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How to support the emotional needs of children in your care

Discover the critical emotional needs of children, the impact of not meeting these needs, and how you can support the emotional needs of children in your care.

May 21 2024 - 5 min read

What are the Basic Needs of a Child?

Yes, food, water and a safe home are all basic needs, but so are emotional needs. Often overlooked, emotional needs play a pivotal role in shaping a child’s perception of the world and can impact their relationships, aspirations and their ability to cope with stress. Part of the role of the foster carer is to help meet all these basic needs, and meeting the emotional needs of a foster child can be more complex due to trauma and difficult childhood experiences.

At FCA Scotland, we provide 24/7 support for foster carers and extensive training, working collaboratively with you to meet these needs.

What are the Emotional Needs of Children and Young People?

There are six critical emotional needs for children and young people; they all play an essential role in the overall emotional well-being of the child or young person in your care.

  1. Emotional Safety - is the knowledge that you can share your emotions with another person without fear of judgement or reprisal.
  2. Connection - is the knowledge that someone understands you and wants to know your thoughts and feelings.
  3. Acceptance - is being appreciated for your individuality, thoughts and feelings.
  4. Significance - is about having a purpose and feeling valued.
  5. Autonomy - is feeling like you have some control over decisions in your life.
  6. Respect - is feeling like your opinions matter and being treated with kindness and consideration.

Neglected emotional needs can adversely affect the lives of children and young people, now and in adulthood, for example:

  • They may be unable to regulate emotions, experience outbursts of rage or even suppress emotions.
  • If they don't feel emotionally safe or connected, they may partake in risky behaviours and use substances to cope.
  • They may act out, refusing to get dressed or bathe to grasp a sense of control or to feel significant.
  • They may struggle to respect themselves or know how to respect others.
  • They may struggle socially, have low self-esteem or lack the ability to empathise with others.
  • They may have an increased risk of mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety.

Looked-after children are more likely to have had their emotional needs overlooked. They may have trauma and grief or could have experienced emotional abuse. Instability and being in the care system can also impact emotional well-being; they may not trust adults and lack healthy attachments. By understanding emotional needs, you can build strategies to ensure that the children and young people in your care are having their emotional needs met from this point forward.

Supporting the Emotional Needs of Children in Care

One of the essential elements of understanding the emotional needs of children in care is identifying suitable moments to enhance them.

Scenario – Your Foster Child Falls Out with Their Best Friend

Your foster child returns from school upset because they've fallen out with their best friend; this is a common occurrence, and they seem to fall out at least once a week.

You could respond by saying, 'Don't worry, you'll make new friends' or 'You're always falling out. You'll be friends again tomorrow.’ Although these responses seem supportive, they don't invite your foster child to expand on their experiences and tell you how they feel about them.

Instead, you could say, 'I'm sorry you have had a falling out with your friend. Would you like to tell me what happened?' By doing this, you are opening the conversation and providing the child in your care a safe place to share their emotions, aiding emotional safety and connection with you. In the future, if they are experiencing emotional distress and need someone to talk to, they know they can count on you. Additionally, by not shutting them down and being non-judgmental in your approach, you are telling them that it's ok to have emotions.

When they are calm, you could approach them and talk about the emotions they experienced. If they are young, you could teach them about naming the emotions they experienced. You can do this by using worksheets that display faces of different emotions. By doing this, along with teaching them coping mechanisms - such as stroking a pet, reading, or going outside - you are helping them become aware of their emotions so they can learn to self-regulate.

Scenario – Your Foster Child Asks for an Expensive Item

Your foster child may come to you asking for a pair of expensive trainers or a new phone, and you don't believe they need either. You could say, 'No, you don't need a new phone or trainers,' but by doing so, you are shutting down their wants and what they feel they need.

Instead, allow them to explain why they feel they need the expensive item. Once they have, you don't have to say 'yes', but you can open the conversation and teach them about saving for that item and having a goal to work towards, an important life skill that will help them in adulthood. Listening to them and helping them achieve a goal demonstrates your respect for their wishes and could enhance feelings of connection and significance.

