8 Ways Foster Parents Can Nurture Children’s Mental Health3 February, 2020
1 in 8 children in England have a diagnosable mental health condition, according to a survey published by the NHS. Unsurprisingly, looked after children are at even greater risk of poor mental health.
While mental health may seem like daunting territory – particularly if it’s a child in your care that may be experiencing issues – there are things you can do to nurture a child’s mental health.
In this article, Co-ordinating Centre Therapist for ISP Whitstable, Maria Smith, explores why looked after children are more likely to experience a mental health condition and shares some practical advice on how to support them.
Why Are Children in Care More Susceptible to Poor Mental Health?
More than 60% of looked after children are in care due to abuse or neglect, which can have a massive impact on a child’s development and mental health. Plus, the trauma experienced from being taken into care is enough to leave anyone feeling anxious and unsettled.
Consequently, children in care may experience a host of mental health conditions, including anxiety, depression and low self-esteem. They may also develop unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as self-harm and eating disorders.
However, with the right support, children can learn strategies to manage their mental health, so it doesn’t have a lasting impact on their day-to-day life.
How to Help Looked After Children with Mental Health Issues
If you’re concerned about the mental health of a child in your care, the good news is that there are things you can do at home to support them.
1. Always consult with professionals
Firstly, it’s important that you discuss any concerns relating to the mental health of a child with your supervising social worker (or team manager) and centre therapist to ensure you have the right support in place to care for the child.
Your local fostering team should also work in partnership with the child’s local authority social worker and be alerted to any possible safeguarding issues.
2. Discuss therapy – but don’t force it upon them
The goal of therapy isn’t necessarily to ‘cure’ poor mental health. Often, it’s about helping a child to acknowledge, accept, normalise and rationalise it, and then provide them with the skills to manage it so it doesn’t hinder their ongoing health, development and happiness.
There are lots of different therapeutic services available to children, and it doesn’t have to be simply sitting in a room talking. For younger children, something like play therapy may work quite well to address anxiety and depression. Whereas those who are slightly older may prefer something like drama therapy, cognitive behavioural therapy, life story work, animal assisted therapy or indeed just some time away with a trusting adult to explore things on their mind.
Sometimes a child may not want to engage in therapy due to previous experiences that they deemed unpleasant. If this is the case, you should let the young person know that they are heard, but at the same time encourage them to seek help.
3. Distract them from distress
A child with poor mental health will have good and bad days. For the bad days, you’ll need a number of strategies that will help distract them, such as baking, walking or board games.
Be creative and tailor your strategies to their hobbies and interests. Some children may enjoy going to a trampoline or skate park, others may prefer sitting in and watching a movie (try choosing one with a positive message).
If they’d would prefer to sit in their room alone, then respect their decision. However, keep an eye on them, take them some refreshments and let them know you’re here for them.
4. Ask what they need from you
A child needs to know that you’re there for them – you’re the person who will listen and understand them.
Here are some things to say that may help you find out about how the child is feeling:
- “How’s your day been?”
- “What’s been good about today?”
- “Is there anything worrying you?”
- “It sounds like today has been difficult – shall we talk about it?”
- “If I had a magic wand, what would it do?”
Some children may not be able to tell you how they feel in words, but their behaviour may demonstrate their feelings. Try to work out what the behaviour tells you; your ISP Centre Therapist can help with this.
5. Communicate often
A child may not always want to talk. But remember conversation doesn’t always have to be words and nattering; it can be going on about the day as normal and thus normalising and rationalising behaviour. It’s also good to remind children about the happy times.
Mealtimes, walks and car journeys tend to be a good time for children to open up a little about how they’re feeling, how their day has been and if anything is troubling them, no matter how big or small.
However, understand that they may not tell you everything in one go. Be patient and stay connected with other adults in their life – your partner, teachers, social workers, therapists, etc – as the child may have revealed different snippets to different people and you’ll have a better understanding if all the information is shared.
6. Help them to avoid triggers
Everybody has triggers; for some, these can lead to conditions such as depression and self-harm.
It’s important that you speak to those closely involved in their care – including teachers and support staff – about any triggers you are aware of, so they can act sensitively and avoid any negative impact on their mental health.
7. Avoid negative language
Language is powerful when it comes to encouraging children to open up about their mental health. Always try to change the narrative from negative to positive.
For example, instead of saying, “I’ve noticed you’ve been struggling today”, try “I’ve noticed you’ve not been yourself recently”. Then follow it by saying one of the following:
“Would you like a cuddle / to talk about it?”
“Can we make it better by cooking / reading a story / watching a movie?”
These are just some ideas, however you will know the child better than anyone, so be yourself and reach out to them how you usually would.
8. Teach emotional regulation
Emotional regulation is not something that we are born with; it’s something we learn, generally through the positive modelling from our parents or care givers.
Most children experience this in a consistent way and can learn to predict how their parent will respond and replicate this in similar situations. Children in care often haven’t had consistent emotional responses from their parents and so struggle to cope with emotions.
It will take time, support and guidance to help a young person learn to regulate their emotions and this can be difficult for you as a foster parent. This is why we offer lots of support and guidance through our team, training and the sharing of skills and knowledge within the discussion groups to help you to help your child.
Are you concerned about a child in your care?
If you’re currently fostering with ISP and are concerned about the mental health of a child in your care, simply speak to your supervising social worker – we’re here to support you. If you’re not with ISP, then get in touch with your supervising social worker or the child’s social worker and ask for some support – please do not sit with it and feel alone.
Our therapeutic care approach
As a therapeutic fostering agency, we create tailored therapy programmes to meet the needs of every individual child in our care. For some, this may include direct work with the child, or in other cases work with the carer to aid them in their care of the child.
We can also offer, amongst other therapeutic interventions, Animal Assisted Therapy sessions, CBT (cognitive behaviour therapy), mindfulness, meditation, play therapy and filial therapy. It completely depends on the child, their likes and interests, and where they are in their journey.
If you’d like to learn more about what it’s like fostering with ISP, then speak to our friendly team today; simply, complete the online enquiry form and we’ll be in touch with you very soon.