Helping a child create coherent memories

In this Science to Practice video, social worker and play therapist Katherine Mautner gives foster carers practical examples for how to help children and young people make sense of the world with storytelling. Reading, playing, and watching TV are all opportunities to create memories with children and young people.

It can be really important, if a child’s had a difficult time at school one day, or if they say something about something that happened in contact with a birth family member or something that happened at an after-school activity. If the foster carer gets information about that, either from the child themselves or from another adult in the child’s life, then it’s a real opportunity. If that foster care has really, really kind of kept that curiosity as a kind of principle in their care of the child, then they’ll kind of hopefully want to understand more about what went wrong.

What happened in the playground that meant you got sent to the headteacher? Or, what happened at that birthday party when the other child ended up in tears? Let’s just go back and think about that and can we think about it from your point of view? What happens inside you? How are you feeling when that happened? But also, let’s see if we can think about it from the other child’s point of view or that other adult’s point of view.

If we can really slow down and kind of understand what happened, it doesn’t necessarily change the outcome. You still got that detention from the head teacher. You’ve still got those feelings that your friends aren’t sure about whether they want to play with you next time you’re in the playground. But it can really help, if a child has helped to kind of create a story and make sense of what happened in that moment, it can really help them to build up a kind of store of these experiences that they can draw on when difficult things come up again.

So, if they could make sense of why that child was crying at that birthday party and where the responsibility lies with them and where it lies in other parts of the system of people around them, then they can really make a different choice about how they respond in that situation next time. Or, maybe not next time, maybe ten times down the line, but it can really make a difference to know that there’s another mind available to try and make sense of those experiences and create a memory that’s sort of less jumbled and less confusing it makes a little bit more sense.

If a child’s not able to kind of have that conversation because of their age or their developmental stage or their developmental kind of challenges, they might be less verbal or find it more difficult to reconstruct memories, there are other ways to kind of engage in a process in a similar kind of process and it might not be about addressing a particular incident.

Or, you know, there might be ways of doing that. You might want to sit down and draw it out with them like a storyboard or a comic strip. So, obviously just a little bit — as much as they’re able to do. Sometimes it might be about doing two or three pictures and then coming back to it another time.

But, it might also be about something more general. So, if you can engage with a child on a level that they can represent things, it might be through play with figures or when they are playing with puppets or zooming their cars along or reading a story with them. There are opportunities through that play to kind of make sense of social challenges or positive social interactions as well.

There’s opportunities at the very very basic level when you’re reading stories with a young child to be able to be curious about, I wonder why that one’s got a face a bit like this? What do you think they might be thinking or feeling? And then being able to look for clues in the picture or other parts of the story to be able to make sense of that child’s feelings.

If you can develop that habit with the child through stories, through their play, through watching TV sitting next to each other — being able to develop with them a kind of curiosity in themselves about why these characters are interacting the way they are that can really make a difference when something comes up for the child, it gives you things that they can draw on internally that they haven’t really even realised they’ve been laying down. These kind of ideas about other people’s minds, other people’s motivations, other people’s responses to social situations.

But it might also be more specific. You might be able to say, do you remember when we were watching TV the other day and that boy got upset because he thought he was lost, but his mum was just around the corner in the supermarket? I just wondered whether you felt a bit like that — you felt a little bit lost when we were in the park together earlier and you were cross with me because you didn’t know where I was?

And just making those links across different contexts gives that child lots of messages. It gives them, as I said, a kind of store of social memory, of social formulations or ideas, which they can draw on when they’re in real situations. But it also gives them an ongoing sense that you are curious and interested in what’s going on for them. You want to help them make sense of the world. You want to help them make sense of themselves and be in touch with those feelings, those sensations, those experiences that they have to manage on a day-to-day basis when you’re not with them.

“We draw on memories in challenging situations to help guide us. If foster carers can help to create new, clear memories, these can help to guide them through future challenging experiences.”

~ Katherine Mautner, Play Therapist

Learn more

You can find the Childhood Trauma and the Brain animation and additional resources to support your learning on our here. This includes a downloadable guidebook, explainer videos, and articles on the research. The animation is also available with Welsh subtitles.

This video was generously funded by the Economic Social Research Council.

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