In this short video, Play Therapist and Social Worker Katherine Mautner describes how understanding why children and young people may struggle to respond to their care helps us to work towards responding differently.
The research that is emerging about brains and how they develop, and about children’s brains in particular and how they develop in response to traumatic experiences can really inform us as therapists about how to understand what’s going on for a child. But, it can also, if it’s presented in a way that’s accessible really inform foster carers and potentially children and young people themselves.
Using these ideas about why children and young people find it more difficult to take in good care, why their reward systems are differently wired, and why sometimes those attempts at being caring and those attempts are offering something warm and connected and attuned are not always going to hit the mark. I think that can be really helpful. It really validates a foster carer’s experience of endless attempts to look after a child and often those attempts being rebuffed or rejected or just not hitting the mark in a way that they intended.
Similarly, an understanding of threat response and the way that a child is looking out for threats in their lives and why they’re doing that — really being able to connect with, even if we don’t know the details of their early experiences, being able to connect with the vulnerable younger child that they were and the way that they were harmed and the way that they were exposed to harm. And, how they carry that with them and how that now impacts their interactions with other people, the way that they can manage new situations.
If therapists and foster carers can understand those things, then they can help a child to understand themselves, and maybe be less blaming as adults, but also potentially help the child to be less self-blaming and develop a sense that these are things that they need to understand. But, they can work towards responding differently, being able to take in care more easily, being able to be more trusting, being able to feel safe more of the time. That can really make a difference, I think, to every aspect of the fostering set-up.
How a child’s body tells the story
In this short video, Child Psychotherapist Tessa Baradon uses the Childhood Trauma and the Brain animation to explain how children’s bodies can carry their experiences of childhood trauma. If we can learn to see children in new ways, then it is easier to empathise with them when we are faced with behaviour we may find challenging.
My name is Tessa Baradon and I’ve been working with families, parents, and babies for many years in different cultures and different countries because patterns of what we believe should happen between a parent and the baby differ between cultures and religions. So, it’s best if we understand where the family is coming from before we start trying to help them.
So, what we want to focus on today really and talking to you about the animation is about the baby’s experience when they have parents who can’t really meet their ordinary developmental needs. There’s a kind of universal basis of needs of babies all over the world, which is to be kept safe, to be cherished, to be respected as an independent being – even from a very young age – to have a sense of community, and belonging, things like that. Parents may, for different reasons, not meet those needs. The aspects that the animation talked about in particular are abuse and neglect.
What is a baby’s experience? I think if we understand that — if we can imagine — what it’s like to be young, very young, very dependent, helpless, vulnerable, but full of eagerness for life. Because there’s a passion to live in infants and to develop and to devour the world. If we can understand, we can empathise more easily with them and that makes it easier when we are faced with provocative behaviour. Or, when the baby’s or child’s or adolescent’s needs impinge on us in some way and irritate us or disturb us. We can take that step back and think about why are they behaving in this way? Can I do something helpful to change their behaviour?
A baby’s life is made up of interactions with their parents or the people who are caring for them. These interactions need to hold elements of predictability in response to their cues. So, I’m a baby I feel hurt; I’m hungry; Something fell on my leg; I’m cold; I’m frightened – I cry. That’s my way of telling the person who looks after me that I’m in trouble and I need them to respond. A pattern builds where say mum turns with a concerned face and tries to understand what’s bothering the baby, what’s causing its suffering and to respond to that. Then the baby thinks over time in its body kind of says, oh when I don’t feel good, I cry mummy understands that I need her help and she makes me feel better. I’m actually quite good at telling mummy how I feel and mummy is quite good at making me feel safe in this world. When I suffer it can go away afterwards with her help.
