I have been reflecting recently on how we help children to make sense of the reality of a parent who has been abusive or unable to provide good-enough parenting, and the child has been taken into care. But, before we can do this, we need to understand why children are taken into care. What might have happened in their lives to precipitate this?
When a parent’s care has resulted in or is ‘likely to’ result in significant harm to a child, he or she will be placed into the care of the local authority and the state becomes their parent. Contrary to media myth, it is not possible for a child to be taken away from a birth parent without a robust amount of evidence produced in court to prove that their care is not good-enough.1
We’re not talking here about families going through a period of adversity when parents become bad tempered and illogical and take their minds off the job of parenting for a while. This can happen in any family system and these days parents are frequently stressed by the competing demands of earning a living in a recession and supporting children to grow into happy and well-balanced young people who participate fully in the social world. Families are often short on time as well as money. They are stretched to their limits but are able to take good-enough care of their children: to keep them safe, help them to feel loved, and give predictable and consistent levels of care.
In my work as an expert witness in family court cases, I see many parents who do not manage a good-enough level of care; they can be divided into two categories. The first is when harm is based on cruelty and intent; the second is when harm arises from multiple conspiring circumstances, such as when a child’s needs are neglected because of very poor parenting skills. I have come across very few cases in the first category, where parents are intentionally cruel and harmful, but plenty of such cases do exist. These cases become matters for criminal law, and children will be placed in local authority care. Our work in this field is often about helping a child to integrate the trauma of harm in their young and impressionable mind.
The second category is most common, and comprises about 90 per cent of the cases with which I deal. These are cases where a constellation of factors has conspired to reduce the circumstances of the parent and the overall quality of care. These factors include stress, undiagnosed and untreated mental health conditions, low income, learning difficulties, problems with drug and alcohol addiction and domestic violence. It is also highly likely, but not always the case, that the parent will have an insecure pattern of attachment from their own childhood, when they experienced a lack of containment, safety, love and care. A parent’s childhood neglect crosses the generations and is mirrored and replicated in their care of their children. Parents are often completely unconscious of neglectful tendencies stored in their memory systems. More usually, they have no idea of the developmental needs of their child. They may expect the child to be more independent and to be able to take care of their own needs, and so ignore their need for support. Frequently, older children in the family are expected to take care of the needs of the younger children, which places a burden on the older siblings and erases fun and play from their own lives. Parents often have had insecure backgrounds themselves or may struggle to read their child’s communications and distress signals, culminating in great anxiety for the child.
We may think it would be easy for such parents to change their behaviour but they often struggle with these problems and are unable to find the right amount of help within the given time frame, and so lose their children to the care system.
How can we help?
So, given that we are unable to prevent children entering the care system in the first place, how do we help a child think about a parent who has not been good-enough in any of these ways?
We are often faced with a paradox in therapy, which can be stated as: ‘I love my parent even if they hurt me.’ Life cannot get more confusing for a child – or for an adult. I observe many children and adults who struggle with their preoccupation with this dilemma. Separation from a parent, even if they are a harmful and neglectful parent, will always be a scar across the mind of a child and cause a deep sense of sadness and loss – and probably some despair. It will form part of their life story and, at some stage, depending on the care or therapy that they receive, it will fall to an adult to help a child to integrate that unfathomable experience into their mind in order to bring some resolution.
These conflicting tensions of love, fear and harm can often disturb a child so deeply that it affects their learning, disorganises their behaviour, makes them afraid of relationships with carers and/or pushes them into psychotic states. Children in the care system are frequently trying to live with unresolved trauma resulting from harm; it pervades their dreams and makes them afraid to sleep. They can be left full of anxiety and unable to envision goals or experience happiness – let alone get on with the developmental tasks of childhood through play and forming relationships. Yet somehow the damaging and pathogenic parenting relationships remain precious in the child’s mind. So, what can we do to help?
