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Coronavirus #3: Reflecting on the child in care

In a new series of expert blogs, the Anna Freud Centre shines a spotlight on those children who are particularly vulnerable during the coronavirus crisis. As leading specialists in their fields, they call on colleagues and wider society to keep in mind these children and young people - and to act on the opportunities which exist to support them in these uncertain times.

In the third of our new series of blogs, Dr Anoushka Khan of the Anna Freud Centre considers the impact of the current crisis on children and young people in care, who in most cases have already faced significant losses in their lives. She looks to the experiences of foster carers since the crisis started and how we can take some encouragement from what they have found.

The pioneering work of the Sense of Belonging programme in Kent, based on a Reflective Fostering approach, strives to maintain placement stability for children in care. This is being brought into sharp focus by the current situation, with lockdown putting enormous pressure on placements. Lockdown brought a sudden end to much of the support available to both children and foster carers, with limited access to schools, clubs and therapeutic services - and the abrupt disruption to some of the positive relationships in their lives.

All children will be trying to make sense of the current situation, but for the child in care it may echo the abrupt endings and losses they experienced earlier in life. They may be feeling less safe right now. It feels important to recognise this, and that it can lead to the changes in behaviour of a child in distress. The present uncertainty will also be strongly felt by a child whose life has an agreed plan, including arrangements for contact with birth family members. Much of this will have been knocked off course, removing the sense of reassurance which it can provide. There will also be instances in which the lockdown may bring a feeling of security, with the enforced boundary offering a concrete sense of containment not previously experienced by the child.  

So what can we do to best support these children and young people?
Foster carers play a crucial role at this time, but they are facing enormous pressures across their lives too. In directly supporting foster carers, we provide the best possible support for the child or young person. At this unprecedented time, we know the following is key:

  1. Reflecting on the moment: When foster carers reflect on their own minds (their thoughts and feelings in the moment, if you like), they can make their minds available to best help the child in their care. This is because self-reflection leads to self-regulation, so understandably fluctuating emotions during lockdown become more possible to control. Children in care need the adults around them to be highly skilled at this. Many foster carers find their own ways to create space to do this, for example by noting their thoughts in a journal or simply stepping outside to stop and reflect. A foster carer’s self-care is essential to their wellbeing too. Getting alongside foster carers to support them in all this, particularly when they may be acutely feeling the loss of external structures and resources, is time well spent.

  2. Recognising the demands: Foster carers often need ‘permission’ to acknowledge that they have a hugely demanding role. The pressure will be on them to focus on supporting the child in their care, possibly to the detriment of first attending to their own feelings. All of us, whatever our situation, will have bad moments through this crisis and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise. At times of stress, we tend to direct our anger and upset to those we rely on most - and this will certainly apply in a foster care setting and when a child is really struggling. Accepting this in your own mind can help to make it feel less demoralising. Foster carers may also be feeling the pressure on the child’s placement (which may be heightened now) and additional issues around contact arrangements, limited access to services, financial uncertainty, and concerns for their own relatives. That’s a lot of uncertainty and foster carers hold it all.

  3. Reaching out to others: Having urged foster carers to acknowledge the pressure they’re under, and to give themselves some time and space to be mindful of its impact, we encourage them to reach out. Every one of us should look to family members, friends and colleagues for moral support at this time. We also know there can be a sense of reluctance to reach out when we’re aware that everyone else is under pressure too. However, we do need to guard against this becoming a reason not to do it. Having people we can contact at moments of crisis (by a quick text message perhaps) can help us to feel that we have options. It can feel like a life saver, and one which we can offer in return.

  4. Having realistic expectations: Foster carers should be strongly encouraged to step back from any perceived pressure around what others are achieving during lockdown. Now is not the time to feel the need to be super-human! Instead, the absolute priority is these key relationships, and living calm, manageable days. Structuring the day into short ‘chunks’ can really help (and if you lose a chunk along the way, never mind), but keep it realistic. If the main aim of each day is to keep the emotional temperature regulated, that’s fine. The sense of structure and routine will almost certainly feel containing and reassuring to the child, and a timetable can help everyone in the home.

  5. Keeping the connection going: We urge foster carers to look out for opportunities to connect with the child, and to keep seeking this day on day. Be alert to any worries and confusions about the current situation. Many children will be finding life doubly difficult, there will be those for whom it’s a relief, and there are many more who will be somewhere in the middle. Notice things. Look at the wider issues playing their part in all your lives, and keep in sight the bigger picture from the young person’s perspective. Grasp those golden nuggets - those moments to really connect. Keep that energy going.

  6. Finding the good in this: Much of the daily news is frightening to us all, but there are also stories of generosity and courage. Children are noticing these and some foster carers speak of their importance because they show what’s possible. They reflect a set of positive values and they speak of kindness. These same carers say how impressed they are by their child’s ability to cope at this time, to be helpful at home, and by their resilience. This might be the time when a child in care can get closer to their foster carer than they have felt before, and they may even discover previously untapped skills along the way. Recognising this and celebrating together (even the small moments) is something we can hold onto - both during and beyond this crisis.

Dr Anoushka Khan is a Clinical Psychologist at the Anna Freud Centre. She is currently supporting the Sense of Belonging programme, which is led by the Kent Centralised Fostering Service’s placement stability team.