It’s not just about the adults!

Judy Furnivall of CELCIS discusses how important it is for children in residential care
to develop the ability to navigate relationships with each other.

Cast your mind back to your own childhood and adolescence. Most of
you I am sure you will remember important relationships with adults in
your own family, school or community that made you feel safe, loved and
cared about and perhaps inspired and stimulated, and possibly you’re
still friends with some of them.

I very much doubt, however, if they are the only important
relationships that you remember. Brothers and sisters; friends and
enemies; being with other children are an essential part of normal
childhoods. Joy, excitement, pain and delinquency – all often hidden
from the adult world- characterise these relationships.

They provide the space where we learn to cope with competition and
disappointment; the freedom to experiment with different identities; and
the people with whom we can not only have unsupervised fun but also
share our anxieties and hopes free from adult judgement. This is, in
fact, how we learn about ourselves in a social world.

Let’s be honest though – if the adults in our lives had known at the
time what we had got up to in this social sphere there are times they
would probably have been very anxious!

Pushing the boundaries

Children and adolescents can be cruel to each other, they may
encourage each other to get up to mischief or even egg each other on to
take dangerous risks. It is, however, this very pushing at the
boundaries that allows children and young people to work out how to
manage themselves in difficult situations and survive as they traverse
the hazardous route from dependent childhood to independent adulthood.

It is also true, despite parental beliefs, that there is no easy
split into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ crowds.  The same young people who are
involved in dangerous or delinquent behaviours together may be the very
individuals who provide each other with the most sensitive support in
times of distress and strongest encouragement to succeed in life.      

The importance of sibling relationships in residential care

For children in residential care this natural social experience is
often absent or severely curtailed. Separation from their brothers and
sisters is a common experience, even though we know the level of
distress and impact this can have.

Within many residential settings, the relationships between children
are often seen as troublesome – a problem to be overcome rather than a
resource to be nurtured and cherished.

While occasionally there are concerns about the potential harm that
children may cause each other, often it is practicalities that cause and
maintain the separation of children experiencing care. Yet we know that
our siblings can be the people with whom we have the longest
relationships in our lives, the people we turn to for all sorts of
practical and emotional support.

Even when we believe that there may be a current danger in a
particular sibling relationship we should have the courage and
determination to face this and help children find a safe way to regain a
positive connection. For most young people, however, it is not concern
about risk so much as our failure to prioritise and resource these
important connections that cause such painful breaches in relationship.
How would you feel if this was happening to your children, or children
you know?

A misuse of attachment or trauma theory

The current (and important) focus on the importance of relationships
between adults and children can become distorted so that relationships
that may exist between young people and their peers may not be given the
respect or importance that they deserve.

This is often explained with a misuse of attachment or trauma theory
by suggesting that young people are not emotionally ‘ready’ to cope with
peer relationships. Anyone who has watched a baby’s delight and joy
when playing with a slightly older brother or sister knows that we come
into the world ready for social connection with people who are not
necessarily attachment figures. Our young people have the same need and
yearning for reciprocal relationships where they give and take, have fun
and explore.

Learning how to manage in a protected way

Just as happens in a family setting, sometimes these relationships
will become fraught and explosive in a residential setting. But, just as
in a family, a residential setting provides a fantastic space where it
is possible to learn in a protected way how to manage such fallouts
safely and repair relationships.

These are key skills that children transfer to school and community connections. Residential
care is by definition a group experience but we are in danger of
denying the therapeutic potential of the group of young people and
instead focus on the dangers young people present to each other.  
Whether we like it or not children in residential settings will have
important relationships with each other.

If we do not actively encourage positive relationships and a culture
where young people feel responsible for each other we run the risk of
fostering exactly the kind of damaging, delinquent sub-culture we fear.
When teams and workers show the courage to question the systems and
procedures that push them to work in this destructive way, young people
flourish and this positive culture can make residential settings less
stressful places in which to work. The friendships and connections that
can develop in residential care should be celebrated not feared!

The impact of ruptured relationships

I am not denying that some young people can present a very real
threat to the wellbeing and safety of others, but we behave as if this
is the default position rather than a rarity. If we listen to adult care
leavers they describe the importance of the relationships they had with
other children whose lives they shared in care. Often those
relationships continue into adulthood and underpin a valuable network
where care experienced people can be sure of support and understanding
from others who shared their childhood.

Where these relationships have been ruptured by placement moves, the
impact on children of such losses can be devastating, yet little thought
is invested in considering ways to maintain and support these important
connections.

This is not good enough and we have a responsibility to acknowledge,
respect and support the enduring nature of these relationships. Social
isolation is one of the hardest issues facing care leavers and it is
unsurprising that they turn to the people they grew up with for
emotional connection. If we have always emphasised the negative rather
than the positive in these relationships then we should not be surprised
that often these relationships become destructive and damaging when
adult control is removed.

Resilience through friendship

We now understand that what is harmed through relationship can best
be healed through relationship. The persistent error we make is to
assume that this only happens for children in their relationships with
adults.

Strength and resilience is developed through friendships and through
being responsible for others. Let us unleash the therapeutic power of
young people’s relationships with each other, allow them the joy and
risks of normal childhood and be ready to support them through their
mistakes.

Resources

A new multi-agency partnership ‘Stand Up For Siblings’ champions the improvement of contact between siblings in the care system.

Visit the Stand Up For Siblings website to find out more.

Published by Residential Forum

The Residential Forum is to promote the achievement of high standards of care and support for children and adults living in residential care and nursing homes, supported housing, residential schools and colleges, hospices and hostels. It contributes to improving the quality of service to the public. Members of the Forum are people of standing and experience drawn from the public, private and voluntary sectors, as well as some who can speak for service users and carers.

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