First, tread carefully around the representations that a child may have of their abusing or less-than-good-enough parent. The representations will usually idealise the parent and paint them as benign. We cannot take that safe haven away from a child. However the child will also frequently blame someone else for the sense of harm or fear with which they are left. Because they are likely to act out their fear, it is often the substitute carer who has to organise the waves of emotion that threaten to overwhelm the child’s life and the carer’s relationship with the child.
A child will commonly internalise abusive experiences: they will lock away an experience in their mind and all the time view themselves as the cause of the problem and blame themselves for what has gone wrong. It is easier and more comfortable for the child to hold him or herself to blame for what has gone wrong than to accept that their parent has been harmful to them. This redirecting of psychic energy then triggers a pattern or system that erodes the child’s self-belief and undermines their self-esteem. They are bad – therefore they deserve bad things. This is why we have to tread carefully around their misconceptions.
Pick up unconscious communication
I have spent many hours trying to come up with constructive ways to help a child find peace of mind in relation to pathogenic parents. The most helpful and hopeful starting point is where the practitioner is able to pick up on the unconscious communication of the child. This will often mean that the therapist is affected by the child’s fears or disturbance. But it is at the point where we can feel that despair or where we can fear for and with the child that we can begin to show them that we understand their struggle. This is the signal that we are engaged in a healing process. It is also why therapists need supervision and why they may find this job difficult. I don’t know of any other profession where being helpful involves the deeply unsettling act of being disturbed by the disturbance of another.
This might be described as ‘the use of empathy as a therapeutic tool’ or reading the transference material. It is that – but it is more. It reflects, in my view, the depth of communication that is possible between human beings – whether that communication is joyful or full of despair. Initially, we at least have to be open to these communications. As therapists, we therefore need a good store of information in our heads about this unique and primitive process of communication if we are to help a child with the processing of these difficult states of mind.
Create the right environment
On the other hand, it’s worth noting that human beings are very efficient at hiding the effects of trauma and abuse both from themselves and from those who care for them. So it is our job to create an environment where sharing thoughts and feelings about difficult things is deeply acceptable and praiseworthy, so that ultimately we make it possible for children to share their worst fears or their worst secrets, their painful dreams and their negative emotions.
It is also our job to begin to imagine how unimaginable this is for a child. The best carers that I know, who get the best results in terms of helping children to settle, are those who can find ways to share the hidden or unconscious story with the child and can organise it in their own mind before helping the child to integrate it into theirs.
Never name and blame
If the first rule is to be open to the communication, the second rule is not to name and blame the parent. How tempting it is to get mad at parental harm or incompetence. It is natural, and part of the journey of protecting the child, to want to condemn such a parent, but we cannot allow ourselves to fall into this trap. We have to be able to tolerate various states of mind and emotions until we reach our destination, which is to help the child with integration, and this is often achieved by a deeper understanding of ourselves and our own processes. We might, for example, be hampered by our own worst fears; our own defences may get in the way and inhibit the child’s flow of emotional information.
Name the experience
Good professionals find various positive ways to begin to talk about the parents who have failed their children. We can hardly say to a child ‘You drew the short straw there!’ or ‘Nobody said life was a level playing field’. It may be tempting to be over-sympathetic to the point of sentimentality. But the best stance I have found is one of being able to name the experience. So it could be both helpful and accurate to say ‘Your parents loved you but did not know the rules of being a parent or have the skills to look after you, and they did not understand how children think’. These descriptions tend to invoke discussion at an age-appropriate level and at least they separate out the manageable from the unmanageable. Besides, the statement is true. I have never yet met a parent who lost their children into care who did not say ‘I love my kids, they mean everything to me’. When parents say this, they really mean it. The inconvenient truth is that parents who harm their children or fail to care for them to an acceptable standard frequently adore them. And so, often, they are left with the mind-numbing task of integrating (usually for the rest of their lives) the terrible thoughts of how they failed their child and lost them.
