ADVICE FOR CARERS
Creating a safe space for young people in foster care to talk
At a glance
- Why is it important for foster carers to create an environment that allows open communication between themselves and their young person?
- How can a foster carer create a safe environment to encourage a young person to talk to them?
- How should a foster carer react to a young person opening up about their feelings and experiences?
- What if the young person tells me something I’m legally required to report to the authorities?
- What should a foster carer do if a young person seems upset after sharing something?
- What’s the best piece of advice you can give foster carers about creating a safe space for open communication?
- What does success look like for foster carers when it comes to creating a safe space to talk?
- Can you reassure foster carers that, ultimately, they are making a difference in the life of a young person?
A foster care placement is an opportunity to create transformational change in the life of a young person who has experienced trauma.
A therapeutic approach to fostering is all about supporting and nurturing that change, and a big part of that is creating a culture of openness and transparency. Creating a safe space in your home (and in your relationships) that helps a young person feel comfortable opening up about their feelings and experiences is a vital step on that journey.
But how do you do it?
We spoke to Deb Moore, a family therapist from Systemic Training Yorkshire, about ways foster carers can create that safe space — and how to respond when a young person starts to talk about their trauma.
Deb is both an experienced therapist and an adoptive parent, so she’s seen this equation from a couple of different viewpoints.
Here’s what she had to say.
“Most children probably won’t really talk about anything,” Deb said. “It’s the same for most people: you won’t share anything unless you feel as though you are in a safe space.
“For many of these kids, there’s been a situation where they haven’t felt safe and they’ve had to keep things to themselves, precisely because it wasn’t safe enough to tell anyone and because they didn’t trust anyone.”
Deb said not being communicative is a common response to trauma, and particularly for young people who have experienced neglect, where feelings of shame can sometimes be overwhelming.
“Then many of the children you encounter in foster care have experienced abuse of some description, where they’ve been coerced into not saying anything,” she said. “So, the idea is to conceal it, and not sharing things is very familiar. They might have even been threatened.”
Deb said to create a safe space for open communication with a young person, foster carers must first dismiss the idea that they need to ask children questions.
“That’s probably the last thing that you really do,” she said. “If you ask a child ‘why’, often they don’t know why. Actually, I think often as adults we don’t know ‘why’. It’s an unhelpful question.”
It’s more about modelling and nurturing a culture of openness.
“If something is modelled for the children, then they can see that it is okay to talk about anything,” Deb said. “That there’s nothing off limits, and that things won’t be repeated; things won’t be judged.
“There’s something about the way in which people talk to each other in the family. There’s something about responses as well — that they’re not impulsive, and often a response might not be required. It might just be that perhaps the most important thing is to be heard.”
Deb said it is natural for foster carers to want to feel helpful, or like they can “fix” a problem, but that may be unhelpful.
“We’ve got a well-developed empathy; we don’t really like to see children upset and distressed,” Deb said. “And inadvertently, in trying to find the solution and fix something, it’s often possible to shut children down.
“Sometimes children will tell you something, and it’s just sort of incremental, to see whether or not you can bear it. Can you actually handle it? Are you disgusted by it? Do you want to stop it?”
Deb said not to rush to try to understand what a young person is telling you.
“First of all, words may not mean anything and the expressions on a child’s face may not mean anything,” she said. “If a child is saying they’re sad, for instance, I think what would be probably most helpful is to listen, but to probably just try to get a better description of what sad is for them.”
That could involve open, exploratory questions like:
- Where’s that feeling coming from?
- Are you feeling it in your tummy?/Are you feeling it in your chest?
- How would somebody be able to see that you were feeling sad?
It’s about helping the child feel safe enough to explore that feeling without having to understand necessarily where it’s come from. It’s about gentle curiosity, being led by what the child is willing to share, and not jumping to conclusions.
Understand that opening up might be gradual and slow.
