Alex Soteriades, Teacher and Trainee Art Therapist, reflects on how art therapy can help developmentally traumatised children
Children are naturally creative, as are adults and sometimes it’s easier to explore a feeling by ‘making’ rather than by ‘talking’. Art therapy is a vessel for dialogue. Its nonverbal and non-threatening approach allows children to tackle difficult and sometimes traumatic issues they are experiencing.
When a child makes art, the therapist along with the child can attempt to interpret and make sense of it; this is sometimes called the triangular relationship. This approach is useful in organising, describing and integrating emotions and memories but also allowing the child to sit with and tolerate the unknown.
Adopted children can do to the artwork what they can’t do to people and this is so profound and empowering for many children that come to Family Futures.
In this way, art can be loved or unloved, survived or destroyed, but ultimately, it can preserve imprints of one self and provide an opportunity to express metaphor. In fact, one of the benefits of art therapy is the ability to embolden and enrich storytelling and narratives through the use of metaphor.
When a child experiences something tragic and terrifying this gets buried in their unconscious. Storytelling and art making through use of materials such as paints, pencils and clay can help bring these suppressed emotions to the surface and in some cases, help to reconnect with the body when it has been cut off from feelings.
With the support and guidance of the therapist, these narratives serve as a way to gently and safely release disturbing or terrorizing experiences and offer children a sense of choice and control in order to begin the healing process.
Julia Press, Senior Social Work practitioner, reflects on Adoption Assessments at Family Futures
Joining the i-Adopt team at Family Futures really enlightened me as to how assessments of prospective adopters can, and should be done. That is, effectively, therapeutically and meaningfully, while always holding the ‘developmentally traumatised child’ in mind – the child who will, if all goes well, be placed for adoption with the families who are being assessed.
While following the standardised two stage assessment process, Family Futures ventures away from the traditional style of assessing, which may typically involve a social worker travelling to the home of a prospective adopter and asking questions which enable the professional to get to know them and assess their ability to adopt.
An assessment at Family Futures is approached quite differently – it is an education programme, for both the prospective adopter/s and the professional team – a two-way process where each party is learning, and equal to the other.
Stage one of the assessment entails completing a Taster Day at Family Futures which helps the team and applicants to understand their attachment histories and styles. This includes their ability to confide and the active use of their family and friends network. Prospective Adopters also gain insight into the therapeutic tools used with families who are engaging in post-adoption therapeutic support at Family Futures. These tools are experiential and incorporate creative arts and drama techniques. For example, we utilise paint, clay, sand and movement to explore a variety of issues which help prospective adopters to emotionally engage with the material.
Those who struggle to relay information verbally also have the opportunity to convey information in an alternative format. The tools are powerful in terms of their ability to unlock what’s beneath the surface (the unconscious) and they allow the Assessor to observe the capacity of prospective adopters to engage with difficult material, their openness to a variety of therapeutic approaches and their capacity to be creative and playful – crucial information for us when we are considering placing complex needs children within these families.
Using the approach and tools described above, Stage two of the assessment process builds on Prospective Adopters’ understanding of themselves; their histories, relationships, strengths, vulnerabilities, stress responses and triggers. This stage also addresses each applicant’s journey to adoption, paying meaningful attention to experiences of loss and possible unresolved feelings associated with infertility or miscarriages. Crucially one module of learning is devoted to the experiences of children who are removed from birth families and the impact of this, with particular focus on Adverse Childhood Experiences and Significant Harm.
In my experience an in-depth understanding of trauma, plus a commitment to apply, and the ability to deliver, therapeutic parenting, aids the success of a placement.
Crucially, an assessment and education program at Family Futures also involves a multidisciplinary team, including a Social Worker, Therapist, Occupational Therapist and Education specialist, who are there to guide and support, offering varied experience and insights from diverse perspectives. Family Futures also pledges to continually nurture a family’s support network, to strengthen the placement by assisting their understanding of the reality of adoption today and what it entails. Our team also identify what support people can offer the family to avoid isolation often felt by adopters post placement.
While I fully endorse the Family Futures approach to assessing prospective adopters and think that this acts as a strong foundation to healthy family life, I am sure this is not enough for children who have suffered trauma and abuse. Matching children for adoption is not the happy ending of a nightmare. Wounds do not disappear. They may reopen, become infected and hurt. They need thoughtful and ongoing aftercare, to help the healing process. Scars are a reminder that we need to care for families’ long term needs. Families require ongoing therapeutic support to ensure that they can continue to heal, grow together and thrive – this is something that urgently needs to be secured for adoptive families now and in the future.
Tips from our team of Ocupational Therapists/ Sensory Integration Practitioners at Family Futures
Have a look at our Sensory Summer Activities guide here with tips for parents and carers on keeping structure going through the summer, sun screen recommendations plus activity ideas for at home, the pool, the beach and outdoor play.
Therapist, Adam Goren, reflects on how to best meet the needs of families in stress or distress
Coming to Family Futures from a small local authority post adoption support team felt like moving to the gold standard service. Years back I saw a BBC documentary called ‘A Home for Maisie’ and admired the work of the therapists with the featured adopted girl and her family. And I remember thinking that in another life I might work in a place like that.
It was only a few weeks into my job at Family Futures that I realised that this was the same place! What attracted me was a completely different model of working from that of classical child psychotherapy.
Working with traumatised children I realised that talking therapy wasn’t in and of itself enough. Children had sensory and physical difficulties and suffered from huge anxiety.
