in self-reflection competences and awareness about relational exchange between the foster care family and little A.

We were able to observe and share with Mr. G. that his way to address A. had became more emphatic and at the same time more authoritative, i.e., Mr. G. referred that when he had to recall A. to a prohibition he didn't use a strong tone and an imperative form but he tried to smoothly ask A. to come out from the kitchen, and in order to be heeded he repeated more firmly - phisically approaching - to invite A. in giving up his activity while proposing another one (little A. was playing football in the kitchen) (Harris 1999).

Findings. The improved educational competence of A.'s grandfather, Mr. G., was verified with 2 follow up interviews where it was stated to identify evidence based operational indexes to measure transformations about parental abilities in representing a caregiver role.

This device has had a big quality impact on Mr. G. psyche so it was possible for him to talk about deeply emotional episodes that he experienced with his father, particularly referable to his father's strong manner to be authoritative (Fonagy et al. 1991).

The assumption is that reflecting on our own experience with our caregivers:

  • gives us a new mental state;
  • produces better integration of positive and negative feelings;
  • which is a good base to begin a transformation path for benevolence oriented internal objects.

Conclusion. The present study based on an experiment with a complex technique, carried out with a bilingual and cross cultural approach, that allowed us to intercept deep contents deposited in episodic memory, demonstrates that there is a strong linguistic influence in the possibility to detect very old experiences, take them on surface and promote their elaboration in view of a better awareness of own internal working models. It seems that to overcome psychological defences we can benefit from using mother tongue with immigrant population.

Main references

Bowlby, J. (1988). A secure base: Clinical implications of attachment theory. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Fonagy, P., Gergely, G., Jurist, E.L., Target, M. (2002). Affect regulation, mentalization, and the development of self. New York: Other Press.

Fonagy, P., Steele, H., Moran, G., Steele, M., Higgitt, A. (1991). The capacity for understanding mental states: The reflective self in parent and child and its significance for security of attachment. Infant Mental Health Journal, 13, 200-217.

Harris, P.L. (1999). Individual differences in understanding emotion: The role of attachment status and psychological discourse. Attachment and Human Development, 1, 307-324.

Lotman, J.M. (1980). Testo e contesto. Semiotica dell'arte e della cultura. Roma-Bari: Laterza,.

Main, M., Kaplan, N., Cassidy, J. (1985). Security in infancy, childhood and adulthood: A move to the level of representation. In I. Bretherton, E. Waters (Eds). Growing points of attachment theory and research, Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development 50 (1-2, Serial N. 209), 66-104.

Moro, M.R. (2004). Comprendre et soigner, la consultation d'Avicenne: un dispositif métissé et cosmopolite, Association Internationale d'EthnoPsychanalyse, Bobigny, http://www.clinique-transculturelle.org/AIEPavicenne2.htm.


[1] In my exposition I'll try to explain This paper describes a research experience as a visiting psychologist in a little foster care association (Asbl) placed in Bruxelles «La famille d'accueil». The resident psychologist, Mme Th. Hynderick, and me, were very interested about the Anthony's grandfather experience as a little child, particularly on how he lived his childhood as result of the great immigration's flux from Italy in 1950.


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