But what happens if mother doesn’t respond in that way? Say she’s in a different mood. She just had a row with her partner or she just heard that someone very important to her has spoken badly about her and she’s upset. So, the baby’s cry doesn’t make her feel concerned. It makes her feel “shut up I’m not in the mood for this now. Don’t make demands on me. I’ve got my own needs”. So, it’s not mummy’s concerned face the baby meets – it’s a different expression: it’s angry. It’s I wish you would go away; I don’t want you here. That’s a different mummy face that is new and frightening and is very likely to make me, as little baby dependent on mummy, feel very confused and very frightened and very uncertain what to do. What do I do? The cry that should be effective isn’t effective and it brings on a different response: either a blanking out of me which might be neglect or an angry or hostile, resentful response in mother. These are all experienced inside me – not in my mind. I can’t think yet. I don’t have words for hurt, frightened, sad, lost — I just feel them. My body gets hot or my body gets cold. My tummy closes up or my heart beats very rapidly. I feel flushed. These are the memories in the body that create the experience of trauma that is carried on further.
If we think about the child who goes to school – that little girl in glasses – she doesn’t know that she’s going to be received by the other children. She goes with trepidation. They’re not going to like me. The teachers are going to get cross with me. Will they ignore me? These thoughts – they might have words for them because she’s older or they might not if there’s been nobody to give names to feelings, but they’ll certainly be in her body. Her tummy will be very tight. All of us know that feeling before traveling on a plane, for example, or writing an exam or meeting somebody you’ve never met before.
They might feel sick. They might feel hot. They might feel cold. It’s all body communications about what this new situation, which they anticipate might not be a good one, creates in the body.
Furthermore if you haven’t had an experience of an adult face responding in a genuine way to your feelings or responding in frightening ways, as said in the animation, you are likely to become hypervigilant because you’re looking around to detect the threat before it hits you, so you can protect yourself before it crashes into you. This little girl coming to school will be hypervigilant, perhaps, to the expressions of the children around and she might not read them correctly. Because the children will meet her with all sorts of feelings: curiosity, surprise – somebody new coming in. Maybe someone will think, ‘oh I don’t want her to get me between me and my best friends’. So, a little bit of anxiety in the other child. But, this little girl is coming and looking at all these expressions in the other children through more or less one prism and that is: this is not going to be friendly to me. This is a threat to me. Again, that’s in the body we often don’t even notice how we move backwards when we anticipate through it. We certainly don’t know how our faces may close down. How our eyes might slide away and that the other person will be reading these cues.
Which in a way takes us to the swimming pool where the boy misreads his companion’s friendly nudge as an aggressive act. Do you remember his face – the aggrieved young adolescent his eyebrows are tight his musculature in his face is tight, his mouth as grim, his body is tense, his reaction of anger and of tension and readiness to fight is in all, for all the fabric of his body. His muscle, his spine, his hands. This young boy who’s showing this really aggressive behaviour or externality can be read at surface level and you can take this as what an unpleasant child I’ve got to look after now as a sports teacher with the others in there. And I have to look out for trouble. He’s so sullen and resentful. Really hard to like him. Then perhaps somewhat of a punitive response is aroused in the sports teacher or any adult having to cope with a difficult social situation. But if you think what that musculature in the face is hiding — those feelings we saw when the boy looked into the mirror: I’m rubbish, I’m nothing, I’m worthless. That’s what gets built into his body. Then it’s much easier to empathise with him and to take that step back of understanding the experience of the child.
Remember the dejected baby and how his body slumped? That was easier to read. Perhaps not to his mother who was engrossed in an animated conversation and the baby was in her way. In a caring adult, like the teacher, it is more likely if you anticipate that the surface signals might hide something else that you’ll be able to step back and think, what is this child really telling me with his body? Perhaps behind that sullen exterior is that dejected baby. That very same slumped body of the baby. So, in the sense, the body tells the story that is underneath surface communication.
Connecting to a child’s experiences
In this short video, Social worker and Play Therapist Katherine Mautner explains the challenges foster carers may face when attempting to establish feelings of trust and safety with the children in care.
