The holiday season: children in care
Mary Utter is an art therapist who trains, consults and educates carers, workers, teachers and directly with children, primarily in the out of home care sector. She shares some possible ways to make the holiday period a positive one for children, particularly in out of home care.
In art therapy, you’re using the creative process as part of the therapeutic communication. It can be in forms such as play therapy, it can be more in the formal creative sense of drawing, creating, building, making things, and other interests the child may have. For example, with adolescents, we can use Pinterest to post photographs or whatever they like to express themselves and explore their identities, struggles and relationships.
Children and young people who have experienced trauma, and children in out of home care, may have a difficult time during the holiday period. And during the normal stages of child development, these holidays can be periods when kids complain about boredom. It’s almost as if the things that once gave them pleasure and interest are no longer meeting the same developmental needs.
Boredom as a feeling still links like all feelings to an underlying need. That feeling state is one of positivity, or negativity – negativity in the sense of being uncomfortable about how we feel – and it still points to a need. When needs are being met, a person gets the feeling of, ‘I’m creative, I’m fun, I’m enjoyable, I can connect with others, I’m good enough, I’m clever’… or one that doesn’t meet the underlying need. That leaves that need still feeling exposed.
So in school holidays, the structure that was once there for children and young people, providing them with stimulus, experiences, social dynamics and connections, changes. And that period of transition comes with new feelings, as does any change: it can be an experience of grief and/or loss. Change can mean a transformation of what was, to what is. So how does that child or young person make sense of it, and gain the self-control then to make choices on what they do, to continue to meet their underlying need? Just because it’s school holidays, it doesn’t mean they suddenly don’t need to learn anything more or experience anything. So the adults around them need to provide them with experiences and ways to do that.
Of course, I’m all for periods of rest. If the children or young person wants to sleep more or have more down time, I think that’s good. But just like any other experience, for example in the high demands of being in a learning environment where we’re demanding a lot of energy and focus from our bodies and our brains, we still need those periods of rest. The same goes for the holiday period. A completely unstructured period of time can feel just as unsafe as the new experience of going into something that’s very structured.
The difference and the meaning making behind the differences is the importance. So in school holidays, you can see the patterns of kids saying, ‘I don’t want to, I don’t have to, I don’t need to’. And I always think about, what are they feeling? Is it frustration, is it boredom, is it ‘I don’t know what to do’, is it ‘I can’t think of anything’? And if that’s what they’re feeling, what does that mean and what can we do about it? And so I treat it as an opportunity for the children and young people to still have experiences, but now these experiences can be shaped quite directly to the individual’s interest; their loves, and/or maybe the gaps that we see in their lives – their skills, or their experiences, or things they would like to have. If we think of adults as the teachers, then the children are the ones who need to learn. So what is it we need to teach them, and what is it they need to learn?
The aim is for the children and young people to have some self-control, to have relationships, to have some awareness of self and other. Dr Bruce Perry talks about the core strengths of healthy child development: attachment, attunement, affiliations, belonging, self-control, self-regulation of emotions, tolerance of others, and respect. And that option in school holidays where you don’t have to be some place at 8.45 or 9 o’clock, the possibilities in everyday tasks such as making breakfast, eating food, can be shaped to that child and their needs, interests and/or feelings.
So how does this holiday period affect children in care? There are higher levels of uncertainty, less ability to have influence and control over the decisions and experiences they have in their lives. For these children and young people, it is important that we reduce feelings of anxiety. Because when we reduce anxiety, we’re reducing stress. We’re reducing the load on the body and the brain and the emotions to allow for growth in other areas. So the holidays can reinforce that child’s story about themselves, of being loved, of having people available for caring for them, of mastering a new skill and having new experiences, and exploring individual interests.
So how do we support children and young people in their care during the holidays?
I think it requires a degree of adults being brave in the emotions that we both feel for the children, and how we think they might be feeling.
As adults in these situations, we can feel so worried about re-traumatising children, of overwhelming them by discussing emotions, or feelings, or holidays, or family, or what meaning they make of everything going on around them. We can be so worried that we give them nothing instead. We give them no language. We give them no space to talk, to explore and to share. And that sends the message that we can’t tolerate them, we’re not interested and we don’t want to acknowledge them. So even that silence has a meaning. But the message it teaches can be different, depending on how the child or young person interprets what the silence is.
I think it is important to talk about holidays, to talk about family, to talk about gifts. We can see what the influence of instant media, instant connection, instant gratification, has on young people; how it shapes the brain, expectations, and social norms, of ourselves and of others as we move through life and understand how the world works, how community works, how culture works. And I think if we focus too much on the external without the connection, we’re sending some pretty confusing messages. If we see a child gets easily overwhelmed and we know that they have difficulty with transitions but we want to plan different activities and experiences that we know they’re really going to love, how do we then prepare both their body and their brain through their relationships so they can have a successful experience in all of these things?
