We know that one of the biggest needs for our partnering local authorities is for families to care for teenagers, however despite the increasing demand, the families coming forward to foster are often anxious about fostering teenagers for fear that they will bring trouble to their door. One of our foster carers laughingly will tell you that she never wanted to foster teenagers, but having fostered two, has found it to be enlightening and much more about the individual young people and their age irrelevant. We appreciate the challenges associated with caring for teenagers but feel it is also one of the most rewarding times about parenting/fostering, because we can see the emerging adult develop.

Teenagers in many ways have always had a bad press. Stories of gangs, antisocial and risky behaviour can be regular news items. However, in 2010 an under published research highlighted that “75% of young people regularly volunteer to help others, and most have values far removed from the fame-and-fortune obsession normally attributed to the X-Factor generation.” https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2010/sep/02/youth-bad-news-stories

At an event this summer we asked people to give advice to their fourteen year old self, knowing what they knew as an adult. There were some fabulous comments, mostly related to just relax, it is going to be alright. I thought about the advice I would give to myself. At the age of fourteen I was worried about my exams, my skin, my father had just been made redundant, my peers were all better at everything than me. I was a mess in so many ways. I had written a diary, and reading it back, every day there was a drama. I was quiet and difficult to approach. I recalled this when living through my own children’s teenage years. We know that raising a teenager can be a challenge and it was for this very reason that in November 2018 we held a  conference with Dr Karen Treisman, a clinical psychologist. At this conference we talked about how we care safely and successfully for adolescents. We trust that some of the information, advice and tips raised in this blog will help parents living with teenagers, or maybe encourage those out there thinking perhaps fostering might be for them, to consider fostering teenagers.

Adolescence is often linked to teenage years, traditionally starting as children move in to their thirteenth year and ending at eighteen, however if we link adolescence with puberty and the associated hormonal changes that often result in some of the presentations associated with teenage years, then this might start at an earlier age. Girls can start puberty between 8-13 years of age, with the average age of onset being 10 ½  years old. In boys this can begin between 9 and 14 years with the average age being 11 ½ years.  https://www.verywellfamily.com/when-should-puberty-start-2632063

We know that the time of puberty can be a rollercoaster of emotions often linked to hormonal changes. We have all been there though… and we survived!

What can we expect from adolescence?

It is a time of change, one when young people begin to separate from parents and show signs of what kind of an adult they might become. There are surges of hormones combined with body changes. There may be a struggle for them to find an identity compounded by potential pressures from their friends and peers. Overall there is a sense of development of independence, but this is a confusing time for young people and can be very challenging for those caring for them. The hormones increasing in the body means that children can struggle to regulate their moods, they may present as changeable and struggle to explain why they feel the way they do. They may be withdrawn, sullen, snappy or quick to become angry. We also know for teenagers in the care system, there can be additional pressures placed on them around their identity after all they are separating from both birth families and foster carers and potentially with an added clash of family norms between their two worlds.

We know during this time that there are significant changes in an adolescent’s brain development too, which gives rise to some of the reasons why this period in a teenager’s life can be challenging.

Adolescence is a time of significant growth and development of the brain itself. The neuroscientists are now seeing that the brain does not actually fully mature until we are 24-25 years old, we might therefore think of adolescence as a period of time that lasts a lot longer than merely teenager years.

Neuroscience

During adolescence the unused connections in the “thinking and processing” part of the young person’s brain (called the grey matter) are ‘pruned’ away.  In short the unused connections in the brain that have not been built are simply pruned in order to make space for other connections which are being used, in order for the connections to grow stronger. This is the brain’s way of becoming more efficient, based on the ‘use it or lose it’ principle. You may consider this as rejigging and decluttering a filing cabinet in order to make space for new and expanding files.

The front part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, is remodelled last. The prefrontal cortex is the decision-making part of the brain, responsible for a young person’s ability to plan and think about the consequences of actions, solve problems and control impulses. Changes in this part continue into early adulthood. The mismatch of the emotional regulation maturing along with the growth and pruning of the brain is part of why we associate teenage years with a rise in risky and impulsive behaviour.

Put simply, as the brain is changing, the abilities of our young people, their thinking and ability to process and make sound decisions develop at a slower rate than the development of the part of the brain that regulates emotional responses. The consequences are likely to be impulsivity, lack of thought about consequences, living in the moment and a moving away from parents who may push for reason and sensibility.

What does this mean for the parenting role?

Well, we can safely expect young people’s emotional lives to be like a roller coaster.  We also know that young people, during this time, find their peer group become more important to them, in terms of what they believe, what they like and what they do. They are a significant influence on a teenager and can become more prominent in a young person’s life. Some might think that parents, carers and family become less important to them, but this is not totally true. What we do know is that a young person’s peers become more important to them and that the role the parent initially plays in socialising their young person, shifts, to being taken on by their peers.

However parents and foster carers have an important role to play in the growth and development of their teen throughout adolescence and into adulthood.  Studies have shown that teenagers who feel a secure connection with their care giver, are better able to disengage and form healthy relationships during the rest of their life.

For foster carers, we know offering support through the teenage years can be harder because adolescents may have started life with less secure relationships with their own parents.  This may be because their parent had their own issues that became their preoccupation such as mental health challenges, addictions, or their own unresolved childhood traumas. Many teenagers may also have had the added pressures of supporting younger siblings in the family. Some of our teenagers have taken on the responsibility to parent younger children and they may try and continue to do this whilst living with foster carers. They may also have had less opportunity for their own needs to be recognised and consequently met by an adult.

The building of a predictable and empathetic relationship with the adolescent is the priority for the foster carer. It is a priority for a relationship to be built where there is sensitivity to the changes going on for the young person and an understanding of how this might feel for them. This is likely to contrast with the lack of consistent early nurturing care from their own family. When fostering teenagers, a carer may be the first person who is predictable, patient and in tune with them. They may identify key skills and talents and nurture them.

For all care givers, remaining committed and open to the relationship with a teenager whether they are your own or a foster child is the priority and not taking the changes in the relationship as a personal rejection.

Understanding more about a teenager’s development might help us think about how best to support a young person move through the teenage years feeling supported but not controlled or constrained. In order to achieve this we know that building strong communication links, having a sense of acceptance and an ability to help a young person regulate their feelings, are essential.

Here are some of our top tips.

Allow teenagers to take some healthy risk. New learning comes from feeling empowered and learning from mistakes. Risk taking has to be balanced against safeguarding young people but building in steps to manage risk is vital. New and different experiences help a child develop an independent identity, explore grown-up behaviour, and move towards independence.

Enabling young people to find new creative and expressive outlets for their feelings is important. Many teenagers find that doing or watching sport, listening or playing music, writing, painting and other art forms are good outlets for expressing safely how they may be feeling. Helping young people understand what is happening internally for them, can help them understand why they may need new outlets for their emotions.

Talking through decisions step by step with your young person and listening to what they need is a key task for caring for teenagers. By asking them about possible courses of action they might choose, and talking through potential consequences can encourage them to weigh up consequences for themselves.  Enabling the young person to take some of the control in decision making is essential, as young people are beginning to want to be more independent. For young people in care this is essential. Many young people in care talk of feeling like they are controlled and have little say with so many people involved in their care, this is a small way of helping them take back some control.

Use family routines to give your young person’s life some structure. These might be based around school and family timetables. Positive predictability allows people to feel safe through turbulent times. It can also help build an essential sense of trust in the adults.

Provide boundaries and offer opportunities for negotiating those boundaries. Young people need guidance and limit-setting from their care givers, but be open to reflection on what is working best and be prepared to offer some flexibility.

