What’s love got to do with it

I love you to the moon and back, is a phrase used widely to depict the strength of our feeling of love and the distance we are prepared to go for someone we love. Our fostering agency name references two children’s books. Guess How Much I love You, and I Love You To The Moon and Back! We have spoken before about the connotations of our agency name which is all about the building of relationships and the feeling that we are doing all we can for the young people in our care, but also our foster carers and our team.

Make a Difference for Children and Young People

In discussions with Lisa Cherry for her new book Conversations That Make a Difference for Children and Young People, she shared with us her experience at The Care Experience Conference in 2019, where all the people who took part had been raised in care and talked about the absence of love in their care experience. From our experience, we agree that many children living in the care system have not felt loved and often feel instead like a commodity passed around from family to family like an unwanted present.

We can see that over the years, we have as professionals, become more risk averse and have potentially disconnected our personal involved selves from our professional self to ensure that we maintain professional boundaries and prioritise safe care, potentially at the risk of children not feeling that they are loved. If we provide nurture, love and support unconditionally, in return we will more likely get something resembling love.

Lemm Sissay the 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 heartbreakingly shared how that felt to him, to hear that, as a young person, that someone who was supposed to care about him, couldn’t get emotionally attached to him.

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 feel it is really important that our families are supported to share their warmth and caring feelings towards the children they care for because the children need to know that they are cherished and loved by their foster carer’s. How awful must it feel, to be in a family where you don’t feel loved or wanted, whether that’s in your birth family or in your substitute family. It’s important to feel loved, that’s what everybody wants.

For young people who have faced the loss of their family on top of their experience of neglect or abuse, their need for love and understanding is absolutely paramount if we are going to help them to overcome the challenges they have already experienced in life.

Why is love so important

Doug Watt, a prominent neuroscientist, suggested that our life as babies was “unrememberable and unforgettable” (2001). He concluded, our early relationships as babies may not be in our memory as adults, but certainly impact on the relationships we make throughout our life.

Our very first relationships as babies with our care givers are based on learning about each other and the caregiver responding to the needs of a baby based on the clues given to them. New parents have to work out what their baby’s cries mean and will over time, determine the difference between a hungry cry and the need for something else. But second time mums with experience, often find that the second baby’s clues are different to their first baby’s and so the learning to communicate begins again. We are all individual after all.

Dr Allan Schore believes that 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. Research undertaken on children who were once babies in Romanian orphanages taught us a lot about the effect of love and attention on babies. These babies were sadly left unattended for long periods of time while in the orphanages because of the magnitude of the numbers of babies needing care and the inanbility of staff to manage the need. The babies were lined up in cots having very little intervention. The babies soon learned that if they cried, no one came to help them, and 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.

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 that 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 times like these, we support foster carers to recognise the behaviour as communication, often based on a child’s 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.

Many fostered children present with challenges in their early lives as a result of significant parental instability and/or inconsistency. All of this on top of neglect or abuse, one of the main reasons why children are removed from their parents and brought into the care system.

The sad fact is that children come into care, through no fault of their own. They develop survival techniques brought about as a result of their experiences to protect themselves. For example the babies in the Romanian orphanage who learned not to cry, as no one was coming to them. We work to understand and use playfulness, acceptance, curiosity and empathy to make a connection and then begin to build a trusting relationship and over time enable a child to feel the love we have for them. 

At To the Moon and Back Foster Care, we truly believe that foster children deserve to feel loved and we want people willing to go to the moon and back for our children and be prepared to show that love really matters.

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