There are lots of good activities that children can engage in during the holiday period that will promote their wellbeing.
Having enough physical exercise is important. Young people and children need outlets for their energy, and need to learn to have different levels of energy for different activities, and that there’s a natural rhythm to that. No one can sustain high levels of energy for long periods of time.
So we have natural troughs, ups and downs throughout the day, and those are periods when we refuel and eat. Those periods are great opportunities in school holidays to also look at the language around food and why we eat, why we take care of ourselves and do all these things so that kids have some ownership over it. I’m not saying they should have all the responsibility in this circumstance, but it is a worthwhile exercise to link into their motivation. Most kids are motivated to do the right thing, motivated to learn skills and to develop. It’s giving them the opportunities and the support to do it, which is really important.
Holidays are also a great time to reinforce where children and young people’s interests already are or could be. Making things can be great, whether it’s food or whether it’s science projects that have different sensory experiences. Due to the neurology of the brain, these sorts of activities will provide sensory feelings that will increase verbalisations. Fabrics, slime, food, sand, all these things are great to engage with, because these activities calm the body and open up the channels of expression. There’s something quite soothing and tactile when you work with something that’s three-dimensional. You’re quite engaged with it.
When it comes to the holidays and children in care, the big question is, how do we want to support the integration of loss? Do we address it, or do we want to deny it? Do we want to acknowledge that there’s death and change, or do we want to say to these children and young people, ‘No no no, you always have to be happy’?
If we accept life experiences are both positive and negative, and if we provide children and young people with the support to negotiate those feelings, and show them that they’re not things to be afraid of, to fear, avoid or deny, then they will have another story ready to help deal with the next experience they have that elicits those same feelings. They have another way of expressing it. They have the means to see themselves as having that sort of empowerement in that interaction.
So in a lead tenant, or in a residential situation, I think it’s not always just about waiting for the kids to say what they want to do. Sometimes it’s about leading as adults. But there can be ways to invite the young person or child to express interests or desires. And sometimes those messages of, ‘I don’t care, do what you want’ or ‘Whatever’ can actually mean, ‘I don’t know how to care about that, because what if I’m disappointed?’.
So is it a coping mechanism? Is it a protective skill? And if that’s how the child or young person feels and is expressing themselves, we can still acknowledge that. It’s still okay. It is what it is. It’s adaptive. Whether that approach is going to work for them for the rest of their life or otherwise, it has a place for now.
So you suss it out. Manage it on an individual basis. Find out if it’s okay to have something small – an object or a project – there, even if the child is saying, ‘No no no’. Or does the child or young person not want to celebrate the holiday at all? Find out if you should manage the situation by saying, ‘I respect that, you don’t have to, you don’t believe in it, that’s not your faith, that’s not your religion’. Or does the child actually want to make a statement against consumerism? Ask them what whey would like to do, how they want to mark the event while everyone else around them is marking it. Do they want to partake in it? What do they want to do?
Because holidays can mean lots of different things to lots of different people. Is it a time to reconnect? Is it a time to give thanks? Is it a time to say what you hope for in the future, or to reflect on where you’ve been? Traditionally, that’s what holidays and rituals were for. Humans haven’t developed as little individuals running around, but as collective groups. And that can be a real challenge in the out-of-home care system. Reinforcing that sense of affiliation and belonging is crucial to one’s development of the sense of self, and to be able to be with others and in other groups. It’s important to develop tolerance and respect for others, form relationships, social skills, practice your emotions.
To say, oh we don’t want to do that because the child or young person might start thinking about their family, and their family means x, isn’t helpful. As a carer, you have to ask yourself, what does it mean to me when I read that person’s story on paper? Is that what it also means to that person? And do I know? Have I asked? Or am I making assumptions? Is that my grief, is that my anger?
I think I use a lot of resources available to me, particularly on the Internet. For great DIY science projects I use the CSIRO website. I use Pinterest a lot, and I know there are a lot of other people in the sector using it in this kind of work.
On Pinterest, you can see what other people are doing, ideas. For instance if you know a child or young person that likes drumming, you’ll find a million different ways to make drums in places like Pinterest.
Youtube is also great for different ideas. If you don’t know how to do an activity, you can just YouTube how to do it.
There’s so much access to information and skills and we don’t always have to be the experts, all the time. Sometimes learning how to do things with children and young people shows them an example of how to be a lifelong learner. It teaches the child that even if they don’t know how to do something, they can figure out if they get help, even if they’ve never done it before, which is a very valuable strength to have.