Yesterday I was visited by a six-year-old boy who has a history of family trauma and is being raised by a relative carer. Upon entering my consulting room he immediately sought my box of assorted animals and rifled through it, looking for a gorilla he has previously identified as “King Kong”. Upon finding King Kong he immediately and enthusiastically began play-acting battles between King Kong and the other animals, where King Kong was always victorious. He confidently asserted that King Kong could take on all-comers and never be defeated in battle. He acknowledged a wish that he could be like King Kong and defeat all of his enemies. He was hopeful of being like King Kong when he is “a teenager”.
Looked-after children who have experienced significant family trauma, whether they be in foster care, adoptive care, kinship care or residential care arrangements, typically share the following characteristics:
- they consider themselves to be misunderstood, vulnerable and powerless;
- they consider others to be malevolent in intent towards them; and
- they consider the world to be a harsh, unfair and potentially dangerous place.
As a consequence of these beliefs, originally developed in an environment of deprivation and pain, their predominant emotional response when interacting with others is anxiety. Behavioural sequelae of anxiety include:
- An intense compulsion to control all people and situations;
- Aggression towards people and property;
- Avoidance; and
- Physical and emotional withdrawal.
The role and function of these behaviours is to neutralise a perceived threat and achieve feelings of physical and emotional safety.
In short, looked-after children often feel unsafe and engage in very predictable behaviours in order to achieve feelings of safety.
Unfortunately, in most instances these behaviours are maladaptive to context, in that the person with whom they are interacting does not pose a real threat. They are also self-defeating, in that the person with whom they are interacting is more likely to respond with annoyance and anger in association with the behaviour.
Adults who care for and manage looked-after children often respond in a predictable manner to the anxiety-driven behaviours of these children. In various ways, they seek to control and discipline the child. In doing so, they confirm the child’s maladaptive beliefs, referred to above, about self, other and world. They perpetuate these beliefs, the child’s anxiety and the associated maladaptive, antisocial behaviour.
Looked-after children who have a history of family trauma require new thinking and a new approach to their care and management. They need for adults in a care and management role to understand that these children feel unsafe and anxious a lot of the time. They need for adults in a care and management role to understand that the maladaptive and antisocial behaviours exhibited by these children is a consequence of them feeling unsafe. They need for adults in a care and management role to help them feel safe.
Once they feel safe, looked-after children who have a history of family trauma begin to form trusting relationships with others. Once they feel safe, looked-after children with a history of family trauma become concerned about remaining on good terms with those they trust. In association with this concern, looked-after children begin to conform to conventional expectations and standards of behaviour.
It is the relationship an adult has with a child that is the strongest form of influence they have over the child’s behaviour.
A final thought: Attempting to control a person is a symptom of fear. Engaging with acceptance and empathy is a sign of strength.