Foster carers and the value of therapeutic life story work

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Foster carers and the value of therapeutic life story work

Foster carers deliver Therapeutic Life Story Work

Foster carers and Therapeutic Life Story Work


Foster children have one thing in common, whatever their ages. This is that they will have experience of being separated from their birth parents. This will almost certainly have developed feelings of abandonment. It is a sad fact that that many will also have suffered abuse. Others will have suffered neglect, and many more will have experienced both. And then once in the foster care system, a high proportion will have been subjected to multiple transitions or placement breakdowns. It is not surprising that such children cannot establish a sense of security. The fact is that worryingly high numbers of them are traumatised. Latest figures indicate that around 65% of children coming into foster care are suffering from trauma.

Foster carers need to understand what trauma is. look up the word and the definition is ‘an emotional shock following a stressful event’ or a ‘distressing or emotionally disturbing experience’. Trauma directly threatens the sense of security and safety an individual feels. The normal human coping mechanisms can become compromised. people can feel a sense of terror and personal helplessness. Trauma can be the result of a one-off incident or ongoing experiences. If sustained over a long period, feelings of fear can become entrenched changing behaviour ad the way an individual sees, interprets and experiences the world.

Foster care delivered therapeutically is enormously beneficial.

‘Looked After’ children have often experienced repeated trauma prior to coming into care. What might appear insignificant stressors, can trigger a deep-seated reaction form a child or young person. What is not always realised s that babies can be born traumatised. This can result from the foetus being exposed to alcohol, drugs or domestic abuse. It is known that exposure to such a toxic environment during development can result in profound impacts on the physiological and psychological well-being of an unborn child. Once born, even if placed with loving and attentive foster carers, babies are likely to be affected by the trauma of their pre-birth experiences. It is possible for babies to come into the world drug dependent. This will necessitate post-natal care. The difficulties are still present as babies in this situation are likely to be looked after by multiple caregivers. This effectively means multiple abandonments. This means it is most unlikely they will feel a sense of calm. And it is this that prevents them feeling safe and secure. Worse, it is common for them to feel fear and helplessness. Ultimately, this means that their care needs outweigh those of an average newborn.

This can be a vicious cycle as these babies may have had birth parents who had poor care themselves when young. The result is that they may struggle to give proper care to their baby. Research has shown that the meaning babies assign to experiences is what is termed ‘state dependent’. This means dependent on the quality of the relationship with a baby’s primary carer. If a mother has a history of drug or alcohol addiction – or abuse as a child – she may struggle to provide secure, loving and stable environment despite wishing to do so. She might unintentionally convey a message that the world is a hostile place and that her own parenting cannot be relied upon. It is not uncommon for babies in such an environment to ‘believe’ that they do not in some way ‘deserve’ to have their needs met. What is happening is that as a baby is starting to perceive their surrounding world, it is being interpreted as threatening and unsafe. The impact of this so early on in life can be profound. Babies have no means to protect themselves and are entirely dependent on their parents. The neuro-biological consequences of exposure to prolonged trauma indicate that traumatised children can actually develop completely different neurological patterns to their non-traumatised peers. When trauma has been experienced in the womb or in the first months of a baby’s life, it can continue to affect individuals throughout their later childhood, adolescence and into adulthood. What is especially sad is that children who have been traumatised can experience real difficulties forming and maintaining healthy, trusting attachments with adults  – such as foster carers. Often children find it hard to feel a sense of self-worth. This can imbue a sense of hopelessness. Such feelings can trigger feelings of anger and frustration with behaviour likely to become withdrawn. They may also display controlling behaviours and reject the norms of what most would consider as family life. These patterns of behaviour, embedded as they are, in the neurobiological structure of the child’s brain and body can be long-lasting. It is sobering to consider that fewer than one per cent of all children in England are in the care system, but ‘looked after’ children comprise forty-four per cent of girls in custody and thirty per cent of boys. (Ministry of Justice Report 2012).

The role of the Therapeutic Life Story Work.

Life story work has always been important for children coming into foster care. It has different manifestations. It can use the recollections of the child as a basis, or a life history will be provided by a social worker – or other childcare professional. Using one or other of these approaches has been the standard approach. The issue of dealing with traumatised children as a group is becoming more pressing. This is because around sixty-five per cent of children coming into care are traumatised in some way. Therapeutic Life Story Work is a development which enables children or young people to investigate their unique history in such a manner they can comprehend the behaviours and feelings they have in the home they are living in.

Put simply, Therapeutic Life Story Work provides a traumatised child with an opportunity to better understand how their past directly affects their present. Because trauma is highly likely to affect a child emotionally, physically and developmentally, if they can utilise their own history to imagine a different future. This can have a transformative effect.

The work John Bowlby who referenced an individuals ‘internal working’ model is well known. It describes a cognitive framework for comprehending the world, the self and other people. Traumatised children perceive the world as an unsafe place. Bowlby’s evolutionary theory of attachment explains why. It suggests that babies are biologically pre-programmed to form attachments as this increases their chances of survival. Such attachment behaviours Bowlby believed to be instinctive.  These will be triggered by conditions that threaten separation, insecurity and fear. Bowlby argued that the relationship with the mother creates a vital and close bond. If this maternal attachment relationship is not initiated or breaks down, this can result in serious and negative consequences. This means that ideally, a child should have continuous care from its mother for at least the first two years of its life. He suggested that if this attachment is broken during this critical period, a child will suffer irreversible long-term consequences. This will result in social, cognitive and emotional problems for the child. Bowlby described these effects as a result of Maternal Deprivation. This has profound implications for the individual and society as a whole. And this can be appreciated when the long-term consequences of maternal deprivation could include:

  • reduced intelligence;
  • increased aggression;
  • delinquency;
  • depression;
  • affection less psychopathy.

