Now that the whole child welfare field has become increasingly driven by procedures and guidelines and colonised by the law, it is not always easy to keep in the forefront the child or young person who is at the centre of all this activity. The children have to live through the disputes, the assessments and find their placement decided for them and their relationships prescribed.
But alongside this turmoil in the external world, children have to try to make sense of the experience and what it means to them as well as manage the normal developmental processes. Children and young people require their physical needs to be met, but more relevant here is their need for emotional, psychological and social development alongside moral development and spirituality. Any child needs significant relationships, not just attachments, and within these relationships the child needs to be valued and respected. The important task for the parent or carer is that of containment. The adult needs to be able to accept the child's hopes, fears, anxiety, longing, omnipotence, arrogance, self-doubt, terror and aggression. These feelings may be communicated verbally, non-verbally or unconsciously. The adult needs to be able to tolerate the feelings, reflect on the process, and help the child by reducing the intensity and showing that he or she is bearable and can be understood. The adult has to avoid retaliation or acting out by becoming caught up in the child's emotional state while remaining sensitive and thoughtful. Slowly, children manage to take in this capacity to bear the feeling and reflect, and can then 'contain' themselves, but they can only do this if they have had a relationship with such an adult for sufficient duration. Where parents never had this experience themselves, it may be that a nursery worker, a teacher or a family friend becomes important, or it may be that the children's first experience of containment is once the dispute is resolved and they are with substitute carers or have been offered help (e.g. psychotherapy).
Children also have to learn certain fundamentals, such as that there are male and female people, children and adults, racial differences and, the most universal, that there is life and death. However, 'learn' does not mean only intellectual knowing but knowing from experience about difference and mortality. If children have experienced containment and faced difference, then curiosity and creativity begin to emerge, as does the wish to learn about, to understand and to express themselves.
And all this needs to be in the context of feeling safe, aware of boundaries, and that if told 'no' this is usually adhered to and cannot be manipulated. Children will then slowly develop a sense of identity, a racial identity, a sexual identity, all of which they can be proud of and then develop friendships which grow into intimate satisfying relationships.
An encouraging aspect of development is that if there have been problems in early childhood, there is, in adolescence, the opportunity to re-work many of the issues and conflicts if the emotional environment is more stable and containing.
Understanding oneself and one's history is important and many adopted children and children leaving care seek out their birth parent(s) not only to try to find out about their past but also to find their 'family' even when they have a good enough psychological family. It is important that the substitute carers can support and understand this and not feel too threatened. Children of divorce less often seek out the absent parent, perhaps because they have lived with the angry, resentful, sad parent even if life has moved on. Many of these children and young people can do well, but many need some counselling or therapy to help them find their own perspective on events.
If the children are reasonably attractive physically and do well in one area— academically, sport, the arts such as drama or music—and make friends, then they are likely to move into adulthood satisfactorily even if the adolescent turmoil is fairly stormy. The children who struggle, who opt out, who develop mental or physical health problems, are the ones where there is cause for concern. Their despair may be unbearable and their situation appear so bleak that they either become suicidal, or they become indifferent and cut off, living just for the moment for what gratification is available now. There is increasing evidence that one important factor in the outcome is the father (Phares, 1996, 1997; Burgess, 1997; Trowell and Etchegoyen, 2001).
If the father (or step-father or adoptive or foster father) has a relationship directly with the child or young person, both in the internal and external world, there seem to be benefits. If there is no actual father then the father in the mother's mind or a benign male figure can assist the child to develop the space they need in their mind to think to learn to reflect and to manage their feelings.
What then do children and young people need? They need a parent or substitute carer who can:
• Anticipate difficulties.
• Make commitments.
• Show love and approval.
• Let them go and relinquish the central emotional position.
Then if they have experienced containment, have attachments, self-worth and paternal as well as maternal awareness, they should be able to manage adversity, develop, learn and love.
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