Care leavers and emotional development

A child who has suffered abuse or neglect can struggle to form mature relationships in later life. Hayley Prew reports on the importance of supporting the emotional development of children in care

In order for a young person to grow, they need love, reassurance and a sense of self-worth. This could be effectively achieved by regular informal coaching on a one-to-one basis between a client and a member of staff of their choice.

No young person is likely to seek solace or reassurance from a stranger. It is laughable, then, to think that this would work for looked-after children and be enough to compensate for everything they have lost or never had.

Carers and social workers choose their profession for themselves, but the same cannot be said of young people in the care of the government. Children know that their social workers do not love them unconditionally they truly believe that they don’t care and that they are there simply because they are paid to be.

Imagine what it is like for a young person to have a procession of strangers passing through their chaotic lives. When a mum sits their son or daughter down to talk about an issue, she doesn’t ask the local psychiatrist and another six strangers to come and sit in the child’s room with them! No, she listens, loves and guides. A safe, informal environment should therefore be available at all times for young people to express themselves without fear of reprisals.

I am not suggesting free reign merely that a softer approach would be more effective. A young person must be allowed to make mistakes and understand consequences without fear of eviction from their home. Understanding a young person’s history is essential to understanding the underlying causes of attention-seeking behaviour. An advanced knowledge of cognitive psychology and therapies is therefore essential to deal with this sensitively and effectively.

I had never experienced love or been accepted for myself. I had deep-rooted fears about those who looked after me. I was used to being let down my sense of self-worth was non-existent.

My first foster placement was an emergency placement for three days. The carers were very nice. I felt very special, and remember wishing this lady was my new mummy. I felt hope, relief and even excitement: my life as I had known it was finished forever.

A few days later, my foster parents told me that my social worker was on her way round to take me back home to my mother. I was petrified, and in that instant felt a deep sense of betrayal. I ran away, aged 11 and with nowhere to go. Eventually, I was found and sent home to my mother.

My next foster placement was wonderful. I was allowed to eat whatever I wanted and watch videos. I felt happy. However, this was not to last either. My carer told me I was to go home again. I was shocked I cried screamed, shouted and then ran away again.

For the second time, I felt betrayed, shunned and worthless. I kept thinking why doesn’t anybody want me? My mother’s harsh words would echo in my head: “You’re worthless no one will ever love you you’re better off dead.” I felt it must be true because I was never in one place for very long.

I began to build a wall inside me because I could not survive the constant upheavals in my life. Having to build a relationship with someone you don’t know is tough, but having to experience this two or three times a year is indescribable. I began to resent having to get to know someone all over again when I knew I wouldn’t be with them for long. I didn’t have the heart to offer myself just to be rejected again. I felt suicidal, alone and desperate. The stark realisation that I was unloved shattered what little hope I had left.

Instead, I became consumed with anger at that which I could not understand. But this was just a mask. It was the only protection I had ever had – the first time I had felt some semblance of control. Yet it was also the very thing that would hold me back later on.

Emotional development is key to the progression of any young person those in care just need a little extra thought, care and sensitivity. Social workers must listen and not judge. They need to help young people understand what they are going through and help them to discover that they are not helpless and can gain personal power for themselves in positive ways. Most importantly, they must tell them they are worth something.

Read Hayley’s blog on the Child Minder

This article appeared in the 13 September issue under the headline “‘Listen to us, don’t judge us'”

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