Some children with a history of complex trauma have grown up in environments characterised by chaos, lack of structure and lack of predictability. These types of environments are considered ‘normal’ for some children. Adapting to a safe, secure place can take time as children may have a lack of trust in adults and relationships with others. They may have also lived with other carers who have chosen not to, or been unable to, provide longer-term care. Multiple changes to a child’s care arrangements can compound the child’s trauma experience.
As a carer, establishing a trusting relationship with the child in your care at a time when they are likely experiencing feelings of fear, uncertainty and loss, can be hard and can take time – this time can be additionally hard if you are a kinship carer. It is also possible for you to experience a ‘honeymoon’ period where the child initially settles in smoothly, but their behaviour becomes unpredictable or they push boundaries once they become more comfortable.
If other people live in your home, it is a good idea to talk to them about what is happening before the child arrives. Tell them what you can about the child (remembering confidentiality and privacy – see ‘Information sharing’), what it means for everyone and how they can all play a part to welcome and support the child.
There are many things you can do to welcome the child into your home and start to form a trusting relationship with them. If you are a kinship carer and already know the child well, you have probably already done some of these. Whichever type of carer you are, here are some tips to help you.
- Speak to the child in a calm, warm voice – think about how they may be feeling, for example shy, scared, worried.
- Welcome the child to your home and tell them your name. Introduce them to everyone in the house, including any pets, but do this slowly and ask them first how they feel about animals.
- Ask them what they like to be called and work together to decide what they will be comfortable calling you.
- Tell the child you will take care of them and if they have any worries or need anything, you are there to help them, day or night.
- Explain they can ask you any question and you will do your best to answer it. Tell them that sometimes you won’t have the answers but you will always try to find out for them.
- Show the child around the spaces in your home, take your time and invite them to look and touch things as appropriate. If there are certain spaces that are unsafe or you do want the child to go in, respectfully tell them this. Establishing boundaries helps the child to feel safe, as it is clear what they can and cannot do. Show them the outside spaces too.
- Show the child their bedroom, tell them that this is a safe space for them.
- Ask the child questions about how they like to sleep, such as with a toy or a light on. Remind them that you are not far away.
- Show them where the fridge is and tell them what food they can help themselves to, and where to get a drink of water. Explain how meal times usually work so they can know what to expect.
- Ask the child about their favourite foods. Food is often very important to children and can go a long way to help them feel comfortable and settle in. Also ask them if there are any foods they really dislike.
- Talk to them about what an average day looks like so they can see things are going to be predictable and consistent.
- Make sure to keep your communication open. The child may be shy or reluctant and it can take time before they feel comfortable to open up. This is okay. Even if they don’t say much to you, talk to them and show interest in them – it will help them to know they are important to you.
- Let them know about any particular rules, but understand it can take time to follow them. Being in a new home can be scary and children may try to test boundaries depending on their age and trauma experience.
- Include the child in activities. Children who have been traumatised like to participate in rhythmic and repetitive activities as it helps their brains grow new, healthier pathways. Activities could include ball games, beating a drum or listening to music.
- Ask the child questions about what they like to do and think about how you can incorporate these.
- Plan an outing or an activity together the child can look forward to. It could be to play ball or go to the park, for older children it might be shopping for ingredients and cooking their favourite meal together.
- Watch for any fears or changes in behaviour.
If you are concerned about how the child is settling in, talk to your case manager. It can be normal for this process to take time, but it is best to get advice or strategies early on what might help to make the process smoother.
If you are caring for a baby, it is still important to get to know them and form a trusting relationship, even though the baby cannot communicate with you using words. Babies need to learn the world is safe and there are people who will look after them. They learn this when you give them food, comfort, warmth, smiles and cuddles.
Here are some tips to help settle in and bond with a baby.
- Spend time with the baby when they are awake. Talk softly and sing. Hold, cuddle and stroke the baby so it learns to feel safe and loved.
- Look into the baby’s eyes when you are feeding or holding them – babies love to look at your face.
- Watch and listen so you learn their different cries and signals, and what they mean.
- Respond to these signals when the baby makes sounds, smiles or cries. Crying is the only way babies can tell you they need something. If you respond quickly to the baby’s needs and signals, the baby will learn to trust you and to know the world is a safe place.
- Talk to the baby as you do things. Let them know what is going to happen next and use the same words every time, such as ‘I am going to pick you up now, ‘It’s time for a bath or ‘Here we go.’ Don’t just pick up the baby without warning as this can startle them.
Research has also shown babies do best if they have someone they are very close to in the first year of life. This person is often called a ‘primary attachment’ figure. The therapeutic assessor can help you understand the importance of attachment and give you more ideas to build a positive bond with the baby you are caring for. This can form part of the initial conversation you have with the assessor.
There are also helpful resources about caring for a baby and how their brains develop on the ParentLink website.
Remember, if you are concerned the baby is not settling well into your home, it is important to address this early with your case manager who will work with you to address any issues and help develop a plan of what to do next.
Develop a ‘cover story’
One of the challenges for children in care can be managing their feelings of being different to other children they know. Not living at home with their parents can be stigmatising and difficult for the child to talk about or explain to others.
Depending upon the age of the child in your care, it is likely the child will get asked questions by friends and classmates about why they are not living with their parents. Questions like, ‘Where’s your Mum and Dad?’ and ‘Who’s that?’ when they see you pick them up from different places. These questions can be really hard for the child to answer, especially if they are caught off guard. One way you can help is to work with the child to develop a cover story.
A cover story is a planned response to questions that are likely to come up. If the child decides to make a cover story, they need to be the main author of it and feel safe and comfortable about what they want to share and what they want to keep private. It is important the child is supported by you and not feel shamed about their circumstances and experiences. The idea is not about needing to keep secrets, but rather the child having the right to share only what they want to share about their life with others.
Every child and their circumstances are different, so there is no universal cover story. Talk with the child and help them decide what works for them. Keeping it simple and short is often a good start. For example, the child might say: ‘I live with my grandparents because my mum is unwell and can’t look after me right now’. It is also a good idea to help the child practice their cover story so they can be more confident in managing conversations or questions about their life.
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