Mindful approaches to Fostering
Sandie Chatterton is an Independent Social Work Consultant, Trainer & Systemic Psychotherapist. She has many years experience in local authority social services departments and CAMHS services.
She works clinically with parents, carers and children to enhance relationships and help build more creative ways of dealing with difficulties.
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but they will never forget how you made them feel”
Whether you are a foster parent, a child or young person, part of the wider family, or, a professional these words might bring you back to the hope, aspirations and commitment you felt when you (or someone close to you) started your journey in fostering.
The journey can be fraught with stresses and challenges along the way. We would not be human if we didn’t experience desperation and despondency sometimes, in the face of the impact of the troubles and traumas past and present.
When we are most anxious and fraught, wondering if we do after-all have the qualities to survive or do this vocational work, it is difficult to stay calm and be gentle on ourselves or others.
What do we know about the troubled youngsters in our care and the challenges they bring?
We know they are survivors with many good qualities & strengths, however much these may be hidden or closed down.
It is not the child who is the problem but their awful experiences and what they have gone through!
If we can find, appreciate and release the best of what is within every child, we help also to release their physical & mental health and opportunities for their greater achievements. The early years of attachment with parents are crucial for settled and secure development. Insecure attachments lead children not only to be more anxious and avoidant but, also, to be more sensitive to anything which triggers the unhappy past. Repeated traumas paralyse the brain. The sensitivity, essentially, is all about how brains react under pressure. The sensitivity affects all aspects of our being – breathing, bodily functions & performance, sight & visualisations, smell, sound, touch and use of words/ language!
We have lots of up to date knowledge from NeuroScience to demonstrate how repeated traumas (past witnessing & experiencing of hurt, pain and being powerless) can affect the brain. Imagine trying to think or feel with a part of your brain sizzling? Brain damage can be healed, although it may take a long time (sometimes years). Meanwhile, reactive outbursts or avoidant, closed down responses and underachievement at school, continue long after the violent or abusive events have stopped happening. The youngster is not just being mad, bad or lazy!
A commonly misunderstood aspect of the impact of past traumas is that the victim is often the least able person to manage their difficult reactions. Self-regulation of their emotions and connected behaviours is severely limited; learning capacity is severely dampened. As carers & supporters our expectations need to be significantly adjusted. Providing nurturance and understanding, we will need, also, to demonstrate and manage the emotions & behaviours for them. This may be easier said than done, the older the child is. We have to be exceptionally patient and tolerant. Slowly we will help the young survivor to self-regulate their emotions & soothe the pain. When successful, this will be a huge gift; it will become a major life-skill for all of their future.
What about the carers and all the supporting practitioners?
Practitioners, carers and other supportive family & friends may also be traumatised by the young persons’ challenges and relentless struggles. The effects of their traumas are, as it were, passed on to us directly & indirectly, physically & emotionally. This is “secondary post-traumatic stress”. How do we manage our own feelings, hurt & stress and keep providing loving care and kindness?
There are many schools of ‘Mindfulness’ practice to help?
Here in the Western hemisphere we have been developing the use of Eastern philosophy and mind & body techniques to help with everyday & extraordinary stress and pain. Neuro-imaging, clinical and research evidence shows that we can all become calmer and self-regulate our mental and physical reactions in positive, helpful ways for greater health and vitality AND to heal deeper physical damage.
Where would you recommend we start reading about mindfulness?
Gerrilyn Smith is a Clinical Psychologist and Systemic (Family) Psychotherapist with 40 years experience, specialising in work with rape crisis victims and victims of violence and torture. I recommend her book Self-Soothing: Coping with everyday and extraordinary stress (Pavilion Publishing, 2014). More than most she appreciates the “themes of managing overwhelming stress on the one hand, and transcending life’s challenges on the other”. She has a teaching certificate in Kundalini Yoga. This is a book about self-soothing and its huge potential for us as foster carers, practitioners, families and the young people we care for.
Equanimity is about developing emotional stability or composure, patience & tolerance, in situations of challenge, strain & difficulty.
“We can never obtain peace in the outer world until we make peace with ourselves”