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A Trip Down Under Part 4: Light bulb moments

Posted by Jim Humphries on 7th, January, 2016
Relevant tags: IFCO

The Australian speakers at IFCO 2015 were very informed and had lots of interesting things to say, such as “When you plant a lettuce, you don’t blame the lettuce if it doesn’t grow”. Try something different. Get your looked after child involved in the things you are doing to teach life skills, cooking, home maintenance, shopping etc. They are all things that may be easier if you do them yourself, but the foster child is missing out on learning skills and connecting with carers. I thought of the benefits of getting the young person I am looking after to choose paint and help decorate his room and how this could reduce his anger damage in his room… instead of saying I will decorate your room when you stop damaging it.

The importance of foster carers having a self-care plan was enlightening for me. We all need to ensure that we look after ourselves to enable us to look after others well. Mindfulness and meditation, as well as a good diet and regular exercise, are helpful tools, as well as meeting more regularly with other foster carers and professionals. Oxytosin release in the brain is important for the feeling of wellbeing and is promoted through human touch.

Another speaker was talking about the study of KDAs and how they can show different things to the parenting team. I was surprised to find out that studies of KDAs showed that an up and down zig zag on the graph warns that a placement is in trouble and that supervising social workers should learn to spot this and look for more support for challenging behaviours to help to avoid placement breakdowns.

Positive relationship experiences are what is needed to change behavioural issues. Siblings should, if it is in their best interests, be placed together or nearby so that contact can be regular. This lit a light bulb with me as one of the young people we have cared for has been moved onto a therapeutic residential setting, due to dangerous behaviours, which is close by to his brother who is also in such a setting, but placed together, they would lead each other astray.

Each case is individual and the individual’s needs must be the most important thing when considering placement options. There are many protective and positive factors found in relationships with foster carers and the parenting team. It is never too late to make a positive difference to a young person’s life and outcomes. Instead of just finding a placement, we need to find a support network for carers and looked after children.

Kids act out when the environment is wrong or when they are stressed or afraid (lots of lightbulbs here!) There have been various studies of mental wellness indicators through childhood and adolescence. These have shown that there is a massive drop in mental wellness, especially in boys between the age of 15 to 18. It is usually worst at 16. This is when we see the highest percentage of suicide in young males. Modern technology is partly to blame for this feeling of hopelessness and isolation in young people, more often males. The screens and games often have a negative impact; you may have noticed that vacant look of a young person who has been gaming for hours and finds it difficult to come back to the real world.

When young males reach adolescence, the part of their brain that deals with empathy and positive relationships closes down for rewiring. A happy go lucky twelve year old can, almost overnight, become a grumpy teenager who can only grunt you an answer and no longer wants to communicate or spend any time with you. At this time there is a window of opportunity for the father figures to stop telling the young person what to do and how to live their lives, but to try to make a positive connection with them, finding common interest and helping them reconnect to the real world. Accepting that the young person is no longer a child but is not yet an adult is key to making this connection. Doing something 1 on 1 and making time to spend with the young person is important to enable them to realise that you have their best interests at heart and you are not trying to control them. Separate the person from the behaviour. It is not the person you dislike, it is the negative behaviour.

Mums and female carers also have a role to play in this stage of young male’s development, up until now the boy has told them everything and the mum has done almost everything for the boy. Now things have to change to enable the adolescent male to work towards new relationships and ultimately, independence. Funny how the word ‘smother’, is mother with an S. Maybe the S in smother, stands for ‘space needed’. All of this is so useful for me and Dawn as we have usually fostered boys aged 12 to 16. If you can start helping with this process around the age of 12 then you are in with a good chance of making a positive difference.

In all civilisations throughout the world, this coming of age – rights of passage in young males – is recognised and ritually marked in some way. Ours seems to be the only society that has forgotten the importance of this transition and that the young people need to know that we know they are changing. The shift from child to adult behaviour is gradual and must be helped to ensure that the young people are positive about the future and are caring towards others. Each young person is individual and all have their own strengths and talents. These talents need to be recognised and nurtured, channelling positive interests and supporting them in any way possible. When people are doing what they love, you can see them shine.

Depression is an illness of the soul and this occurs when people are not able to do what they love doing. Don’t tell the young person what to do, but share stories with them, your own true life experiences, especially when you were their age, warts and all, let them learn from your mistakes as well as from their own. Tell them what you like and admire about them, let them know that they are noticed and seen. Stop what you are doing, make eye contact and really listen and give them time. Create appropriate challenges as well as recognising the challenges that they have accomplished. Recognise the talent and spirit of each child.

At this stage I must recommend that you buy the book ‘The Making Of Men’ written by Dr Arne Rubinstein. He was one of my favourite speakers at the conference because what he was teaching was so relevant to us as carers: it takes a village to raise a child. Think about it.

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