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.

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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A Mixed Bag of Emotions

Fostering a Child at Christmas

Last year at this time, I received a private Facebook message from an individual who was struggling. She was a professional who was concerned having had a difficult experience after sharing a gift with a child who was in foster care.

She detailed in her message how over several weeks she went to the store, really trying to pick out things that would be perfect for the child she was buying for. She wanted it to be thoughtful. She attended a huge Christmas Party where she was able to share the gifts with the foster child and she couldn’t wait. She felt that she had picked wonderful gifts a mix of necessities and “wants” and she couldn’t wait for the child to open the gifts.

She arrived early, arranged them just so, and proudly adjusted her nametag. When the child walked in, she was greeted with a smile, and the two sat and chatted, school, homework, the upcoming holiday break. She said she was elated when it was time for the child to open the gifts. As she handed the first gift over, she felt her stomach drop. The child cautiously opened the present and said thank you as she set it on the table, not paying much attention. She immediately thought that perhaps the child did not like the gift and offered to return or exchange it for the child. The child refuted her attempts. “Perhaps the next one will be better.” But the reaction was the same from the child, every time.

She was now writing to me because she didn’t understand what had happened, what she had done wrong. She had so been looking forward to the opportunity to have a positive interaction with this child, and the outcome was not what she had hoped for. I read her message to me several times and then asked her to email me. I was buying myself time to respond. I felt I knew immediately why it had gone that way, but I needed to think about the best way to translate to this woman who was trying to do the “right” thing.

I have talked in previous blogs and even in my book about my struggles and difficulties with accepting gifts. I have to work at it. I never feel that I am giving the right amount of enthusiasm that one should. I am always grateful that someone took the time to purchase a gift for me, but I still feel awkward.

I thought about her message overnight. When I woke up, I thought the best approach would be to do some follow up. “You may be interpreting the emotions and feelings about the event incorrectly”.

I know for me, it is often hard to express myself in the moment of opening the gift, it is therefore awkward and feels forced, because I want to give the person who has given me the gift, as much satisfaction as I can, but I feel like I’m doing it wrong. Joy is tough for me to share, and perhaps it is with your child as well. I’ve talked to lots of young people who have been in care, all say that while they enjoy shopping and picking out the perfect gift for someone else, they find it very difficult to acknowledge or accept gifts from others. In fact, most like me, prefer to avoid those situations. I would do anything to have my birthday wholly forgotten. I do not enjoy having a big deal made out of it.

Perhaps it is because my birthday was forgotten as a child; maybe it is because whenever someone did something for me, there was an expectation for something in return. Perhaps it’s my brain’s way of telling me that pure joy isn’t a brain pathway that I developed and that I should try and live in that space a bit more. It could be guilt as well. I always feel a bit guilty when I receive something, both of “do I deserve a gift” and “what about all the others that don’t get anything?” I’m not sure, but I do know that gift exchanges are something I struggle with to this day.

We had a bit of back and forth, and eventually, she was able to get resolution. She received a wonderfully handwritten note from the child thanking her for all the beautiful gifts. She also received feedback that others had never seen this child smile so much and that several of the gifts found their way to other children in residential care that had not been able to participate in an exchange of gifts.

Foster care and trauma are complicated. Children who have experienced these difficult life circumstances do not always behave in the way that we may expect or desire; they grow up to be adults who still struggle to express themselves, but I can tell you that your good deeds do not go forgotten or unseen. You perhaps may have wanted to see the child jumping for joy, and their reaction may have been a letdown. However, that doesn’t mean you didn’t plant a seed of goodness, a seed of hope and isn’t that what the Holidays are supposed to be about?

Shenandoah Chefalo is a former foster, child and advocate. She is the author of the memoir, Garbage Bag Suitcase, and co-founder of the grassroots movement #4600andcounting You can learn more about her and her work at GarbageBagSuitcase or 4600andcounting.

I was lucky to see a premier screening of the KPJR film Resilience recently

Whilst I was aware of the feelings of the American Paediatrician Dr Nadine Burke-Harris about Adverse Childhood Experiences, having seen a TED speech she made, I was unaware of the underlying research, so was totally blown away by the information relayed as part of the film

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.”

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, resulting in many physical illnesses which if known about earlier could potentially prevent physical health. “A child may not remember but clearly the body does

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, The impact on a young child of this level of hormone on a daily basis will inevitably impact on the health and well-being of a child but also much later when organs have been affected as an adult, leading to many disorders, including cancer.

We feel so strongly that all professionals involved in looking after the welfare of children should see this film we have acquired the rights to show it and we are screening the film Resilience as part of our first conference in Cambridge on the 22nd November. To my knowledge the film has not been screened before in Cambridgeshire so it is a premiere for Cambridge. Having seen this film I am shocked to hear that so many professionals involved in the education and care of children are unaware of ACEs and the documentary.

 

I hope we can reach people to engage them on the effects of trauma on a child and open further discussion about how we face this public health dilemma to improve well-being and educate how to better assess the impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences.

Angela Hunt
Angela is the Managing Director of To the Moon and Back Foster Care Limited based in Cambridge United Kingdom