Importance of staying connected to a child’s experiences

In this Science to Practice 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.

Learn more

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

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

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