Offer frequent praise and positive rewards for desired behaviour. This reinforces pathways in your teenager’s brain.

Be a positive role model. Your behaviour will guide your young person about the behaviour you expect.

Stay connected with your young people. You’ll probably want to keep an eye on their activities and friends, by showing interest rather than control you are more likely to be able to keep the dialogue going. Continuing to be open and approachable can help you with this.

Talking with your young person about his/her developing brain can help them see what you are doing and why. Having an understanding about this important period of growth might help young people process his/her feelings. It might also make taking care of his/her brain more interesting to them. Last of all, but one of the most important top tips, is to look after yourself. As a trauma informed organisation we see the impact raising children can have on adults. Children can be exhausting and fostering children can bring additional stresses. Self-care and protection from burn out are so essential. We believe in this so strongly that we have dedicated our next conference to self-care and protecting from secondary trauma when supporting people who are fostering or parenting children who may present as challenging at times.

“Don’t teach your child never to be angry, teach your child how to be angry” -Lymon Abbott

As a fostering service we work with children who have lived through adverse experiences. At To The Moon and Back we are sometimes asked for advice on caring for a child who presents as angry. Caring for children who present at times as aggressive, intimidating or angry can be challenging to foster carers and over the years we have offered lots of advice, training and support to our foster carers and social workers on this very subject.

As part of this blog we are providing information and advice not just for foster carers and social workers but for everyday parents. We find many of the skills found in authentic day to day parenting are similar to the special skills we look for in foster carers.

It can be easy to see anger as a negative emotion and we often link anger to behaviour that scares us or feels unacceptable, temper tantrums, hitting, kicking, throwing things, verbal abuse, physical aggression and intimidation are good examples.  

What we can forget is that anger is meant to make us uncomfortable. Anger is used by others to get us to pay attention and it therefore gives us information. When presented with anger by our children, we should be thinking about how we help our children and ourselves to regulate and express anger in a healthy way. We will come back to this later. But first let’s look at what the anger can teach us. Andrea Brandt a family therapist talks of the four reasons anger is good for us,

  1. Anger helps you get your needs met. It is a way that your body tells you something is wrong or missing, for example, you feel unheard, unseen or unimportant. This anger might provide the space to say to someone I feel unsupported by you, can you help me by …….
  2. Anger helps you discover boundaries, for example, that feeling that raises up when your boss brings you another “quick job”.  The boundary may be..”I am overwhelmed” and a response could be “I cannot take on extra work”.  Our teenagers may feel it when as a parent we ask them about a relationship or enquire about their day. Their boundary may be “I want some space/privacy” and a response could be “I don’t want to talk at the moment, I need some quiet time”.  The thing is, anger has informed us and we have set the boundary.
  3. Anger helps us get things accomplished. Some of us might be motivated by being told “you can’t do that!” as our response might be, “right I’ll show you” and off we go to prove a point. Would we have achieved any of this, without that sense of anger?
  4. Anger strengthens relationships, which in itself sounds somewhat contradictory as many of us go about our day avoiding conflict, but the creation of a fulfilling relationship means working through things (including conflict) together, compromising, and seeing things from the other person’s perspective. This often only happens when one party states “when you did that I felt… or when you do that, I stomp off/ go silent, slam a door (I am sure we could all add more)

What we might be seeing from this, is that anger is often the result of another feeling being activated. This might be hurt, fear, embarrassment, disappointment or, rejection, the list is endless.

When we are working with young people who have experienced adverse early experiences in their childhood, anger often masks the emotions that make them feel vulnerable. For example when a child is faced with fear of the very people who should be caring for them, or feeling that they are unavailable to them or that they are being abused by them, the chances are they will not show how scared they feel, but instead they will try and become scary themselves, as sometimes attack is the best form of defence.

When we feel angry, our body responds with intense feelings, these are often physical and we will probably see the body move into a fight or flight mode which is the physiological reflex process that enables us to survive. This reflex involuntarily triggers a variety of hormones to flood in to our systems, increasing our heart rate, tensing our muscles and giving us a surge of energy from the adrenaline and cortisol that gets released. We are in fact “wired” for action. What we find in children and young people when they go through this surge of hormones, is that they often don’t know what to do next and what happens is usually not a conscious decision. This is not to excuse the behaviour but to explain it. 

At To The Moon and Back, the children we care for, are unlikely to have witnessed healthy role modelling of how to deal with high levels of emotion. They are more likely to have witnessed high emotion resulting in violence (a high proportion of our children have lived in homes where domestic violence is the norm), they may have seen parents drink excessively and struggle to manage their own needs, let alone someone else’s. Consequently when faced with their own emotion, they draw on their own experiences and what they have witnessed. It is for this reason when looking at how we care for our children, we ask our foster carers to think not what’s wrong with that child, but what has happened to them.

When working with people who express anger, often the most effective question to ask ourselves is, how we help them regulate those intense feelings in a way that is safe. That said, it may not be straightforward when someone is raging at us and we are scared or equally angry too. This is where we talk with our families about the need to co-regulate. This is about managing our own intense feelings which erupt as a result of a child whose feelings are overwhelming them. Some of the most effective ways of caring for a child or young person who is struggling to manage a feeling is to:

  1. Name it – outbursts are often a way when children can’t communicate in other ways. Give them some words to talk about their feelings. Dan Seigal says “name it to tame it” when responding to intense feelings. An example might be “I can see you feel angry at me and I get why… I want to hear what you are saying so I need you to use words instead of slamming that door”.
  2. Let children and young people know about their emotions. We may feel that a child goes from calm to raging in seconds, but there are likely to have been a few indicators of the culminating anger within the time. The secret is to identify any indicators and given every child is an individual, the indicators are likely to be individualised too. It is important that we become hyper observant and look for the indicators and help a child recognise these for themselves and help them find coping strategies.

I cared for a child in a residential home many years ago, just before he flew in to violent outbursts I saw his eyes widen, he dribbled and fidgeted. It was at that point, I started to name what I was seeing and start to de-escalate things, I used soothing tactics like you might with a baby. I would try to reduce stimulation, sounds, lights, I would help him learn the signs, so he could look for pause button moments himself.  This is not a quick fix but helps the longer-term solution.

  • Think about our own regulation. With the young person I mentioned above, I changed my breathing and breathed deeply and grounded myself knowing sometimes I felt scared when he got angry. My own scared thoughts could influence how successful I was at managing his feelings. The calmer I was the calmer he became. Not always easy, so seeking support is important. I would seek contact from someone after the event who understood. We talk about events of anger with our foster families so that they have the opportunity to debrief, by reflecting and analysing what happened and how they might do things differently if there is a next time. We offer our foster carers what our foster carers offer our children.
  • Exploring triggers that led up to the anger. This might be really obvious, a child has been told they cannot have something, for some of the children we care for a raised voice in an adult can be terrifying and as a result escalate a situation further. Think about what you know about the child in your care, are there hidden triggers you can identify.
  • Planning ahead and setting expectations are essential in changing behaviours. So before an event, talk about what you expect to happen, for example “when we go out I want you to hold on to the push chair”. Use prompts to remind a child of what is going to happen in order to prompt action and engage positive behaviours, e.g.  five minutes before we leave. Notice when children are responding to this positively and name that.
  • Think through structure, routine and outcomes. If an incident happens are there natural consequences that children can learn from, rather than a sanction or punishment having to be put in to place. For example “because of this incident, we are unable to go to that… because we have missed the bus”.  A disciple is a student and we should see discipline as a learning tool. Punishments often come in anger and I know from my own moments of not pausing before I act, that they can be unrealistic. I am not really going to remove all the electronic gadgets from the , even though I have threatened it and my children know it!!!!!
  • Model the behaviour you want from your child. We cannot expect children to respond to their anger healthily if we don’t either.
  • Reflection is an important tool in parenting and raising children. Thinking without blame and shame about how we handled a situation and then adjusting what we do is essential for anyone caring or working with children. (we are always learning) 

Think about your own self-care. As a parent and carer we naturally don’t put our own needs as high as others. We are only effective when we have a clear head and therefore caring for our own needs are important.

