Anyone who has played Spotto (Spot the yellow car) with children knows that there are many more yellow cars on the road than you typically notice when driving. Similarly, when playing I Spy there are many more things starting with a given letter of the alphabet in your immediate environment you would usually take note of. We selectively attend to certain aspects of our environment and not to others. What we see is very much determined by where we apply our attention.
When caring for a child who is recovering from a tough start to life due to grossly inadequate care and/or maltreatment there is much concern about its impact on the developing child. It follows that most adults who care for and relate with children and young people who have experienced abuse and neglect can readily see the effects.
Consider how this impacts your role in the life of a child or young person recovering from complex early trauma. Whether you are in a caregiver role or delivering a professional therapeutic service, your knowledge of the impacts of abuse and neglect mean that you are likely to focus a lot on signs of them, including as part of your endeavour to see if the child or young person is recovering.
Unfortunately, this focus on signs of abuse and neglect means that you are more likely to keep seeing signs adverse impacts, including when the child or young person is making progress in their recovery.
We see what we are paying attention to. In order to see signs of recovery, you need to know what recovery looks like. Once you turn you mind to what recovery looks like you are more likely to see it.
A focus on what recovery looks like benefits adults who care for and relate to children and young people who have experienced abuse and neglect during the (early) developmental period, and the children themselves. Adults who are able to see signs of recovery feel more competent in the role they perform with these children and young people. This sustains their endeavours through inevitable tough times. The self-image of children and young people is strongly influenced by their experience of how significant adults in their lives see them. Observing and acknowledging signs of their recovery helps children and young people experience themselves in a more positive way.
Children who think they are bad, feel bad, and act bad. They are typically admonished for acting bad, thus conforming the original thought. When this happens over and over, this becomes a belief that influences their approach to life and relationships in an enduring way. It is not too much of a simplification to say that children who think that they are capable and worthy feel good, act good (most of the time), and are likely to be acknowledged in this through positive relatedness with others.
Here are a few of the signs of recovery to look for:
- Attention to grooming and care about appearance – you might see this from the Primary school years onwards. It reflects an emerging sense of self-worth, care regarding the opinion of others, and an openness to being viewed positively by them.
- Use of words to draw attention to experiences and needs, as opposed to coercive gestures. Children and young people who have experienced grossly inadequate care have poorly developed inner-state language and/or lack of motivation to communicate verbally about their experiences and needs. Using their words reflects developmental growth, improving self-worth, and growing trust in the responsiveness of adult caregivers.
- Acceptance of care and age-appropriate dependency – reflects new learning about the accessibility and responsiveness of adults in a caregiving role.
- A range of genuine emotion that is congruent with content and context – Children and young people who have experienced grossly inadequate care and/or maltreatment often have a restricted emotional repertoire. As a result of being inconsistently soothed during the early developmental period, they have learnt to avoid emotions, lest they be overwhelmed by them. Through caring co-regulation and natural expression by caregiving adults, these children and young people feel safe to explore a range of emotions and achieve emotional growth.
And, the big one:
- .Self-regulation – in consideration of their own worth and the value they place on their relationships with key others in their life. This is promoted through healing connections in which the child or young person experiences themselves as good, deserving, and competent and adults as understanding, responsive, and safe. In all of your interactions with a child or young person recovering from a tough start to life, try to facilitate experiences of their worth and of yourself as someone upon whom they can depend.
For more signs of recovery, refer to the graphic below, taken from my Connected Classrooms training, a program of The CARE Curriculum:
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