A guest blog from Andy Black, a Social Worker in the Child in Care Team at Bath and North East Somerset Council (08.05.20).
I wanted to write this blog as the question of why we don’t talk to children is something that has consistently arisen within my own practice. After almost two years working in a long-term Looked After Children’s team, I have found that despite my well-placed intentions and developing ability as a social worker, I have not always been able to support the children on my own caseload to reach the level of understanding about their life story that I would desire. In social work we recognise and want to uphold the fundamental rights of the child: we want to safeguard children from physical and emotional harm, we also want them to feel involved and know what’s going on in their lives. We want children to understand why decisions have been made, and we want them to have a coherent narrative of their life. And yet, research shows children subject to child protection plans, or children in care, often do not have this understanding. For example, recent research found that about half of young children (aged 4-7), a third of children (aged 8-10) and a fifth of older children and young people (aged 11-18) wanted more information about being in care (Zhang and Selwyn, 2018).
This blog is an attempt to consider some of the challenges why this might be and explore the benefits of undertaking this work. I will divide it into three parts; 1) Social/Cultural; 2) Structural/Professional; and 3) Psychological.
Social / cultural: In society there is a tendency to believe that childhood is sacred and that it is a discrete time of our life in which we are not subjected to the harsh realities of adulthood. It is socially acceptable and preferred to actively protect children from the often-harsh realities of adult life, and in some cases, lie to them to preserve preconceived notions of innocence i.e. Father Christmas (sorry to those who still believe!). This ensures we don’t deprive children of their childhood, and supposedly, their one and only opportunity for delightfully carefree happiness without the challenging backdrop of the universal worries of adult life.
If we can provide children with those experiences that they can look fondly back on, then undoubtedly, we should. However, a lot of the children that we work with have already learnt that life can be challenging, distressing and unfair. It is not a dichotomy; nor are happiness and trauma mutually exclusive. It is perfectly reasonable to look back on your life as a child and remember happy times alongside the challenges or trauma you experienced. However, this ability to differentiate depends upon mature and sophisticated neurological and psychological processes. These processes can often be impaired when you have experienced pervasive danger in your childhood, especially in the absence of supportive relationships. For many traumatised children therefore, who are limited by virtue of their age and development as well as lacking supportive individuals who can facilitate their understanding, their happiness will either consciously or unconsciously be underpinned by a backdrop of fear, shame, guilt, betrayal. These children have learnt ways of protecting themselves, psychologically and physically, largely in response from the confusing threat of harm from the person or people that are meant to be looking after them and keeping them safe. They have been hurt, and so in the same way that ignoring a broken leg and continuing to walk would limit the body’s ability to heal, so does ignoring trauma and continuing to live, limit the child’s psychological ability to be free to move on. Ignoring the trauma, not calling the trauma by its name and allowing the trauma to hide in shame, guilt and fear enables it to permeate through to every aspect of being.
We believe that children should be protected from the harsh realities of adulthood, realities which include explicit knowledge of subjects that we deem to either be beyond the understanding of the child or be harmful to it. However, it is important to remember that children have experienced the trauma which we think is beyond their understanding. If they don’t have access to the words or the reason to explain what happened, they nonetheless process and experience the painful feelings associated with bearing witness or being subject to the trauma. As pointed out by Helen Oakwater in Bubble Wrapped Children (2012; 105), ‘… children need 100% of the information about their history…it is stored sensually in the body/mind and contained in their implicit and explicit memory…if aspects of the past are ignored or considered “too awful to share” shame will pervade the child’
We may often conflate difficult to explain with being beyond understanding when in fact both are on a continuum. Arguably, it is more simple to find ways of making certain experiences easier to understand than it is to wait until some arbitrary time in which we assess them as no longer requiring protection from understanding about what happened, or for a child to naturally expand on their developmental range such that they can understand greater levels of complexity. In the absence of such explanations children face the challenge of processing past traumatic effects, deal with the physiological effects as well as being left to concoct explanations of their own that often result in disproportionate responsibility being assumed. It is worth noting the extensive research by James Pennebaker (1986, 1988) has found that the act of not discussing or confiding the traumatic event with another may be more damaging that the event per se.