Help rewrite the script
The next part of the process is for us as professionals to find ingenious and creative ways to rewrite the script in a way that helps the child make sense of their story, by breaking it up into digestible pieces. This is like putting pills in jam so that the child doesn’t taste their bitterness. I often begin ‘I knew a child who had that experience…’, so that young people can realise they are not alone and that other children also have these experiences. Our stories can give children a foothold into their own world. ‘Did I ever tell you about a boy I knew called Danny? He had to go and get looked after by someone else because his mum got cross too much and it frightened him and upset him. One day, his teacher noticed that Danny was frightened and upset at school and he could not go home to his mum that night as the teacher called a social worker who wanted him to go to someone safe.’ A small child might ask, ‘Jo, do you see other kids here or is it just me?’ Part of the child wants to be really special, but it is a perfect opportunity for me to make up a story about another child just like him or her who also struggles with painful thoughts. From then on, the child realises fully and quite excitedly that our time is all about sharing their thoughts.
This flow of information can be achieved through any medium that best suits the child. Children can be engaged in art, music or dance. With older children, some plain talking and well-crafted counselling skills can be just the right approach. A child can also resolve these issues through work with animals or caring for pets. What is clear from the latest neuroscience is that our state of mind will have the biggest influence on the integration of difficult states in a child’s mind. It is our kindly, secure and sensitive responses that will dictate whether or not a child opens their mind to resolution – or closes their mind in the hope of stopping the flow of their story.2 As practitioners, we have to be in a psychologically and emotionally fit state to achieve this.
Let them choose the time
We have to be wise enough to know that a child has every right to close down their story for as long as they wish – and we have to be informed enough to notice the signals that suggest that they want to share their story, or a bite-sized piece of it, with us. The right environment is important and so too is the right time, in relation to the child’s developmental stage, combined with their sense of security. Sometimes enough information has to be fed into the hippocampus (the information-sorter in the brain) for the trauma to be released and processed. And when a child is dealing with recall of trauma, we may have to lower our expectations of their ability to cope with everyday life, so that they can re-process and recover from the trauma.
To help children to integrate and come to terms with the idea that their parent really did not get things right for them, first we have to be willing to engage in a process that may affect our own mind deeply. I recently presented this as the Five Rs – our capacity to ‘receive, resolve, respond, repair and repeat’ the communication with the child.3 Second, we have to learn not to judge the parents who failed in the job and bear in mind that they always would have preferred not to have failed. A compassionate response is our only option, and information processing on our part can frequently help this journey along (back to supervision again). Finally, we give that story back to the child in an age-appropriate and digestible format so that he or she can metabolise the story for now and make sense of their experience.
Of course, children will often revisit the story as their lives progress. A story accepted at the age of five can be reprocessed in a dramatically different way when the child is 10 or 15 – or even in adulthood. The wonderful thing about the mind is that it will process and organise mental material into a tidy cupboard when given the opportunity for reflection and the right amount of information and psychological and emotional support. As practitioners, we are really helping the mind to do its job of self-organisation. Ultimately, our minds are capable of a flow of energy that enhances life. Freeing children’s minds from the difficult circumstances of their parent’s not-good-enough care is one more step towards helping them along to an equal playing field with children who come from ordinary and well-balanced homes where no one is threatened by harm – deliberate or otherwise.
Joanna North is a BACP accredited counsellor/psychotherapist working with children, adults and families, and a graduate member of the British Psychological Society. Her research has focused on case study and helping carers to support children with complex behavioural difficulty. She works as an expert witness for the family court and runs an Ofsted registered adoption support agency.
A version of this article was first published as ‘Thinking about the bad mum or dad’ in the BACP Children & Young People journal (March 2013; pp14–19).
1. North J. Working with the State as parent. Counselling Children and Young People. Lutterworth: BACP. March 2011; 14–16.
2. Siegel J. The mindful therapist. London: Norton; 2010.
3. North J. How to think about caring for a child with difficult behaviour. Devon: Watershed Publishing; 2010.