Children’s interactions with caregivers shape their understanding of themselves and the world around them. Kids who experience abuse, neglect and loss in their early relationships often approach subsequent relationships assuming others will hurt them. And when children experience loving, supportive and nurturing relationships, they are able to process their trauma and thrive, according to research.
Unfortunately, interactions with the child welfare system can compound trauma and loss in young people — and at a time when they are most in need of positive, supportive relationships and environments.
“When you interact with children and teens who have experienced repeated harm,” writes clinicians Margaret Blaustein and Kristine Kinniburgh of the Justice Resource Institute, “it’s important to remind yourself that at any given moment the child or teen may be interacting not just with you, but with every person who has ever hurt, rejected or abandoned him or her in the past.”
Blaustein and Kinniburgh are coauthors of ARC Reflections, a training curriculum for foster parents and kin caregivers. Developed with support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, ARC Reflections teaches caregivers about trauma’s effects on kids and helps them better support young people in their care who have experienced trauma and loss. The curriculum, provided free of charge, includes an implementation guide, PowerPoint presentations, facilitator guides and other materials to help child welfare agencies conduct their own trainings.
Healthy attachments with caregivers enable children to develop a positive sense of self and explore and participate in the world around them. “ARC Reflections focuses on attachments between adults and kids that, all too often, are broken or damaged when a child or teen enters foster or kinship care,” says Tracey Feild, managing director of the Casey Foundation’s Child Welfare Strategy Group. “The new training curriculum provides caregivers with important tools to help children deal with trauma and rebuild relationships with caregivers.”
Some of the everyday activities that can strengthen attachment over time include:
- predictable, consistent routines, including around meals and bedtimes, which can enhance a child’s sense of safety;
- praise for age-appropriate activities and behaviors, which reinforces a child’s competencies rather than highlighting their deficits; and
- attunement and positive engagement — for example, recognizing and responding to a child’s needs — which help kids build trust in their environment and the people around them.
A caregiver’s awareness of their own emotional state is central to building attachments. ARC Reflections encourages foster parents to practice self-care techniques such as deep breathing, exercise and making time for themselves. These and other approaches can help foster parents respond effectively to childrens’ needs rather than simply react to their behaviors.
“I have never seen a child who does not desire some level of connection,” Kinniburgh says. “These moments of connection are usually grounded in things that all kids want to experience. They want caregivers to respond positively and recognize the parts of them that are competent.”
See the results of the Child Trends evaluation of ARC Reflections