Given the well-documented impact that trauma suffered in early childhood has on brain development you could be forgiven for thinking that a care leaver’s emotional path and patterns of behaviour are set early, and for good. But is that really the case?
Are care leavers (and in fact anyone who has suffered emotional trauma) destined to be ‘victims’ for the rest of their lives? We don’t believe so and a recent staff development day has reinforced just how vital the work of organisations like ours is.
We have previously blogged about why so many care leavers sabotage the opportunities that come their way and wanted to gain an even deeper understanding of why the young people we work with react the way they do in challenging situations. Through some work we have been doing into the longer term outcomes and wider impact of our programmes we were put in touch with Dr Alex Hassett, Principal Lecturer and Senior Consultant in the Salomons Centre for Applied Psychology at Canterbury Christchurch University.
The purpose of this blog isn’t to recount word for word the brilliant training session we had with Alex, nor is it to sift through the weight of neuroscientific evidence around the impact of trauma on the brain; much of the research is in its infancy and there are better people than us to decipher it. No, this is very much a blog about understanding and hope.
We know that a huge amount of brain development occurs in our first three years and positive, predictable interactions (especially with our parents/carers) profoundly stimulate and organise our brains. We also know that the early bond we develop with our parents has a massive impact on our future development and emotional wellbeing. But what’s interesting is the suggestion that trauma in early childhood creates an actual physiological disconnect; that necessary neural pathways are not laid down or reinforced. Parts of the brain associated with anxiety and fear can overdevelop in response to what’s going on around us, resulting in other areas being underdeveloped. Chronic stress resulting from violence, fear and hunger can actually impede the development of social and cognitive skills.
With our experience of self-sabotage in mind we can understand that a young person’s response to positive stimulation and opportunities is often unenthusiastic and negative simply because they don’t know how to respond in any other way.
So are care leavers destined to fail? Can those neural pathways be in any way ‘re-wired’. From our experience we firmly believe so, and even more so now. But we must be realistic. Organisations like ours can’t turn the clock back, nor can we be become a replacement parent but there are ways to remedy some of the effects that skewed relationships have had on care leavers.
Creating positive relationships is one of the most significant things we can do to not only boost a young person’s self-esteem and confidence, but also to help them better manage their emotions. As an organisation we can provide a secure base and an immediately stable relationship in the form of the Employment Consultant each of our young people is partnered with. Over time, new relationships are formed with mentors, or during work placements.
Helping young people develop a routine. Our programmes and the work placements we can offer go beyond introducing new relationships and help to bring stability to often chaotic lives. Each day our young people have to get up and show up. We know that over time that routine, those relationships and a steady increase in responsibility increase their self-esteem.
Short term interventions work. Even though young people go back into their usual environment after working with us, programmes like ours can actually be a ‘protective factor’ in their lives. The brain memorises and experiences and the feelings associated with them and can refer back to them when needed (such as during a bad experience).
Creating and maintaining boundaries. We invest in our young people both in terms of time and emotion, but boundaries are vital. And not just as part of the day to day routine, but for that re-wiring process to be successful. There needs to be room for emotions, and for reflecting on them but we can’t tolerate rude or aggressive behaviour. One of the most important roles we can take is helping care leavers to recognise, understand and manage their emotions, rather than them burying their feelings and becoming overwhelmed by them.
So what have we taken away from this development day:
“I have a greater understanding of why [care leavers] react in what seem like unreasonable ways”
“We must continue to be as unconditional as we can be; accepting and open to listening at all times.”
“Peoples’ behaviour doesn’t come from a conscious misinterpretation of the situation but from a fundamental misunderstanding often formed years previously.”
Care leavers are incredibly vulnerable but with positive and consistent intervention “the victim status” can be altered. We can empower young people from care to realise that their future can be something they plan for – something they can control and change – rather than being a series of events that just “happen to them.”