We support the need to work therapeutically with children and young people. We work to understand behaviour as a communication. Children who have experienced trauma as a result of abuse or neglect have experienced things, we may find hard to imagine. We work in a trauma informed way to hear the communications behind a childs behaviour, and we work to make connections and build deep relationships which enable children to understand their feelings and work towards coping with them.

Many children in foster care have suffered developmental and relational trauma and the way to repair that trauma is via the creation of a healthy and safe relationship between the child and their carers. Dr Karen Treisman says” Relational Trauma requires Relational Healing”. She states that as long as children who have experienced trauma have someone that they are able to connect with and provide them with a safe caring relationship, they will over time develop positive signs of healing and learn to trust once again.

Enabling children to create, maintain and sustain safe and positive relationships with different people lies at the heart of the work that foster families do. The role modelling of sustaining positive relationships in practice is an essential part of a foster carers work and this starts right at the beginning with the assessment process.

At Moon and Back we work with several assessors who are able to develop long term relationships. Given the conversations that inevitably take place as part of an assessment it is not surprising that many foster carers talk about assessment as a soul searching experience where very private things are brought in to the open.

It’s important to build trust by balancing the power of the relationship formed during the assessment. The assessor will do this by sharing some things about themselves, so that there is a balance of knowledge of each other. There is a fine line however. The sharing of personal details by the assessor, with the person he or she is assessing, should be in the best interests of the person being assessed. It takes experience and skill to do this well. One of our assessing social workers Zuzana shares with me how she has mastered her ability to develop meaningful and safe relationships with the people she assesses, so that she can ask the right questions and ensure people feel able to trust her with the answer.

I asked Zuzana how she approached the building of her relationship with the families she assesses.

She said “When the family have been told that an assessing social worker will be in touch with them to start their fostering assessment process … I know how I would react. I would start to wonder, who is she/he? what are they going to be like? will they like us or the way we live, the way we do things? will they like the house? what if there are things they do not like? will it stop us from becoming foster carers? “

She continued “there is no doubt that it can be quite unnerving when a complete stranger comes into the life of a prospective foster carer with whom very private information is expected to be shared within a short period of time of knowing them. The assessment process is designed to be very thorough and delves into people’s histories; exploring their childhoods, relationships with their families, friends, partners and children. It also looks at employment, education and people’s financial situation and requires nominated referees to provide character references and in doing so, gives other people opportunities to comment on their suitability to foster. Even the most confident and self-assured person would find one aspect of their lives that they would struggle to talk about! It is my job to gather as much information as I can and if I am going to do that well, I have to put everyone at ease and enable them to feel that they can really trust me and know I will report it accurately and with sensitivity.”

There is quite rightly, so much legislation around the fostering process. We provide services for very vulnerable young people and we have to be certain that they are placed with people who have the physical and emotional ability to support a child in their individual healing of their trauma following abuse or neglect. We aim for children to be able to stay as long as they need to stay with a foster family and we have to plan ahead, so the more information we have about a carer, the greater the likelihood of us making a good match with a child thus reducing the risk of breakdowns in the relationship.

Zuzana continued “transparency and openness during the assessment is crucial from both parties: the foster family as well as the assessing social worker. The assessment process should give the prospective foster family an opportunity to explore their motivation and examine whether their expectations are realistic. Conversely, it gives the assessor the opportunity to present different scenarios to the foster family and outline some of the challenges they are likely to be presented with when they foster. It is important that the applicants disclose everything, however trivial they think things might be. The majority of issues, which are identified during an assessment can be appropriately addressed. In rare cases however, information arises during the assessment, which prevents the applicants from continuing with the assessment process. It is therefore crucial that applicants are honest and open from the outset so that their expectations can be realistically managed”.

The assessing social worker should ensure that prospective foster carers are at ease and comfortable talking with them about all the aspects covered in the Form F (assessment document) and most importantly feel safe doing so.

Zuzana pointed out “For many people going through the assessment, the relationship with their assessing social worker will be a first taste of what it will be like when they foster. The assessor therefore has the responsibility to establish a good reciprocal working relationship with the foster family. The assessment process provides an opportunity to gain experience of what the working relationships with social workers are like. It is important for the assessor and the foster family to communicate well, be it via email or on the phone. There are many written pieces of information which need to be completed by the foster family whilst they are assessed and these documents contribute to the assessment itself. There will be a lot of paperwork expected from the foster carer in the future, so being confident, with the delivery of written pieces of information and communication with others involved in foster children’s lives, is crucial. It is a necessary skill and this skill can be evidenced during the assessment itself. It importantly, gives prospective foster carers the opportunity to practice! Let’s face it none of us are born experts in our field it takes skill and time and it has to start somewhere.”

We hand pick our assessors to ensure that our prospective foster carers get treated in the way we believe they should experience our fostering agency. It’s important that they feel respected and valued during the process and that they feel we have true empathy for what they are going through. This comes from there being a good relationship in place. Zuzana gets the final word, “There will be many new personal and professional relationships that foster carers will establish once they have been approved, these are with professionals working in Children’s Social Care, other foster families and most importantly with the children who come to live with them.  Collaborating with others to advocate on behalf of a child is an ongoing process as a foster carer and success comes out of working in partnership, where a relationship exisits. The relationship between the assessor and the foster family should mirror some of the characteristics of the future relationships between the foster family and the foster children. After all we are here to support the building of meaningful relationships with children and anyone that is significant in the child’s life, supporting the child to go on to fulfil their true potential, regardless of what they have experienced in their early lives.”

Poet and care experienced Lemn Sissay said recently on a channel 4 programme that he had been told how he was a great survivor of the care system. His response was, he didn’t want to survive, he wanted to live!

At to the Moon and Back Foster Care, we have high hopes and aspirations for the young people leaving our care for independence, we want our young people to feel as confident and capable of achieving their potential in life as we do our own children. It’s worth thinking about our own children, who we are told are finally leaving home much later and often return home numerous times during their early adulthood, after hitting difficulty, either emotional or financial. We are a secure base for our children when they are young and for our adult children to return to when they need to.

Young people leaving care rarely have this secure base. They have had to survive the trauma of being separated from their own family and in many cases have moved around the care system, living with different foster families. On top of this they have had to learn to live with the personal experiences of abuse or neglect that resulted in them having to come in to care in the first place, this is an incredible feat.

Leaving the safety of a foster care family or a residential home to live independently between the age of 16 and 18 is far beyond the experiences of most children but a reality for young people in the care system. They are subsequently vulnerable if they do not have a strong supportive network around them as they move out.

There are several reports and research that highlights the high percentage of care leavers that are involved in homelessness, unemployment, mental health services and criminal activity. A sobering review by Lord Laming for the Prison Reform Trust found half the children in youth custody came from foster or residential care. (2016) http://www.prisonreformtrust.org.uk/Portals/0/Documents/In%20care%20out%20of%20trouble%20summary.pdf.

The report made a range of recommendations that focussed on building healthy relationships for young people in care. At To The Moon and Back Foster Care, we believe this is essential basic for all young people coming in to our service and is the basis of the healing process. It is for this reason we describe ourselves as a trauma informed organisation that works on building and maintaining strong relationships.

