For those young people who have faced the loss of their family on top of their experience of neglect and abuse, their need for love and understanding is absolutely paramount if we are going to help them to overcome their challenges in life.
From our experience, many children living in the care system don’t always feel loved and often feel instead like a commodity passed around from family to family like an unwanted present. We however see them as a gift to us, to nurture, love and support no matter what, because in return we will get something resembling love.
This image of the solar system with its planets and stars links with our ethos at To The Moon and Back about caring for children using the concept of a series of relationships. Some relationships might look to be a distance away, but they may hold a significance for a child that is not always entirely clear, all of the time.
The singer, Tina Turner, sang, “What’s Love Got to Do with It”. Well the scientists now tell us rather a lot actually. Doug Watt, a prominent neuroscientist, talks of our early life as babies as “unrememberable and unforgettable”(2001). This relates to how our early relationships as babies may not be in our memory as adults, but impacts on our relationships throughout our life. This may be in ways that we least expect.
Our first relationships are based on learning about each other and responding to the needs of a baby based on the clues given to us. As a new parent, I remember looking lovingly at my baby boy constantly whilst trying to work out what his cries meant. Second time round as a mum I thought I was the expert as my daughter arrived, but her clues were so different and a new dance to get to know each other started. Every baby has their own way to communicate and a caregiver’s role is to learn what this is.
Dr Allan Schore believes looks and loving smiles actually help babies brains grow. He describes how a baby takes the feedback of a smiling adult and this triggers’ internal processes, including a release of natural opioids, these are known to encourage brain neurons to grow. Put simply, those loving looks help our brains develop our emotional and social abilities.
So many scientists from neuroscience, biochemistry, psychotherapy and psychiatry appear to agree. As a baby, the more we feel loved, safe and stimulated, the better our life chances are as an adult, because these feelings stimulate our brain to develop its social and emotional abilities. The happier the experiences we have as a baby and toddler the better the chances are of having happy relationships later in life. The first relationships we have therefore become the predictor for future relationships. When we feel loved, supported and cared for in our first relationship as a baby, we can start to expect that from others. It’s the beginning of our learning to trust in others.
So, what about those babies who don’t experience love in their early years, the babies who are left devoid of affection and stimulation. For those of us old enough like me to remember the horrific pictures of babies lined up in cots left unattended in Romanian orphanages, research following these children has taught us lots about the effect of love and attention on babies. The magnitude of the number of babies requiring attention left staff unable to provide what they needed and babies soon learned that if they cried, no one came to help them, so they fell silent.
One study by (Chugani 2001) followed a group of adopted children in the UK who had previously lived as babies, in the orphanages in Romania. One year post their adoption, a significant number of the adoptive parents had identified an absence of crying and a lack of expression of pain and fear in their toddlers. As the children were studied, over time, progress was identified in the children as a result of the loving care being bestowed upon them by their adoptive parents. However ongoing struggles with some children’s behaviour was also highlighted, in particular with peer to peer relationships and the children being unable to remain focused on a task.
Lemm Sissay the fantastic poet and author of My Name is Why, had himself lived in care and at the inaugural meeting of the Social Pedagogy Professionals Association he shared with us how he had been told by a social worker when he was a child that she couldn’t get emotionally involved. He shared how sad that had made him feel. It seems completely outrageous to us to hear this now, however it still goes on. We hear of foster carers who feel worried about hugging a child and there are social workers who advise “to hug a child from the side”. That isn’t a hug!
We have to provide nurture for children. We know that children thrive where they feel safe, respected and nurtured. No one is suggesting that we hug a child who doesn’t feel safe being hugged. We teach safe care and support foster carers to look and listen for signs that children do not want close contact, but we prepare carers for being able to make good connections with children enabling them to feel they can trust grown-ups.
Clearly all of the research indicates having love in our lives as a child enables our development and supports us to build good relationships later. When a child has not experienced this, their inability to connect or express themselves may present as a behaviour that ordinarily would be seen as unsatisfactory. During these times we support foster carers to recognise the behaviour as communication, often based on their fear of something. We support the building of safe relationships with children, using affection and providing comfort alongside the provision of good boundaries, so that the child feels safe and cared for.
So, what has this got to do with fostering? Many foster children present with challenges in their early lives as a result of significant parental instability and inconsistency, as well as neglect, one of the biggest reasons why children are removed from their parents and brought into the care system.