Structural/professional: As part of our role, we are trying to help children to gain an adequate understanding of extremely complex and often lengthy events. Unfortunately, social worker’s caseloads are so high that they often do not have the time needed to either understand the entire narrative themselves and therefore be able to break it down into conceptually child-friendly, bitesized chunks, or the time to plan the child-friendly interventions that are needed to communicate the information and promote understanding. The complexity of children’s experiences mean that it will often take a lot of time, patience and creativity for a child to be supported to deconstruct events and/or reconstruct a narrative and understand decision making, time that a social worker often does not have. To further complicate the issue, the behaviour of a child at any given point, probably due to the trauma they have experienced, means they may either struggle to articulate their thoughts, questions, feedback for the professional to gauge understanding. They may simply say that they do understand when they don’t, or that they do understand when they just want the professional to go away because confronting these topics is too psychologically threatening, or, for this same reason, any attempt to discuss their narrative may cause the child to become dysregulated and halt any work or conversation.
Psychological: Lastly, the psychological reasons for why we don’t talk to children: often phrased as ‘it will open up a can of worms’. There is an understandable apprehension that bringing up past trauma could have an immediate destabilising effect on the child’s behaviour, or worse, cause irrevocable damage which at the very least equals the latent impact to the child of holding onto that trauma. It is the case that something is not always better than nothing. However, when we occupy a position of trust in a child’s life, granted to us through the relationship we hold with them, we also occupy a position from which we can offer the containment required for the child to begin exploring the trauma and past difficult events they’ve experienced.
When difficult thoughts and memories which are buried within our unconscious are actively brought to the surface, it will undoubtedly threaten the delicate psychological equilibrium the mind attempt to create; an equilibrium itself preserved through an arsenal of protective strategies. But, with the safety that loving and supportive relationships bring, this period may be short-lived, at least in comparison to the impact of the trauma itself, and the support of a key adult will enable the equilibrium to be re-established, with new protective strategies that don’t bring with them a host of deleterious effects. As pointed out by Van Der Kolk in The Body Keeps Score (2014: 233);
‘Feeling listened to and understood changes our physiology…As long as you keep secrets and suppress information, you are fundamentally at war with yourself. Hiding your core feelings takes an enormous amount of energy, it saps your motivation to pursue worthwhile goals, and it leaves you feeling bored and shut down. Meanwhile, stress hormones keep flooding your body, leading to headaches, muscle aches, problems with your bowels or sexual functions – and irrational behaviours that may embarrass you and hurt others. Only after you identify the source of these responses can you start to use your feelings as signals of problems that require your attention’
Given the potential consequences to placement stability, it is understandable how in many cases, the fear on behalf of the professional feeling inadequately equipped and of impacting on the child’s psychological equilibrium outweighs the indeterminable benefits of bringing up previously unspoken traumatic memories and experiences. However, providing children with the opportunity, permission and sometimes language, to talk about the previously unspoken does not necessitate specialist knowledge; only kindness, empathy and a willingness to explore the unexplored.
If we can put aside the societal view of childhood innocence, carve out time by recognising the value of this endeavour and remove our fear of bringing up difficult topics, then the benefits of this to the child are clear: reduced mental, behavioural and physical health problems as well as improved capacity to learn and build better relationships, including with foster carers enabling them to more easily access the necessary therapeutic parenting. Through establishing a culture of openness and understanding in the child’s life, the potential positive impact on the child could lead to fewer placement breakdowns which is highly beneficial not only for them but also for the carers and the organisation. Perhaps with a shift in culture these conversations about difficult past events and experiences can become integrated into day to day life between children and their carers and social workers so that children have a golden thread/narrative that helps them understand their journey.
It is important to note in concluding, that this is not about apportioning blame. Rather it is about children knowing that their parents loved them, but their behaviour, more often than not unintentional, contributed to an environment and/or experiences that exposed them to danger that was beyond their ability to deal with (Crittenden 2016). In reflecting on my practice and exploring the issues within this blog I have formed the view that forming a clear, balanced and coherent narrative of developmental experiences is a necessary process of recovery and fundamental in establishing psychological adjustment and transcending past traumatic events.
N.B. In response to this dilemma, which has been a subject of interest for me throughout my Assessed and Supported Year in Employment (ASYE), myself and Rich Devine created a tool which we have named ‘Talking Together’. This is a step-by-step 6 session guide to provide those working with children an accessible, meaningful and achievable intervention to help children understand their experiences. In both the context of Looked After Children and Child Protection, the tool is designed to open up discussion between children and their parents or carers through offering the child the opportunity to explore their narrative and the meaning they attribute to it. If anyone would like to see this tool, please get in touch and we would be happy to share it with you.
By Andy Black (08.05.20)