Scenario – Your Foster Child is Expressing Big Emotions

The child in your care walks in from school and starts shouting at you when you ask them a question. They may have had an altercation with a teacher or peer at school. Your foster child often behaves in this way, so you roll your eyes and criticise their behaviour. By doing so, you could make them feel rejected or ashamed and trigger negative feelings from past experiences.

Instead, try to understand the root cause of their behaviour and listen to what they have to say. By doing so, you are accepting your foster child for who they are and the survival strategies they use to deal with stressful situations. When they are calm, see if they would like to talk; you could encourage them to journal their feelings as a healthy outlet for their emotions or go for a jog to relieve stress.

Giving Children and Young People Choices

Another way you can support your foster child's emotional needs is by giving them some autonomy. Erikson's theory of development suggests that children's desire for independence begins between the ages of 18 months and three years. You can give the child or young person in your care some safeguarded choices. For example, they could choose the film you watch, but you can limit that choice to protect them by only allowing them to pick from a safe selection with the appropriate age certificate. You could let them decide on an activity for the family to do at the weekend, providing two options so they aren't overwhelmed by the choice. These small acts of choice can give foster children the feeling of having some control over their lives, and by letting them choose, you are demonstrating that you respect their opinions.

Tips for Helping Children Understand Their Emotions

You can help the child or young person in your care explore their emotions in a variety of ways, such as:

  • Picture books can help children understand, interpret and manage their feelings.
  • Music can help children cope with intense emotions. They can use it to express feelings they can't express verbally by playing an instrument or listening to music that conveys their mood. You can learn a lot about a child's emotional well-being through their music choices.
  • Art is the ultimate freedom of expression. You could encourage them to draw how they feel to help them make sense of their emotions and help you get a clear picture of their emotional well-being.
  • Journaling provides an outlet for emotions and can be excellent for helping children understand their triggers, track changes in their moods and manage their responses.
  • Mindfulness can encourage your foster child to slow down and become aware of their emotions in a particular moment, enabling them to respond healthily.

Things to Remember:

  • You are only human - if you get frustrated in a situation and react rather than thoughtfully respond, when things have calmed down, take a moment to talk to your foster child. You can apologise and explain that the reason you are feeling frustrated is because you care.
  • Consistency - emotional needs are ongoing; although every moment matters, you can't meet them unless you consistently respond to the child in your care with their emotional well-being in mind.
  • Reach out - FCA Scotland is here to support you 24/7. Talk to your supervising social and other foster parents; they may be able to offer you further strategies and tell you what's worked for them.
  • Be a role model - Children and young people are impressionable, so nurture your emotional well-being and model emotional regulation.

How FCA Scotland Supports Emotional Needs

At FCA Scotland, we believe in making a positive and lasting difference to children and young people in care, including their emotional needs. Here's how we achieve this:

  • Participation - We have created a culture that encourages and empowers children and young people to participate in decisions that influence services, activities and events through the young people's forum.
  • Educational Support - we strive to help children and young people meet their full potential and feel significant by offering specialist support from our Education Co-ordinator and partnering with local authorities to secure their educational needs.
  • Foster Carer Training - our extensive training includes courses such as 'Emotional Needs of Children and Young People' that equip you on your fostering journey.
  • Team Parenting - our network of childcare experts includes professionals such as therapists who work with children and young people to support their well-being.

If you foster with FCA Scotland, you’ll be part of an agency committed to keeping Scotland’s Promise. The Promise, made by Scotland in 2020, came about after an independent care review highlighted the shortcomings of the previous care system. Therefore, Scotland made The Promise to ensure children and families are always at the centre of decisions. It is a commitment to improving the lives of children and young people in care and helps FCA Scotland achieve our goal of making a difference that lasts a lifetime.

If you are a foster carer and want to transfer fostering agencies or are new to fostering and want to learn more about becoming a foster carer, make an enquiry!

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