This must in some part explain the aforementioned statistics, which highlight the preponderance of looked after children who end up in the penal system. Bowlby has had his critics over the years. it has been pointed out by some researchers that it is only in a small percentage of human societies that mothers are the exclusive caregivers. Others have argued that a stable network of adults are able to provide adequate care. It’s thought this may offer advantages over a model where a mother has to meet all the needs of a child. The position of the mother has also to be taken into account. Some research points to children developing better with a mother who is happy rather than one who is frustrated at being at home. Despite these positions, the merits of attachment theory are widely accepted.

The goal is to assist a child and the foster carer to better understand and then repair this internal working model described by Bowlby. Especially as the consequences of deprivation can be mitigated if there is good emotional caregiving following separation. Once repaired, the model should represent the world of the child as safe place because the relationship between them and the foster carer has been built. A structure is put in place that offers clarity about a child’s history as they work through that jointly with their carer. This is a painstaking but effective way of presenting life story work, but it does call for commitment and patience.   

Additional information and support. There is more help and guidance, including information about a special Diploma Course at

Therapeutic Life Story Work is most appropriate for children and youngsters aged between five and seventeen. The model will involve conducting research relying on the child’s files and speaking to a range of professionals – including teachers and carers. It will also involve the birth family in most cases. Considerable effort will be made to get as much information to yield the best understanding of the child’s life history.

The next stage of work is conducted with the child and the foster carer. Their foster carer will provide the means by which the child can differentiate between the foster carer and the birth parents. The foster carer will also provide opportunities for shared enjoyment and emotional support. Throughout all the work, the importance of play is emphasised. Therapeutic experiences are carried over into the home environment. These typically number eighteen sessions spread over a nine-month period. All the activity is recorded onto wallpaper which establishes a record of all the information that has been shared. Details of discussions held and therapeutic interventions that facilitated understanding are also recorded. From all this information on the wallpaper, a life story book is created for the youngster to keep. They can also continue adding to the book.

The benefits of Therapeutic Life Story Work.

This programme can really help a child or young person to settle into their home environment. It also enables them to better understand their own emotions and work through their own feelings of anger. It also provides an improved comprehension of their circumstances – why they are where they are. This can be particularly valuable when they are moving from one placement to another. For these reasons, Therapeutic Life Story Work can have a powerful and positive effect.

What makes a fostering partnership with Team Rainbow so special?

We take the time and trouble to inform and educate our foster carers – as well as anyone who may have an interest in fostering. The following is a quick guide:

Foster care can mean different things to different people. Caring for children certainly requires special skills. There are many agencies, but we pride ourselves, especially in the way we work in partnership with our foster carers to ensure the welfare of our children is paramount at all times.

Our children are not adopted, they are fostered. Remember: adoptive parents have full legal responsibility for a child. Foster care and adoption differ as a child who is fostered is the legal responsibility of their ‘corporate parent’ which is the Local Authority.

We build the parenting skills of our carers so they can deal with the emotional demands a child or young person may place on them. Children in foster care come in all shapes and sizes – children with disabilities need foster parents – as well as youngsters who have experienced prior neglect and/or abuse.

The foster care system can often seem a confusing place for people when they first apply. A foster family with Rainbow will always be able to count upon our commitment to providing the best support and training – at all times. This means Rainbow offers plenty of respite care.

At the moment there are many more foster families needed to provide foster homes in the country. – some 8,000 additional families to provide love, security and advocacy for those children that they care for.

Becoming a foster parent with Rainbow could well be one of the most rewarding things you have ever done. Career opportunities we offer – combined with our ongoing free training packages – means you could be earning up to £40,000 per annum as a fully trained therapeutic foster carer. If you develop the expertise to foster teenagers, sibling groups or indeed manage parent and child placements, your earnings will rise as you become more experienced in areas such as these.

At Rainbow, some of the children we have do go for adoption if a long term placement has worked out well for all concerned. Adoptive parents are also in high demand right across the country.

Therapeutic fostering careers with Rainbow in London and further afield.

As one of the leading Independent Fostering Agencies in the UK, we now have offices in Birmingham and Manchester as well as London. If you live in either of these areas and are keen to find out more about becoming a therapeutic foster carer call our National Line 0330 311 2845 today. To become a therapeutic foster carer you will need to have specialist training so that you can support children with complex needs. The kind of children that will have attachment issues that necessitate specialist therapeutic intervention from trained professionals. Therapeutic foster carers support the recovery programmes implemented for children and young people.

Our community welcomes all those determined to make a special difference to the lives and prospects of young people. Most people are eligible to foster: we have carers who are single/divorced/married. Then we also have foster couples who co-habit – with or without children. Rainbow has also trained many same-sex couples from the LGBT+ community to foster.

Find out more about therapeutic fostering with us at

More general information is available at

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