Before we can address why compassion focused care is essential in the childcare industry, it is prudent to explain what compassion is.
In my opinion, the concept of compassion is best articulated through the teaching of the Dalai Lama XIV. The Dalai Lama stated in The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living that “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion”.
Compassion relates to the understanding, concern and empathy we have as human beings towards ourselves and others. To me, when someone is showing compassion towards someone else, it involves being non-judgemental and showing that person that you care through actively listening and responding with empathy.
I have written this blog to explain why I think compassion focused care is essential in the childcare industry. I will discuss the importance of compassion in relation to the young people and why they benefit from this approach.
Children are placed into care for a variety of different reasons. Usually, this is because they have been exposed to abuse (physical, sexual or emotional), or neglect.
Often, children who are made subject of a Full Care Order have experienced a multitude of abuse during their childhood. They are also likely to be placed in numerous settings throughout their time in care. This could include foster care, respite care and residential settings.
These adverse and transient life experiences contribute to the development of the exposed child’s emotional and behavioural difficulties.
However, these past experiences can be forgotten by the foster carers or other professionals working with the child. This is because they are seeing the challenging behaviour of the child. They are seeing: the missing episodes, the verbal and physical aggression, the self-harm, the sexualised behaviour, the difficulties with the child’s peers, schooling and relationships with adults.
Although these behaviours are a manifestation of the child’s past traumatic experiences, these professionals are on the frontline trying to manage the behaviour. This behaviour is often mistaken as the child and not a response to trauma which has helped them to survive for so long. These children are sensitised to threat and they will often perceive threat in situations we might usually consider as innocuous.
Often, especially in foster care, professionals are not adequately trained or supported to manage challenging behaviour. Therefore, under increasing stress and burnout they can judge and blame the young person for their behaviour. This mirrors how the child has been blamed by their family during their early childhood.
For example, I have worked with adolescents who have disclosed that their parents have blamed them for the situations the family have faced, (e.g. miscarriages or for being taken away from their family). The child internalises this blame and believes it because it is what they have always been told. They blame themselves for the abuse that has occurred and the placement breakdowns they have experienced. You may think why would they do this?
However, this is human nature and completely natural, we have always blamed ourselves for things that have happened. The reason why we blame ourselves is, in my view, best articulated in Dr. Deborah Lee’s book The Compassionate Mind Approach to: Recovering from Trauma using Compassion Focused Therapy. Paraphrasing Dr Deborah Lee, all we have to do is to take a look at history when we used to worship pagan gods and make animal sacrifices, did we blame the gods when the sacrifice didn’t work? No, we blamed ourselves, because we didn’t pray enough or make a large enough sacrifice. Why is that? Why would we blame someone else?
It is easier to accept that we were in control of the situation than to admit that something happened that was beyond our control and that we were powerless to prevent. This is a truly scary thought… and this is exactly what the child has experienced, someone more powerful than them taking advantage of them and making them feel powerless and out of control.
Therefore, the children in care that professionals work with have already developed core beliefs that what has and will happen to them is their fault. This impacts the child’s self-esteem, self-concept and resiliency. It can also leave them feeling hopeless about the future and resigned to having a life full of unhappiness and threat.
It is our duty as care professionals to develop the child’s sense of self and compassion for themselves. This is beneficial because the child can develop their self-esteem, self-worth and resiliency. Children need to feel safe and supported and a compassion-focused approach can empower children to be able to self-soothe and manage difficult thoughts and feelings. As professionals, we can help children in their journey through a multitude of ways.
Firstly, we can speak to the child in a non-judgemental and compassionate way. This involves avoiding language such as ‘manipulative’, ‘placing herself at risk’, ‘attention seeking’, ‘it’s your fault’. Changing our language is relatively easy to do, it involves little effort but the impact can be so significant.
Imagine how you would feel if the reports, case notes you are writing were about you and that you will see them and your family will see them also. How would you feel if someone wrote that you were ‘attention seeking’ when you felt distressed? Why write something that you wouldn’t write about yourself? There is not a person alive who does not want care or interaction in some form from another. It is a completely normal human response. Why are we blaming children for this?
Secondly, we can remind ourselves of the child’s early life experiences and imagine what that may have felt like for the child. For example, a child who has experienced ten placement breakdowns is likely to feel scared about being abandoned and not being cared for. They are likely to distrust carers and may struggle to form therapeutic attachments because when they have, they have been let down.
Reminding ourselves of these experiences can help us see the primary task and understand that the child’s behaviour is communication. They are communicating to you that they feel out of control, unsafe and scared. Children act the way they do because it has kept them safe and it is learnt behaviour that has been reinforced over time.
Thirdly, we can introduce techniques and exercises that help to develop self-compassion, self-soothing and alleviate emotional distress. For example, providing a child with a sensory smell (a comforting essential oil that they like), when they are feeling distressed can ground them and help to soothe them. This is because our sense of smell is heavily linked to our survival instincts. Our survival instincts keep us alive. For example, when we smell smoke, we think fire.
By the same premise, when we are feeling distressed and threatened, a comforting smell can reduce this distress. There are also many other techniques and exercises that can be utilised in order to elicit compassion and reduce emotional distress.
Overall, these methods can lead the child to feel understood and feel safe. Knowing that those close to them are not judging them and that they truly care. This can help build the therapeutic relationship and help the child to trust those working with them. It can have a truly cathartic impact on the child. The aim is to instil the child with hope, hope for the future. Let’s help the children to internalise that what has happened is not their fault. Let’s teach them how to regulate their emotions and empower them to help themselves and help others. Isn’t that what we are here for?