When a foster carer first meets a child, the most important thing is being ready for this child to be different from any other child they’ve met. So, really having an open mind about who this child is and what they bring with them – the kind of experiences that they’ve had and the way that that impacts on how they’ll relate to the care that’s offered. I think often foster carers will have more of a challenge with the child who they’re looking after than other children in establishing trust. I think that’s got to be the starting point for foster carers. If they can enable a child to feel enough trust that they can take some of the things that are available in the foster care that they offer, then that will make a really big difference to how things go after that. Sometimes that can be offered in the early days and sometimes it’s something that takes a really long time to establish. But, it’s really important, if possible, that the foster carer can really persist in trying to find ways to help that child feel like they’re a safe person, that the people they’re living with in their family and that the home is a safe place to be.
Sometimes they might find that the child isn’t responding to them in the way they expect them to. They might be doing lots of really nice things, really caring things. They might put a lot of thought into how to help a child feel like they are important and they’re worth looking after well. Little things like letting them choose the bed sheets, for example, in their new bedroom or making smaller choices, like what they have for breakfast, what they like, what they’ve always eaten. Can the foster-carer can find a way of offering the same kind of thing to help them feel that comfort and consistency from their previous care experiences. But, sometimes, however much the foster carer tries, those things just don’t hit the mark and they don’t get that kind of sense that the child appreciates it – the child is taking in that care. The child is not able to see the way that they’re going out of their way to look after them and kind of help them to feel cared for. It can be difficult to keep trying, keep persisting, keep that kind of caring approach when you don’t get that kind of feedback from the way that the child responds. Similarly, coming into foster care can be really very frightening for a child. Everything’s different. Everything’s unknown. They’re likely to have had experienced a kind of loss — of losing touch with whoever was looking after them previously. So, they’re going to be kind of on high alert really.
The foster carer also might find that they are really looking out for threat or risk or danger in their environment all the time. So even when the foster carer feels like they’ve established a safe home — they’ve got a kind of warm loving environment, the child might overreact to something or react in a way that they hadn’t expected, which seems like an overreaction. [It] can feel quite difficult for the foster carer – quite rejecting or quite threatening. The child might actually appear threatening to them or very unsettling. So they then need to stop and think about what’s going on for the child. What they’re bringing with them. Really try and stay connected to the child’s experience — look at not just what’s going on the outside but really think very carefully about what might be going on in the child’s mind, in the child’s body, and what they carry with them from the experiences they’ve had before they’ve arrived in that foster carer’s care.
Helping to create coherent memories
In this short 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.
The value of curiosity
In this short video, Social Worker and Play Therapist Katherine Mautner explains how foster carers can help children in their care, and themselves, by taking an active part in the process of understanding. Being constantly curious about the relationship between a child or young person’s experience and their behaviour can help carers respond in a way that is more sensitive and appropriate.
If a foster carer considers one of their main missions or main responsibilities is to really get to know something about the child – about the child in the present moment, but also something about what influences the child. What makes them react the way they do; what makes them more or less able to take in the care at different moments in their day or in their week. That idea about developing curiosity can really help a foster carer to stay in touch with something that’s not just about what’s going on right in front of them but really thinking about what’s going on under the surface.
What is it about that child’s experience that means they’re reacting this way? [What] about their experience earlier in the day when the foster care wasn’t there, earlier in the week? But also, before the child came into their care and right back to when they were developing, when they were a baby. What’s happened to them that means they’re responding the way they are? If a foster carer can really take that curious stance — wondering constantly, trying to make sense of things, piecing things together – that can really help them as an individual, as a foster carer, and help the family to respond in a way that is more sensitive and is more appropriate and gives the child a message that there’s a process of understanding.
This isn’t going to just be an event that happens and then it’s forgotten about. People are trying to make sense of that and create a story about experiences that really puts the pieces together – the pieces of the different parts of their lives. That can be a really healthy kind of emotional environment, social environment, to foster those relationships between foster carers and children.