Being trauma informed means we work differently

To The Moon and Back Foster Care was formed by Angela Hunt and Alison Kindred Byrne with the intention of creating a trauma informed service, where foster carers could feel part of a great team, where relationships matter and where the support is proactive and individualised.

The outcomes for the service are proving to be outstanding, with very few placement breakdowns breakdowns and crises being avoided. The team are very positive that working therapeutically achieves better outcomes for young people, foster carers and the team who support them.

In an interview with one of the organisations very experienced foster carers, Debbie shares her experience of working in a therapeutic way with the children in her care and supporting them, to understand how their experience as a young child affects them.

Debbie, how long have you been fostering and what led you to become a therapeutic foster carer?

“We have been a fostering family since August 2013. Right from the outset with the two siblings, (who have now lived with us over six years) there were certain aspects of ‘standard’ parenting that just didn’t feel right.

For example, when the two children were clearly in a state of distress, sending them to their room or a ‘naughty step’ seemed cruel. I found myself instead, wondering what might have happened in their past. Wondering about the times when they’d been sitting alone, terrified of what was coming next. I had to question if we really wanted to recreate this fearful anticipation?

We were also very aware that an extreme fear of unpleasant consequences, might well lead to compliance in the short term, but it was not going to help them in the longer term when faced with making choices as adolescents. We knew we needed to find a way to help them to regulate, and almost re-programme the type of thinking they had learned in order to survive in their early lives. 

After a really challenging six months with another young man who came to live with us, we decided that we never again wanted to be in a position where we felt so helpless, and needed to find better strategies and support.

I’d heard of Therapeutic Fostering, and had responded when our previous IFA were asking for expressions of interest in a possible training opportunity looking at therapeutic care. Unfortunately, this came to nothing.

Instead we joined the Therapeutic Parents Facebook page, which started us on our journey of discovery. We read about and researched the subject, and we started putting what we were learning into practice. Finding success with what we were learning, and why these methods worked, resulted in us wanting to delve deeper, especially into the neuroscience behind the therapeutic approach.”

What benefits are there, in your opinion, to working in the way you do?

“When a child comes from a background of experiencing trauma (neglect, abuse etc), their brains do not develop in the same way as the brain of a child living in a home where he/she has ‘good enough’ parenting. More traditional parenting techniques may work for children with secure attachment, but a child whose brain is ‘wired differently’ just does not have the right brain infrastructure to benefit from these methods. 

For example, a child who believes they are shameful and bad because that has been their internal working model since birth will not respond to reward systems. They will instead sabotage this in order to reinforce their own belief in their intrinsic badness (I don’t earn rewards because I’m not deserving), and not achieving the reward will reinforce their toxic shame. 

These children are unable to ‘think things over’ when they are in a dysregulated state, because they are not accessing the thinking part of their brain, rather they are stuck in the primitive or survival part of their brain, which prompts a survival response of fight, flight or freeze. These children did not learn to self-regulate as babies by having a nurturing, responsive parent to help them learn how. 

We need to use alternative techniques to help these children heal and build these missing connections. This is definitely not ‘permissive parenting’. Rules, boundaries and structure are really important fundamentals that are worked on alongside a nurturing approach.  Inevitably the environment in the birth homes, is often chaotic and the children are unable to predict what will happen. For example, they may become worried when it is time to sleep, or wonder when they will get food and possibly feel anxious about whether there will be enough of anything for them. Putting structure and routine in place helps the child to predict these basics, possibly for the first time in their life and they can begin to feel safe and ultimately begin to recognise that some adults can be trusted to meet their needs.”

Can you share some examples of how you have approached some of the challenges that you have faced and how this helped the young people you have cared for as well as yourself?

“One of our boys in particular used to take things without permission, often belonging to other members of the family. In particular, sweet, sugary food items. When we first tackled this behaviour, he was massively defensive, getting very angry and totally denying it, even in the face of irrefutable evidence.