Some of the recommendations from Lord Laming’s report are shown below. We truly think that these are not hard to expect or achieve. Most are what we should consider a human right and a reflection of how we view children as equal human beings.

6.1 Ensure that each child in care is treated with respect and understanding, is fully informed and engaged in matters that affect their lives, and receives consistent emotional and practical support from their primary carer and at least one other trusted adult. This may be a social worker, Independent Visitor or other professional or volunteer.

6.2 Ensure that each child in care is supported in developing and sustaining positive relationships with their family members where this is safe, in the child’s best interests, and in accordance with the child’s wishes and feelings.

6.3 Facilitate and support peer mentoring of children and young people in care by young adults who have experience of the care system and can act as positive role models.

6.4 Ensure that appropriate responses are made to challenging behaviour without unnecessarily involving the police.

6.5 Ensure that suitable care placements are available locally to meet local need and placement choices are made in consultation with children and young people.

All of the recommendations above rely on the making of good relationships with young people and making sure that foster carers have the right expertise, support, training and good supervision so that they are able to empower a child to make good choices for themselves and build self-confidence. We believe working in this way creates great levels of wellbeing in our foster families and reassures them that they are not alone in providing the care and support for the young person.

We have talked often of the power of an effective relationship between foster carers and the children they support, this starts with an effective relationship between the fostering agency and the foster carers. At to the Moon and Back this is a part of our core values and we believe this is essential and is therefore what we do day in, day out, with our foster carers and staff.

How do we help young people move successfully in to independence?

To start with, focusing on minimalizing the number of placement breakdowns is vital for a young person.  By getting it right from the start, we believe this enables us to support a young person to remain in one placement and work through the challenges and conflicts that arise in all relationships. We do this by ensuring that matching between foster carers and young people is done well, taking time to highlight where extra resources or support may be needed to support the individual needs of foster carers to ensure that they are successful.  Ofsted raised this as something we do well and in partnership with foster carers.

Providing local placements for children is also high on our priority list. Significant numbers of children are having to be placed long distances from their own community, often incredible distance away, as a result of a shortage of local foster homes. This results in them being unable to maintain important relationships with their teachers and friends which may be the only consistent relationships left when they are unable to be with their family.  It also means if they are found foster homes locally, that when young people move on from the care system in to independent living, they are likely to be less fearful about having to move away from what they know or those supportive connections that they have developed whilst in care. We know if young people have moved to foster services outside of their home county through their teenage years, that they can be geographically at a distance from support services that they are entitled to from their Local Authority, and subsequently get caught between staying locally close to their support system or moving back to their borough and having to start to build those connections again.

Our blog from last year, ”It Takes a Village to Raise a Child”, focuses on the need to include the local community around a child living in care. In encouraging others in our communities to help us inspire and give opportunities to young people creates aspiration and goes some way towards improving a child’s self-confidence and hope for their own future. We spend time as an organisation getting to know the areas and services within the areas from where we recruit our foster families and as a result build networks that can support young people to dream big and access resources to help them achieve those dreams.

When thinking about a young person’s future and the opportunities needed for them to be able to support themselves in adulthood, we inevitably look to their education. Education can be a challenge for many young people living in care and this is shown in the often-poor outcomes for care leavers. Only 6% of care leavers go to university https://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/2017/nov/07/6-per-cent-care-leavers-university-deserve-better-chances

This is not to say that university is the only option, but what this report acknowledges is the lack of opportunity for a young care experienced person to go to university which is something many of us take for granted for our own children. We encourage our foster carers to inspire our young people to broaden their horizons, whether this is a job, an apprentiship, university or to travel and take a gap year.

Unresolved trauma can affect the way a child responds to the education system. They often require an individualised approach to accessing their studies which is not always available in our schools.  We encourage our foster carers to advocate on a child’s behalf, so that their behaviour is not just seen as disruptive but as an expression of their hurt, loss and often the chaos and uncertainty that surrounds them.  We have found, by our foster families building close links with key staff in schools, our young people are supported through challenging times to enable them to maintain school placements.

Despite the challenges faced by many children when entering care, the prospect of leaving can be even more daunting. We believe in supporting our children to ensure that they are fully prepared for the transition to independence. This may start early when encouraging children to learn to cook or keep their room tidy or manage their pocket money. We do this in partnership with young people, their foster families and their social workers to plan the period leading up to leaving care. This we hope makes it less daunting.

Throughout their time in foster care the young people will learn a range of skills and knowledge to ensure that they can progress into adulthood and independence. This has to be done in a way that recognises the impact of their early care.  We know that this can and does impact on some of the tasks of preparing young people.  Some of the tasks therefore may also include young people understanding their emotional world and how to regulate it.

These tasks include:-

  • Develop their emotional and behavioural skills to be able to deal with a variety of different situations
  • Develop a range of practical skills to help in everyday life such as cooking, laundry, financial budgeting, household DIY
  • Find the best route into further education, jobs or apprenticeships
  • Develop a strong sense of self-worth to ensure they have the confidence to experience new situations and meet new people
  • Promote a good understanding of the opportunities available to them and how they can benefit from these, such as housing options
  • Supporting them to understand how to maintain a good diet, physical, mental and sexual health

We believe in offering our young people the very best chance in life and know that leaving care can be a daunting and lonely prospect.

The young person will require a plan which incorporates what and how a young person will be equipped with the knowledge and skill set required to live independently. This is developed with the young person and is implemented mainly by our foster families with the support of the team around the young person.

At eighteen we believe that young people are still young and potentially still vulnerable, so we offer a scheme called Staying Put. Essentially this enables our young people to remain with their foster carers past the age of eighteen. The idea behind this scheme is to offer the young person more time to adapt to the world of independent living and learn any new skills they feel are required. We believe highly in this scheme and don’t want any young person to feel forced out of their foster home simply because they have legally come of age.

Coming back to the comment made by Lemn Sissay at the very beginning of this blog, research shows the offering to a young person, of a phased introduction into independent living, along with regular contact with their foster family, can help young people to live rather than simply survive!

Top tips for living with anger in children

“Don’t teach your child never to be angry, teach your child how to be angry” -Lymon Abbott

As a fostering service we work with children who have lived through adverse experiences. At To The Moon and Back we are sometimes asked for advice on caring for a child who is angry. Caring for children who present at times as aggressive, intimidating or angry can be challenging to foster carers and over the years we have offered lots of advice, training and support to our foster carers and social workers on this very subject. As part of this blog we are providing information and advice not just for foster carers and social workers but for everyday parents. We find many of the skills found in authentic day to day parenting are similar to the special skills we look for in foster carers.

We want to share our philosophy which is about not blaming or shaming but supporting those caring for children who show anger in unhealthy behaviours.

It can be easy to see anger as a negative emotion and we often link anger to behaviour that scares us or feels unacceptable, temper tantrums, hitting, kicking, throwing things, verbal abuse, physical aggression and intimidation are good examples.

What we can forget is that anger is meant to make us uncomfortable. Anger is used by others to get us to pay attention and it therefore gives us information. When presented with anger by our children, we should be thinking about how we help our children and ourselves to regulate and express anger in a healthy way. We will come back to this later. But first let’s look at what the anger can teach us.