I was looking for something else to help my work to be more effective. Family Futures offered a much broader more inclusive range of tools for helping children and families. When I arrived I was somewhat awed with a bit of survivor guilt. There are not the same resource pressures as in the local authority and the emphasis is definitely on quality long term support. I also felt really tested to think outside the box of my professional training, even though this was what I was searching for. I had to get used to different creative ways of working and to working alongside staff from a wide range of professional backgrounds in sessions.
I was struck by how much time was carved out for planning and calibrating the support to suit each family’s specific needs. We are always asking how can we improve what we are offering and what more can we do? But I think that what I was most struck by was how totally passionately committed Family Futures is to helping families. Kindness and commitment maybe somewhat under-rated qualities, but they strike me as some of the most powerful tools we have in helping families in stress or distress.
Alan Burnell, Registered Manager, and co-founder of Family Futures, shares his reflections here on how the work of Family Futures has developed over the past 20 years
Though we’re celebrating 20 years since the birth of Family Futures the idea was actually conceived 30 years ago. At that time, in the 1980s, adoptive parents who had adopted older children, sibling groups or children with complex needs were receiving no post adoption support of any significance or to any effect.
In that sense our service was conceived from anger and despair with the intention of providing hope and change.
As practitioners working in the early days of post adoption support, we were challenged to find clinical interventions and theoretical models that would help us and adoptive parents make sense of the struggles they were having with their (what we would now understand as) traumatised children.
At its inception, Family Futures used attachment theory as developed by John Bowlby, which was our first step towards understanding why adopted children were so challenging. It was our getting to know Dr Dan Hughes and his work that enabled us to translate attachment theory into clinical practice. This relationship with Dan Hughes has been seminal. Dyadic Developmental Psychotherapy (DDP) is a training course we have offered since that time and integrated it into our work.
In early 2000, our Educational Psychologist, Richard Lansdown, based on his clinical experience of Great Ormond Street Hospital, realised that the children he was assessing at Family Futures had Executive Functioning difficulties. Their problem-solving and cognitive processing had been impaired by early neglect and abuse.
After five years of Family Futures’ work with families, and having looked at so many horrible histories of the children we were working with, we realised that this population of children not only had attachment difficulties but were highly traumatised by neglect and abuse in early infancy.
It was then that the work of Bruce Perry and Bessel van der Kolk provided a neurological basis for our understanding regarding the impact of trauma on child development. The final piece of the jigsaw was at this time our emerging awareness of Jean Ayres and Sensory Integration. It became apparent to us that neglect and abuse in infancy had a developmental impact upon how children are able to regulate their sensory information both internally and externally.
In 2006, we published our first paper which outlined our neurosequential approach to treatment in which we integrated therapeutic interventions that were sensory, attachment and cognitively focussed, and we linked them to the triune brain.
We have subsequently called our model of therapeutic intervention Neuro-Physiological Psychotherapy. For children who have experienced ‘significant harm’ there are developmental consequences that impact their sensory motor development, their affect and attachment, and their cognitive processing abilities.
In order to respond appropriately to this complex picture, Family Futures has had to develop over the last twenty years, an integrated, multidisciplinary team of professionals all dedicated to and with an expert understanding of the neurological, biological and psychological needs of adopted children.
Though we are child-centred, we are parent-friendly and family-focused. These are key aspects of our ethos. We have worked hard to combine clinical excellence with compassion; empathy with expertise. As the proverb says,
“It’s better to light a candle than to curse the dark.”
Alan Burnell, Family Futures’ Registered Manager, comments on research into Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) highlighted in the new film ‘Resilience’
The post with the greatest reach on our social networking sites recently was the Guardian article we shared on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). We are delighted that these research studies which began in 1995 and more recently reported in the Welsh Adverse Childhood Experiences Study are showing a link between Adverse Childhood Experiences and later life physical and mental health problems and shortened life expectancy, which we are aiming to redress through early intervention and therapeutic services.
Family Futures has completed a neurofeedback pilot with five children, which involved using computer games to reprogramme brainwaves.
Research shows that neurofeedback reduces the symptoms of conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. There is now growing evidence that it also works with children who have developmental trauma. It is currently being researched by Bessel van der Kolk in Boston with developmentally traumatised children.
Family Futures’ Registered Manager, Alan Burnell, says a new model is needed for the Adoption Support Fund to better support those families in crisis
The Government’s recognition of post-adoption support is vital and should be applauded, as this will ensure adoption placements don’t break down. However, I don’t believe the Adoption Support Fund has come up with the right formula.
The demand for the Adoption Support Fund has been higher than anticipated. I recognise that. Funding is also finite. However, I think “fair access” and “matched funding” aren’t the best use of the fund.
Family Futures’ Registered Manager, Alan Burnell, dispels the link between ‘adoption’ and ‘children’s difficult behaviour’
The death of John Berger has brought one of his key quotes to the fore – “What we see affects what we understand, what we understand influences what actions we take”.
Last year I became increasingly troubled with the constant reference to adopted children and their difficulties and the need for post-adoption support. What troubled me was seeing the words ‘adoption ‘and ‘fostering’ being connected to children’s problematic behaviour.
The landscape for adoption and post adoption support has changed significantly in 2016, with challenges along the way. And as the sector gears up for regionalisation, there’s no doubt we will continue to see the sands shift in 2017.
Despite the uncertainties that lie ahead, Family Futures is really proud of all it has achieved during 2016. As Christmas approaches and 2016 rolls to a close, we capture Family Futures’ highlights in our top eight list.