“As soon as a child has told you something, it might be time for them to move on to something else,” Deb said. “Having just told you that one line, that might be enough for them for the day.”
Foster carers receive a lot of training before their first placement. As part of that, you’ll learn all about what to do if a young person in your care discloses something that’s criminal or dangerous to either themselves or to other people. The young person will need to know that those disclosure have to be passed on, but we’ll give you training about how to communicate that message to them, too.
There’s an old adage that a problem shared is a problem halved. It’s a nice idea but, actually, when we’re talking about trauma it’s often not true at all.
“In some cases sharing something can make you feel better,” Deb said. “I think for some people it’s just important to share the details of an incident, for instance, but for other people it’s re-traumatising.”
How you respond to this will depend on a range of factors, from child development to age.
“I think as time goes on, you get to know that young person better and you’ll know that they’re unique and presumably you’ll know them better than anybody else, so in that case, you know probably what would work for them,” Deb said.
Not only are foster carers at LiKa given a lot of training to help them handle situations like this, but support is available 24/7 so carers never feel alone if a situation feels tricky or uncomfortable or they’re not quite sure of the best approach to take.
“I think the most important thing is for people to be themselves,” Deb said.
“If they’ve developed a trusting relationship with the child, if the child’s begun to feel safe with them, then they may well be the person the child wants to talk to, and that’s that. You can’t suddenly become somebody that you’re not.
“And it’s okay to make mistakes.”
It’s all about managing risk.
“If a child is beginning to tell you that they feel that they want to hurt themselves in some way, then I think that can be quite frightening,” Deb said. “And if a child wants to talk to you, I think that foster carers can be frightened of allowing the child to talk because they think it might make it worse.
“By and large, my advice would be if they’ve chosen to talk to you, then you’re already managing the risk because the risk was already there but you just didn’t know about it before they decided to tell you.
“Now you’re worried because now you know, but as soon as the child begins to tell you about the risk, you’re already reducing the risk. So don’t be afraid of hearing stuff which is risky because by virtue of the fact that they’ve told you, you’re already managing it some way.”
“I think sometimes we expect that when children are placed in a loving environment after they’ve experienced early childhood trauma, that things will be all right, that we can love them better and they’ll be all right quite quickly,” Deb said.
“But in reality it’s going to be backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards.
“So, success might not look immediately like success. There will be setbacks and that will be normal, and there will be regression and that will be normal.
“For example, if a child has decided to expose some of that ‘inner you’ that may feel shameful, it might be really difficult to feel like they can stay in the placement, so they might then seek to disrupt it.
“So, if a child was disruptive after maybe showing their inner self to you, I wouldn’t consider that lack of success; I think that would possibly be expected.”
Deb said there is a lot of therapeutic work that goes into a foster placement, including visits from social workers and other professionals, to help a young person experience life-changing transformation during their time in a foster care placement.
“You can take the child to somebody once a week, but the thing that actually matters is what happens 24 hours a day,” Deb said. “And we see miraculous outcomes, really, if the foster carer has got the stamina for it — and that’s what it takes; that’s the thing that’ll make the difference.
“You’ll get to the stage where you’ve gone through a process, where you feel you’ve come out the other end, and the child’s come out the other end. It’s incredibly joyful.
“I think, for a child, the idea that they can have a loving relationship and invest in another human being, it’s the investment, because it’s taking a huge risk. That’s an extraordinary thing to experience if a child decides to invest and to love you, actually, and, more to the point, to allow themselves to be loved.”
If you’re in south or east London and you’re interested in becoming a foster carer, give the helpful team at Lika a call on 020 8667 2111. We’re here to answer all your questions.
We’re in the London boroughs of Croydon, Sutton, Bromley, Merton, Lambeth, Westminster, Wandsworth, Lewisham, Southwark, Islington, Camden, Hackney, Tower Hamlets, City of London, Haringey, Newham, Redbridge, and Barking and Dagenham, Hammersmith and Fulham, Kensington and Chelsea.