Andrea Brandt a family therapist talks of the four reasons anger is good for us,

  1. Anger helps you get your needs met. It is a way that your body tells you something is wrong or missing, for example, you feel unheard, unseen or unimportant. This anger might provide the space to say to someone I feel unsupported by you, can you help me by …….
  2. Anger helps you discover boundaries, for example, that feeling that raises up when your boss brings you another “quick job”. The boundary may be..”I am overwhelmed” and a response could be “I cannot take on extra work”.  Our teenagers may feel it when as a parent we ask them about a relationship or enquire about their day. Their boundary may be “I want some space/privacy” and a response could be “I don’t want to talk at the moment, I need some quiet time”.  The thing is, anger has informed us and we have set the boundary.
  3. Anger helps us get things accomplished. Some of us might be motivated by being told “you can’t do that!” as our response might be, “right I’ll show you” and off we go to prove a point. Would we have achieved any of this, without that sense of anger?
  4. Anger strengthens relationships, which in itself sounds somewhat contradictory as many of us go about our day avoiding conflict, but the creation of a fulfilling relationship means working through things (including conflict) together, compromising, and seeing things from the other person’s perspective. This often only happens when one party states “when you did that I felt… or when you do that, I stomp off/ go silent, slam a door (I am sure we could all add more)

 

What we might be seeing from this, is that anger is often the result of another feeling being activated. This might be hurt, fear, embarrassment, disappointment, rejection, etc. the list is endless.

When we are working with young people who have experienced adverse early experiences in their childhood, anger often masks the emotions that make them feel vulnerable. When faced with the very people who should care for you being scary, unavailable or abusive to you, the chances are we would not show how scared we are, we would try and become scary too. Sometimes attack is the best form of defence.

When we feel angry, our body responds with intense feelings, these are often physical and we will probably see the body move into a fight or flight mode which is the physiological reflex process that enables us to survive. This reflex involuntarily triggers a variety of hormones to flood in to our systems, increasing our heart rate, tensing our muscles and giving us a surge of energy from the adrenaline and cortisol that gets released. We are in fact “wired” for action. What we find in children and young people when they go through this surge of hormones, is that they often don’t know what to do next and what happens is usually not a conscious decision. This is not to excuse the behaviour but to explain it.

At To The Moon and Back, the children we care for, are unlikely to have witnessed healthy role modelling of how to deal with high levels of emotion. They are more likely to have witnessed high emotion resulting in violence (a high proportion of our children have lived in homes where domestic violence is the norm), they may have seen parents drink excessively and struggle to manage their own needs, let alone someone else’s. Consequently when faced with their own emotion, they draw on their own experiences and what they have witnessed. It is for this reason when looking at how we care for our children, we ask our foster carers to think not what’s wrong with that child, but what has happened to them.

When working with people who express anger, often the most effective question to ask ourselves is, how we help them regulate those intense feelings in a way that is safe. That said, it may not be straightforward when someone is raging at us and we are scared or equally angry too. This is where we talk with our families about the need to co-regulate. This is about managing our own intense feelings which erupt as a result of a child whose feelings are overwhelming them.

Some of the most effective ways of caring for a child or young person who is struggling to manage a feeling is to:

  1. Name it – outbursts are often a way when children can’t communicate in other ways. Give them some words to talk about their feelings. Dan Seigal says “name it to tame it” when responding to intense feelings. An example might be “I can see you feel angry at me and I get why… I want to hear what you are saying so I need you to use words instead of slamming that door”.
  2. Let children and young people know about their emotions. We may feel that a child goes from calm to raging in seconds, but there are likely to have been a few indicators of the culminating anger within the time. The secret is to identify any indicators and given every child is an individual, the indicators are likely to be individualised too. It is important that we become hyper observant and look for the indicators and help a child recognise these for themselves and help them find coping strategies.

I cared for a child in a residential home many years ago, just before he flew in to violent outbursts I saw his eyes widen, he dribbled and fidgeted. It was at that point, I started to name what I was seeing and start to de-escalate things, I used soothing tactics like you might with a baby. I would try to reduce stimulation, sounds, lights, I would help him learn the signs, so he could look for pause button moments himself.  This is not a quick fix but helps the longer-term solution.

  1. Think about our own regulation. With the young person I mentioned above, I changed my breathing and breathed deeply and grounded myself knowing sometimes I felt scared when he got angry. My own scared thoughts could influence how successful I was at managing his feelings. The calmer I was the calmer he became. Not always easy, so seeking support is important. I would seek contact from someone after the event who understood. We talk about events of anger with our foster families so that they have the opportunity to debrief, by reflecting and analysing what happened and how they might do things differently if there is a next time. We offer our foster carers what our foster carers offer our children.
  2. Exploring triggers that led up to the anger. This might be really obvious, a child has been told they cannot have something, for some of the children we care for a raised voice in an adult can be terrifying and as a result escalate a situation further. Think about what you know about the child in your care, are there hidden triggers you can identify.
  3. Planning ahead and setting expectations are essential in changing behaviours. So before an event, talk about what you expect to happen, for example “when we go out I want you to hold on to the push chair”. Use prompts to remind a child of what is going to happen in order to prompt action and engage positive behaviours, e.g. five minutes before we leave. Notice when children are responding to this positively and name that.
  4. Think through structure, routine and outcomes. If an incident happens are there natural consequences that children can learn from, rather than a sanction or punishment having to be put in to place. For example “because of this incident, we are unable to go to that… because we have missed the bus”. A disciple is a student and we should see discipline as a learning tool. Punishments often come in anger and I know from my own moments of not pausing before I act, that they can be unrealistic. I am not really going to remove all the electronic gadgets from the , even though I have threatened it and my children know it!!!!!
  5. Model the behaviour you want from your child. We cannot expect children to respond to their anger healthily if we don’t either.
  6. Reflection is an important tool in parenting and raising children. Thinking without blame and shame about how we handled a situation and then adjusting what we do is essential for anyone caring or working with children. (we are always learning)
  7. Think about your own self-care. As a parent and carer we naturally don’t put our own needs as high as others. We are only effective when we have a clear head and therefore caring for our own needs are important.

There are lots of support out there for families wanting to develop their skills in this area. If we have inspired you to learn more, feel free to look at our website which has further information about us.

We hope we may have inspired some of you to think about fostering. If you would like more information feel free to get in touch and have a confidential chat with us about possibilities. There is no commitment and we are happy to answer any questions you may have.

The NSPCC believe 1 in 5 children live with domestic violence.  At To The Moon and Back Foster Care we are often asked to find a foster family who can support a child who has repeatedly witnessed domestic violence. This is recognised as a significant adverse experience for a child and seen often in addition to other signs of neglect and abuse.

We see the day to day effect of domestic violence on children and young people.  We work with our foster carers to enable them to think about how to best provide a safe and nurturing home where the child feels supported to recover from their experiences or at least manage the trauma associated with being exposed often to high levels of violence within their own home.

Our experience comes out of working with children who have experienced the highest level of severity of domestic violence, often from more than one perpetrator. Significant numbers of looked after children may have lived with adults who have moved through several relationships that have included high levels of violence and control. Our aim is to share some of our knowledge and insights to help those supporting families or their own children living with or moving on from living with domestic violence.

This may inspire you to consider fostering a child or help you think about a child you may know who has lived through domestic violence in their own home. It is always our aim to inform the public about what fostering involves and the situations faced by foster carers, thus demystifying the needs of children who come in to care and the skills needed to support them through their individual challenging circumstances.

We are clear to say that not all children who have lived in a home where there has been domestic violence, will experience long term traumatic effects, however some children do.  Many people will know a friend, colleague or partner who grew up in a home where domestic violence was the norm and they may go on to show little outward impact. This is not to say it has not had an impact on a child, it maybe they have learnt to live with, hide or move on from this without repeating the same pattern. This demonstrates that light can be found at the end of the tunnel.

