The Parenting APP
Foster carers are in a unique position to offer children new relationship opportunities.
These opportunities have the potential to help children and teens recover from early life experiences that have interrupted their development. Traumatic adverse experiences such as abuse and neglect can damage the development of trust that emerges naturally in secure attachment relationship. Helping children to re-establish that trust is not a straightforward or easy task. It can be a bumpy road. It requires special knowledge and skill and the ability to apply trauma and attachment informed thinking. One way to apply that knowledge in foster care is through reflective parenting.
Most ordinary parents make a “good enough” job of raising their children.
After all, about 60% of the population are securely attached, a fact that suggests appropriate parenting. Intuition combined with prevailing ideas about child-rearing are enough to assist most parents to do their job well. Experienced foster parents know this is not enough with fostered children. The missing biological link between child and parent, plus, the child’s developmental history prior to placement places special demands on foster carers. Central to this is the ability to intentionally apply parenting knowledge that is known to act as a corrective experience to early childhood disruption.
Single event trauma refers to a singular and notable life event such as a house fire, bereavement of a parent or sibling or car crash or hospitalisation that interferes with a child’s development. With love, support and encouragement children frequently recover and move on. Event memories may linger but don’t seriously interfere with normal development. On the other hand complex trauma refers to a child’s exposure to multiple traumatic events often in the context of on-going relationships. Complex trauma also includes the child’s response to these events. These events can include, physical and emotional neglect and abuse. Complex trauma threatens an individual’s very sense of self and survival. This interruption to normal development has a seriously disruptive impact on a growing child
Epistemic Trust and Attachment
Attachment describes the dependency relationship between a child and its primary caregivers. Babies enter the world biologically wired to elicit care-giving. The unique work of this human dependency relationship facilitates brain development, language and speech development, emotion regulation, empathy, turn taking, confidence to explore the world and assurance that when comfort is required there is a source that can provide it and so much more. Attachment theory is a practical theory. It provides rich insight into children’s behaviour that may otherwise be labelled as crisis behaviour, or challenging behaviour, or attention seeking behaviour. Developments in neuroscience in the past two decades have re-awakened interest in attachment theory. We now know that early attachment experiences do more than lay the foundations of all future social relationships. In fact, early attachment experiences shape brain structure and brain usage.
Epistemic trust is the type of trust that grows in the context of secure attachment. Secure attachment trust, (or epistemic trust), means that on the basis of accumulated experience with their parents, children in effect learn their carers can be trusted to help them learn to navigate the social and relational world. This is a profound form of trust. Complex trauma damages this essential trust.
Human beings know more about mentalising than we realise. We do it every day. It means the ability to understand each other in terms of mental states such as thoughts, feeling, opinions, goals, desires and needs. When we feel understood or when we understand another person then we are mentalising. The ability to mentalise develops in the context of attachment. Good enough parents verbalise their child’s thoughts, feelings, interests and experiences to the child long before the child has language. Over time the child uses these on-going relational experiences to understand self and other. This is mentalising in its most basic form. Mentalising can be automatic or intentional. Watch crowds of people approach each other on a busy street. They adjust their line of travel so as not to bump into each other. This is automatic mentalising. Without deliberate effort each reads the other’s intentions and adjusts so as not to collide. Intentional mentalising means the deliberate use of mental activity and imagination to work out what another person is experiencing.
Foster parents can help children on the road to recovery from the effects of complex trauma by meeting basic needs, by rebuilding trust and by using intentional mentalising, also referred to as ‘reflective parenting’ . Carers and professional alike, frequently get too focused on a child’s behaviour and miss the motivational factors that drive the behaviour. In other words, what is in the child’s mind, known and unknown. Foster carers who focus on and are curious and thoughtful about what is going on in their child’s mind, more than on behaviour, are on the road to effective mentalising. Evidence is that it does the child a great service and improves relationships.
Stating the Obvious
Sometimes it is worth pointing out the obvious! In this case the obvious is, that children, don’t do behaviour that challenges, confuses, annoys, angers or saddens adults on their own; there is always someone else involved. Often a person, an adult, in whatever their role is physically present or a relationship from the past that is an active influence on the child in the context of current relationships. All adults, in whatever role we occupy with children bring our own self into current interactions with them. That is inescapable. It is our self, our inbuilt personality, our feelings, our skills, our beliefs, our values, our own childhood experiences as well as our capacity to think rationally that we use to form relationships with other adults and with the children we want to help. Therefore, to help children with whom we have no biological connection, it is crucially important to be familiar the ‘self’ that we bring to the task of helping these children. If we don’t know this ‘self’ well, then we may trigger children to act in unhelpful ways and they in turn may do the same to us. When that happens, unhelpful power struggles result, and placements can come under enormous strain.
Learning to use the Parenting APP
APPS (or Applications) are now part of everyday life. This four session group based training for foster carers introduces the Parenting APP . In this case APP stands for Attention, Perspective Taking and Providng Empathy. Parenting manuals and approaches frequently advocate techniques and strategies that parents do to the child. For example, star charts, rewards and punishments, naughty chairs and timeout. Some of these things may work for short periods with securely attached children. However, when applied to children who have experienced complex trauma these techniques result in power struggles and worse. Reflective parenting offers a better choice
This four session programme will introduce foster carers to the Parenting App.
Dr John Gibson
Independent Child Care Consultant / Trainer
7 January 2020