As we began to understand why this was happening, we started to tell him, that we knew why he’d done it, and we were gradually able to explain his behaviour to him. His responses progressed from ‘I might have taken it but I’ve forgotten’ to ‘I know I did it but we’ve talked about it and you’re helping me.’ 

He developed and progressed to being able to share his feelings with us, such as ‘If I see something that I want, it taunts me until I take it.’ He developed an understanding of ownership, and his own impulsivity. He was then able to ask if the item could be used or moved by the owner to remove the temptations. 

These days, he rarely takes things, apart from when things get really stressful and he regresses for a while. A reward-punishment system would not have enabled him to build these brain synapses. 

Another one of our children used to have enormous, dysregulated meltdowns, which resulted in lots of shouting, raging, banging and verbal abuse. Afterwards, he would collapse into floods of desperate tears. We have gradually worked with him to help him understand what is happening in his brain and body to cause this, and to recognise when he is beginning to get ‘worked up’. 

It’s a work in progress, but more often than not, he can now excuse himself from a situation, talk himself through it (he will sometimes literally have an argument with himself) and then return and apologise. He can usually turn himself around in a matter of minutes, as long as he’s able to act before he reaches his ‘tipping point’. 

Our third child is 11, and although he is with us permanently he is the newest member of the family, having arrived less than 18 months ago. He is functioning at an age much younger than his chronological age in some areas, especially social and emotional, and we try to address issues on the basis of developmental ‘stage rather than age ‘.

We went to a local shop earlier this year, having discussed that we were just popping in to get some juice. He had some change in his pocket, and once inside insisted he wasn’t leaving until he’d got some sweets. 

I watched him from the doorway for a little while; he was clearly indecisive about what he should do. I then approached him, took him by the hand and led him out of the shop (I think he was so surprised he made no attempt to resist). 

Once we got outside, I said I was sorry. I told him that I’d thought he was strong enough to be able to keep to the decision we’d made, but I could see I’d given him much too much responsibility. I had decided that to help him, we would stay out of the sweet shop until he’d had much more practice at keeping to agreements and had got stronger in his ability to regulate himself.

We do go in shops now and he does ask for things, but usually if I say no he’ll say ‘Okay.’”

As an agency we offer membership to The National Association of Therapeutic Parenting, to every one of our foster carers. We are quick to point out that this is in addition to what we offer ourselves and not instead of, but we believe that the additional support available helps our foster carers to be even more successful. You are a volunteer for the NAToP how do you support members?

As a moderator on the members’ Facebook group, I respond to questions about how to approach a problem in a therapeutic way, based on what I have learned or what has worked, but also signposting to resources that can give more information or support.

I also facilitate the local Listening Circle. These are non-judgmental, confidential groups, set up under the NAToP umbrella, and one of the main objectives of the organisation from inception.  The circles are for parents to get together at least once a month, with a group of other parents who are experiencing or who have experienced similar challenges. They allow members to be heard, share concerns and problems, and exchange information on where to go to get practical support, basically a hive of collective knowledge. Sometimes it’s just a chance to offload over coffee and cake, or to have a shoulder to cry on.

What advice would you give to people who may be considering fostering?

“I would say, think about your motivation to foster. It is probably the most important thing you will ever do to make a real and lasting difference, I’d say that’s a good place to be starting.

A trainer I know, who worked in residential homes for many years, once told me as a foster carer ‘You are literally saving lives’.

I would advise talking to other foster carers, make a list of any concerns or questions and share them with your prospective agency to explore how they will support you. 

Don’t be misled by the ‘All you need is a spare bedroom and lots of love’ type adverts. Yes these are both important elements, but children who come from hard places cannot recover from their past with caring and a change of environment alone. It takes time, and sometimes a lot of patience. 

Be aware that you will probably become an expert in conditions you have presently never even heard of!

Understand that you will need to be able to share certain things with people who ‘get it’. A parent of a securely attached child will probably not understand why you’re excited that your 15 year old just told you they trust you for the first time after 5 years, or that your 13 year old tells you ‘They feel like they exist’ when they get people who actually want to come to their birthday party for the first time ever.”

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