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are traumatic events occurring during childhood that not only put children at risk of immediate physical damage (for example, injury) but can also have considerable and potentially life-long impacts on the brain, the body, and behaviour. ACEs include exposure to all forms of child abuse and neglect, as well as living in a dysfunctional home environment affected by issues such as domestic violence or the chronic mental health of their care givers.

It was over a year ago at our first conference “Child Sexual Exploitation, Trauma and Resilience” that we first introduced foster carers and professionals to the American research on ACE’s. We invited speakers to share their experience with our delegates.  We screened the fantastic KPJR film Resilience, a very powerful documentary about the impact of ACE’s on the short and long term health and wellbeing of children and adults based on the research undertaken by Vince Felitti and Bob Ander

Although a child may not recall every single incident that evoked in them a sense of fear or anxiety, the body itself is impacted over time. The science of “toxic stress” relates to the build-up of hormones as a result of repeated stress causing levels of toxicity which inevitably affects the way the body works, potentially resulting in many physical illnesses in later life. “A child may not remember but clearly the body does” says Shonkoff (2014)

Talking about the documentary film Resilience, the director, James Redford said “Think about a child who comes home and opens their front door and there’s a bear in the room, and the bear roars. The child’s adrenal glands begin to secrete cortisol. Blood pressure rises. Pupils dilate. Blood shoots from the stomach to the bigger muscles. This is a biological response to fear. The response of fight or flight. Now imagine that kid comes home every day. But when she opens the door, what she finds in the living room is not a bear but a mentally ill relative or a verbally abusive father or emotionally abusive parents or an unstable situation or no food or you don’t know where your parents are.” He goes on, “Your body will continue to have that biological response if you are in stress. But day after day, those chemicals – the adrenaline, cortisol, the process of high sugar, that whole response, changes the way your brain processes information. It affects the development of the organs on a cellular level. This continual exposure to stress wears the body down, makes the immune system not work as well, makes you more prone to cardiovascular disease, cancers and other immune disorders later in life.”

I think we would all agree that childhood is not meant to be like this.

(ACE) studies have been carried out in a number of countries including England and Wales, since the original was published in 1998 in the United States. As part of the ACE study, a questionnaire was developed which can be used to establish an ACE score. The score is the number of ACE’s that someone has experienced, with the maximum being 10.

There are 10 questions, which cover types of personal experiences such as physical, emotional and sexual abuse as well as experiences related to family members such as growing up in a household where there is drug, alcohol or domestic abuse. It is felt by some that the questionnaire has limitations as it doesn’t assess everything, nor does it take in to account the age of the child, the duration and intensity of the trauma and adversity, nor if there were any safe or supportive relationships around the child at the time.

In an interview in 2017 with the Guardian journalist Paula Cocozza, Redford highlighted that what is considered a measurement of Adverse Childhood Experiences currently in the ACE Questionnaire may well change. He said, “Of course, we do not yet know what activities in the home may constitute future ACE’s. Maybe one day questionnaires will ask, “Did your caregivers work more than 50 hours a week? Did they repeatedly look at their smartphones while you were trying to talk to them?”

I agree with America’s Laura Porter, the co-founder of ACE Interface when she says that “This is the biggest public health discovery we’ve ever seen.” It seems that many other experts across the UK agree too.

In their report Hardcastle and Bellis suggest “Whilst more research is to be undertaken, growing international evidence highlights the long-term impacts of early life experiences on health and wellbeing. In NHS Scotland there has been an overwhelming embracing of the research and the need to be more trauma informed.

Journalist Paula Cocozza concludes in her guardian article in 2017 “The idea that exposure to difficult experiences in childhood might lead to health problems is a familiar idea. A child might self-soothe with drugs or food, become dependent or obese, and in turn have ill health. But the ACE research uncovers a different kind of connection – a response to stress that is biological rather than purely behavioural, which can cause serious illness, and is a stronger predictor of coronary heart disease than high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and even smoking”.

As noted above the ACE scores don’t record the positive experiences in early life that can help build resilience and subsequently protect a child from the effects of trauma. For example having a grandparent who loves us, a teacher or foster carer who understands and believes in us, or a trusted friend we can confide in may mitigate the long-term effects of early trauma, according to psychologist Jack Shonkoff, “There are people with high ACE scores who do remarkably well, Resilience, he says, builds throughout life, and close relationships are key”. We believe that this is particularly important when caring for children in foster care. We are focused on enabling our foster carers to build this close relationship with the children they support.

Psychologist and Author Dr Karen Treisman, at our conference on Adolescence and Relational Trauma in November last year, shared her thoughts about building great relationships and shared a picture of an iceberg with the top exposed part labelled “The suffering you see” and the enormous part of the iceberg under the sea labelled “The suffering we never talk about” It’s necessary to get to the bit of the iceberg we cannot see and that is a skilful process that relies on there being a trusting relationship as a foundation on which to build resilience.

We talk a lot about the creation of our trauma informed organisation. It was a determined effort on our part to build Moon and Back as an organisation that wholeheartedly encourages wellbeing at every level, so that the very people we are here to support, the children, can rely on great relationships which help them understand their trauma and supports them to build their resilience over time to achieve their true potential in life.

References and further interest

This short animated film has been developed to raise awareness of ACEs, their potential to damage health across the life course and the roles that different agencies can play in preventing ACEs and supporting those affected by them. The film has been produced for Public Health Wales and Blackburn with Darwen Local Authority. Watch Video

ACE’s questionnaire. See questionnaire

See the film Resilience

Link to Dr Nadine Burke Harris TED talk “How Childhood Trauma Affects Health Over a Lifetime” (2014)

Routine enquiry for history of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) in the adult patient population in a general practice setting: A pathfinder study Proof of concept – Feasibility and Preliminary Impact Evaluation 2018 (Katie Hardcastle & Mark Bellis) Read more

Watching a child come home from school knowing that they are being bullied is hard. Harder still for the child or young person facing the bully day in and day out.  At To the Moon and Back Foster Care we work with some of the most vulnerable children in society finding caring families willing to offer a safe place to call home. We support, train and develop our families who work with the impact of adverse childhood experiences on these children.  We are aware that our children are most likely to be bullied.

We want to share with you some of the ways we support our young people who have been bullied and the foster carers who care for them. We also want to also ensure you have the information to proactively challenge the child’s school to take positive action to safeguard children if you ever feel that your child is being bullied.

Did you know

  • 45% of young people experience bullying before the age of 18. That is just under half of young people going to school.
  • More than 16,000 young people are absent from school due to bullying
  • Bullying is the main reason why children aged 11 years and under contact Childline

(data taken from https://www.antibullyingpro.com/blog/2015/4/7/facts-on-bullying)

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What is bullying?

Bullying is when individuals or groups seek to harm, intimidate or coerce someone who is perceived to be vulnerable (Oxford English Dictionary, 2018). This might be verbally, such as name calling, threatening, spreading gossip about a young person or telling other children to exclude them. It might become physical or it might be online through cyberbullying. What ever form the bullying takes it has an impact. Bullying can range in intensity and some children may appear to be resilient to the effects of bullying. However, many professionals working with children and young people see the impact potentially as harmful as the impact of trauma and abuse.

So what might you see in your child when they are being bullied?

We truly believe that parents and foster carers are the experts of their child. We could give you lists of what to look for, but our best advice is to look for what has changed in that young person.  Most parents and foster carers become attuned to the child in their care and therefore know when something is wrong.   You will probably notice small differences in your child or young person even if they tell you everything is ok.

Some of our families, with whom we work, care for children who are fearful of burdening adults with their huge worries or think by disclosing this that they might make things worse. Some children might be able to hide what is happening to them, for a little while. Therefore sometimes families may find out their child or foster child is being bullied when notified by someone else. It may take other children or parents who see or hear about the bullying to notify you. You might see something on a young person’s social media or see bruising if there is physical bullying. If this is the case, there is no shame in not having been told by the child.  Children worry about the adults who care for them and want to protect them, some foster children believe that they deserve this and that bad things happen to them because they are bad. We know this not to be true, but children don’t always think in the same way we do.

So, what have we advised families to do?

Prevention is better than dealing with the aftermath.

  1. Keep the lines of communication open. Making time to really listen to children ensures that they know they can talk to you. We find this works well when partaking together in an activity, this might be a simple tasks of preparing a meal together, washing the dishes, playing games or just being together. Often when children don’t have to look directly at you, they may feel more comfortable about sharing their worries. Some of our families are creative, especially with opening lines of communication with children who have limited trust and might use ways to encourage leaving for children in special places or sending texts.
  2. Helping children to feel confident and love life. Enabling the child to have a wide group of friends, both in and outside of school can add a protective layer around a child. The healthier relationships and opportunities a young person has, the lesser the impact on them of bullying. It also offers some safety in numbers.
  3. Role modelling respect and kindness in front of your child and ensuring children are raised in environments where they see others doing the same is very good. Children need to be able to see what is healthy and what is unacceptable behaviour. Foster children often struggle with this, having had limited role models before coming in to care.
  4. Talk about issues like bullying in the home, ensure children and young people know that you disapprove of it without shaming the bully (it may be a child in your home who is part of a group who are picking on a child). Talk about strategies in general over discussions about managing bullying, for example, encouraging your child to being with others in the playground and talking to trusted adults. This helps children have a sense that they can share their worries.

What about if children are being bullied?

One of the most important aspects is to truly listen to what is being said. It is easy to feel angry and be negative about the children doing this. The focus should be on the child talking about the bullying. They need to hear that this should not be happening to them and that this is not their fault.

Children and young people often feel powerless and helpless and so it is important that they feel heard and that they have some control of what happens next. It is easy to let your feelings of anger or injustice to affect your judgement and such lead to you taking a reactive approach to the school or challenge the child/parents. This may not be what the young person wants. Ask them what they would like done, often children can be scared it will get worse if a parent / foster carer gets involved.

Helping children and young people find some strategies that they can use if the bully starts on them again, can help, this may be about ignoring and walking away to find others they can be with, sometimes it is working on a confident stance or look, (this is not to say that it is the young person’s responsibility to deal with it or that they are the cause of the bullying in the first place. Helping children practice walking tall and proud rather than head down and scared can help with their self-confidence. Help them to practice how they can ask for help, whether this is seeking others in the playground to play with or telling a teacher.

It is not a good idea to encourage children to escalate the situation, whatever your own thoughts about what should happen to the children doing the bullying. It might be tempting to tell a child to hit the bully, but outside of him/her getting in to trouble too it might inflame the situation.

Start keeping a diary of incidents, log what happened, who was involved, if there were any witnesses, this helps children feel like they have evidence and will be believed but also documents for the school the evidence they need to be able to address the issues. Make sure if there is bruising after an incident ensure that photos are included.

Every school has an Anti-Bullying policy, this should be accessible on the schools website. This gives a clear structure to how a school manages bullying. It can also be a document to hold the school to account over what is being done.

When talking with the school, it is really useful to make an appointment, rather than catching the teacher as children are coming in or going out. Making a formal space, ensures that they can see you are serious about the problem and its importance. It can highlight the need for action. Parents and foster carers have the right to escalate their concerns to the head teacher if they are not happy and then to the governors.

Be patient and see what has been done. Sometimes families can feel frustrated that nothing seems to be being done, however sometimes there is a lot going on behind the scenes that the school do not share due to the confidentiality policy.  Make a follow-on appointment to see what has been achieved and share any further incidents. Do not be scared to keep on top of this. Also check if there are any repercussions on your child for this and highlight these in your documentary of eveidence.

There is lots of great advice and help out there, you can link in to OFSTED if the school is not following policies or the Local authority education department.

You do have choices, it might not seem fair but you could ask for your child to change classes, you can involve  the police if you feel the bullying constitutes assault and worst case you can make arrangements to change school if you feel that is required.

Look at the following websites, Kidscape or the Antibullying Alliance both of which have great resources for young people and include telephone helplines for you to get some help

The Advisory Centre For Education gives advice and has templates you can use to raise concerns or complaints.

We support our foster carers to consider their own wellbeing as well. It is hard caring for children who are experiencing difficulties, nobody likes sending a child in to school knowing they might be picked on. Think about your own support, talk with friends, take some time out and feel confident that you are doing the best you can.

We hope we might have inspired you by our work, if you are interested in finding out more about us check out our website for more resources.

Useful resources

www.kidscape.org.uk
www.anti-bullyingalliance.org.uk
helplines.org/helplines/advisory-centre-for-education-ace

Listen to what those experience it are saying (Quotes are Taken from healthplace.com)

“It’s sad, actually, because my anxiety keeps me from enjoying things as much as I should at this age”.

“Suddenly the small things are very big and it keeps growing in your head, flooding your chest, and trying to escape from under your skin. You know with all of your heart that you’re being ridiculous, and you hate every minute of it.”

“Anxiety is a thin stream of fear trickling through the mind. If encouraged, it cuts a channel into which all other thoughts are drained.”

“Anxiety is the most silently painful experience. It makes no sense and you sit alone and suffer for an unknown reason. You can’t explain it. You can’t stop it, It is horrible.”

 Anxiety is something we can all experience at times in our life, this may be a short-term experience in the run up to a specific event or something more long-term that can impact on day to day living. Recent studies indicate that as many as 1 in 6 young people experience anxiety conditions, which include OCD, social anxiety, phobias and general anxiety. (NHS UK)

In many ways’ anxiety is normal; we all feel uncertain, for example, in new situations. There may be key times a child shows more anxiety, such as, a transition up to secondary school, after their parents’ separation or moving to a new house. Children may experience different anxieties through their childhood, many are typical worries that all children experience to a degree, an example of this is in babies and toddlers when they show a clinginess to a parent and this is often described as separation anxiety. Preschool children and children in early years education, may develop specific anxieties, for example, of the dark, spiders or of monsters. This is often a passing stage that with some encouragement and reassurance will pass.

Children who have experienced trauma may also be more prone to anxiety: this trauma may be a one-off incident such as a car accident or a death in the family or as a result of lots of arguments at home, domestic violence or abuse. As a social worker and co-founder of a fostering service, I support children in care and often we find ourselves working with children, whose anxieties are borne out of their early experiences.

Did you know that children living in care are 4 more times likely to experience mental health issues than the average child? The mental health issues often arising as a result of unresolved anxiety or stress. In foster placements it is often a lack of understanding and planning to address this area of unresolved trauma, anxiety or stress in a child that leads to placement breakdowns and children moving around from family to family.   This is where our creativity can make significant change in a child’s life, by helping them manage those huge feelings into something that can be managed. Each child is an individual and our excitement as a team is in how we can change a child’s life by enabling them to explore their feelings and fears.

In sharing our knowledge we aim to support parents and carers who may be experiencing some of these issues and don’t know where to get good advice from. In this blog we hope to inspire and build confidence in our abilities to help children sit with uncomfortable feelings and let them pass, knowing that they can survive them. We want to support parents and foster carers create empathic and nurturing responses to children’s issues and inform them of what we know can make a difference.  We hope we might inspire some of you to find out more about us and fostering as a potential career.

So we hear lots about anxiety and what to do to get rid of it, but did you know that anxiety is an inbuilt process that actually has a benefit. Our bodies are miraculous systems that are programmed to keep us safe.

Our response to anxiety is linked to our involuntary fight or flight system and is similar to our response to fear. Before we go further we should talk about the difference between fear and anxiety. Fear is the emotion you experience when you are in a dangerous situation. Anxiety is what you experience leading up to a dangerous, stressful, or threatening situation. You may also experience anxiety when you think about something stressful or dangerous that may happen to you in the future.

Fight or flight refers to our body’s reaction to threats that affect our safety and health. In a threatening situation our brain produces various hormones like adrenaline and cortisol which fires up our body to enable us to physically fight an enemy or predator or run away quickly when faced with danger. In situations of stress for example in road traffic jams or in a child’s case, when faced with new situations like starting a new school, the same flooding of chemicals to the body invokes a response similar to fight or flight.  The adrenaline and cortisol increases our blood sugar levels and creates a feeling of energy which can be used by our muscles when in fight or flight response. Our body sends blood to our essential organs as a priority and causes feelings of high pulse rate, increased respiratory rate, sweating and/or digestive tract disturbance.  When the perceived threat is gone, our body is designed to return to normal function. However with repeated feelings of stress as many of us experience in our busy world nowadays, the body doesn’t always return to normal function quickly enough, or remain at a normal healthy level for long enough.  As we run ideas in our heads, of what might happen, our brains react and in a protective mode will flood the body with the chemicals that cause fight or flight responses. Furthermore as we are exposed to stories on social media, TV, press and conversations with friends our anxiety and stress levels may feel at a greater level than they used to feel.

Helping children understand about the symptoms of anxiety and from where the symptoms arise can be helpful, so that they learn how to recognise the physical feelings involved and the impact of anxiety on their bodies. Encouraging a child’s understanding and acceptance of how the feelings will ebb away will give the child a feeling of being in control.

So how can we help children experiencing anxiety symptoms. Anxiety in children is one of the most common childhood problems but can sometimes be dismissed as a child being silly. However, it is important for a child to feel listened to. Telling him/her it will be fine, is not always what a child needs. We know if we don’t take the child’s concern in to account the anxiety may get bigger, ask a child who goes to bed scared of the dark if just turning out the light saying you will be fine makes the anxiety go away.

It can be helpful to help children think about solutions. If a child or young person has a situation he/she is scared to face, perhaps you could roleplay it so he/she feels confident about facing it. If he/she is afraid of going to other people’s houses for play dates, do not avoid it, but help him/her feel the fear and do it anyway – perhaps giving him/her a few suggestions for games they could play. Children’s worlds should not get smaller because they are anxious. Whilst you may feel you are protecting a child by accepting a child’s decision not to go on a play date, it teaches a child to retreat from anxiety, rather than deal with it.

There are some lovely ways of talking about this, one of my favourites for young children is using the idea of the Bear Hunt story, to talk about managing anxiety and trauma, (you can’t go around it, under it or over it…. you have to go through it.

Hich Nhat Hanh, the author of Stepping into Freedom: Rules of Monastic Practice for Novices says “Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.” I love the imagery this conjures that can help children be less scared of intense feelings.

 

To make anxiety more manageable, try setting a boundary about worrying. Give a set amount of time to talk about the worry and then it has to be left until the next day. For instance, you could talk about it over tea for ten minutes and then you do another activity. Ruminating on a worry, can make the worry bigger for children. You could think about having a worry box and encourage the child to post worries they may have so that you can start a conversation. Offering to hold the worry can be helpful, in the words of one of our foster carers to their foster child “I’ve got this one!”

One idea for children struggling with separation anxiety is to use the hug button, I have used this regularly and love how young children respond. Draw a heart on both the child’s hand and the adult in felt-tip and squeeze hands together whilst having a hug, then every time a child is missing the adult they can press the heart and remember the hug. Other ideas can include sending a child to school with an item that smells of their carer or parent.

Deep breathing and mindful activity can help children and young people long term to feel less anxious. Breathing slowly and mindfully activates a part of the brain to send out chemicals that inhibit stress-producing hormones and trigger instead a relaxation response in the body.

Mindfulness is a useful tool for all of use to slow the chatter in the head. Mindfulness is thought to have wide-ranging effects, from lessening depressive symptoms to reducing anxiety and helping to deal with chronic pain and trauma. Mindfulness is a simple technique that can be learnt. Check out some of the resources at the end of this blog.

In Helping children and young people manage anxiety it is imperative they see this modelled in the adults around them. As parents and carers we have to reflect ourselves on how we deal with anxiety and react to stressful situations. Do we scream and run at the site of a spider and ask someone else to remove it for us, do we avoid situations that make us uncomfortable rather than feeling the fear and doing it anyway. It’s important to reflect and where necessary make changes to our own behaviour in order to role model the sort of reactions we would like to see our children make in response to anxiety.

Is it easy… no… but does it help us to raise resilient children who can learn to manage scary feelings… yes absolutely. We live by this at To The Moon and Back. We practice what we preach and encourage our staff and foster carers to look after themselves and role model good responses to anxiety and stress.

If you have been inspired and wish to learn more about helping children, look out for our monthly blogs with rising network and check out our website and Facebook page. If you have ever wondered if you could foster a child please consider coming to have a coffee with us at one of our local open events. We are happy to answer any questions you may have.

Remarkably a child comes in to care every 20 minutes in the UK but we are still 8500 foster carers short of what is needed to support children

Every child is unique and requires a unique approach to support them to achieve their true potential. It’s essential that we attract foster carers from all walks of life to match the unique needs of a child.

The true embracing of individuality is more than just a tick box. It requires a “can do” attitude, within a culture that respects uniqueness and supports the building of equal relationships. We have a holistic approach supported by a set of values that enables us to challenge assumptions and really care for people.

Our positive open and inclusive culture was praised by Encompass Network when we were awarded our accreditation as a ‘safe space’ for employees, children and foster carers from the LGBT+ community. It means a great deal to us that people can feel safe and included within our organisation.

According to recent figures, if 1% of the LGBT+ community became foster carers it would remove the deficit of 8500 foster carers currently needed nationwide to support the children coming in to care.

We aim to encourage the widest possible range of people to become foster carers and in particular reassure people from the LGBT+ community and people living with disability that applications from them would be welcomed by us with open arms. We are looking to build diverse communities of foster carers across Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire Essex and surrounding areas.

Anja McConnachie, from the Centre for Family Research at Cambridge University, recently talked at an event we hosted, on the positive impact of LGBT parents on child development. The outcomes of the research positively in support of people from the LGBT+ community undertaking parental roles, and highlighting numerous reasons why gay men and women would make excellent foster carers. Likewise organisations like Purple are campaigning to raise awareness of people with disability and the enormous contribution they make to our society.

Fostering network over the last two weeks have dispelled myths about who can and who cannot foster children. There are key personal qualities that foster carers need, like being warm, open minded, caring,non-judgemental and having the ability to build relationships with young people, the rest is down to the levels of commitment to learning, reflection and working together with others to achieve successful outcomes for children.

Foster Care Fortnight may well have finished for this year but our challenge remains as a society, to overcome the national deficit of foster carers, in order to support children who come in to care through no fault of their own. We are committed to maintaining a Safe Space for anyone considering fostering.

We are planning local events for people to come and meet us and ask questions about fostering.

For more information about fostering with To the Moon and Back Foster Care, contact us directly for a confidential chat.


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