Social and Emotional Care
Why is social and emotional care important?
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people experience higher rates of both social and emotional wellbeing problems and mental disorders than other Australians. These can result from grief and loss, specific to children-transgenerational trauma, child development problems, child removals, family breakdowns, cultural dislocations, racism and social disadvantage (as explained in other sections).
There are often a number of situations where an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander child has been cut off from family, community, culture and spirituality, such as an out-of-home care placement with non-Indigenous families or non-Indigenous relative carer.
Situations where the child is separated from their family, culture and spirituality put the child in “great risk of psychological, health, development and educational problems.” They suffer as children and later as adults from the grief and loneliness of not belonging.3
As the carer of a child who has been removed from their family it is so important for you to understand what the child has gone through and experienced. This may include grief, loss and trauma, intergenerational trauma as detailed in this and other sections.
In particular you should come to know, how this has impacted on their wellbeing, how it could possibly affect them while in your care and how it may impact them in the long term. Their emotional and social wellbeing needs your encouragement, support and awareness.
Grief, loss and trauma
Like adults, children can be deeply affected by loss, grief and traumatic experiences. While everyone has a different way of grieving, common grief reactions in children include:
- Acting out feelings, rather than talking;
- Changes in eating, sleeping and behaviour;
- Wanting to sleep in bed with an adult;
- Using age inappropriate behaviours, such as bed wetting or sucking their thumb;
- Being angry, frustrated or restless;
- Lacking energy and concentration at kindergarten or school.
If you believe the child in your care is experiencing serious trauma, refer the child to an appropriate counseling service. Ask for support at your local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander service and speak to your case worker.
The past trauma that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have experienced can have consequences across generations as adults unresolved trauma is ‘passed onto’ their children.
Racism is an unfortunate reality within our society.
As a non-Indigenous person caring for an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander child you may need to deal with the consequences of the child being a victim of racism at school, amongst his or her friends, in the community or even in your home or neighbourhood.
It is important to develop strategies to deal with racism before it arises or gets out of control. In dealing with racism and bullying, you may want to consider the following:
- Understand that there are laws that make it illegal to discriminate against an individual or group based on their cultural background.
- Lead by example, carers can be a positive role model for the child. Don’t make racist slurs or jokes about other people’s cultures. Do not use expressions such as ‘Abo’ or ‘black’ as they are used as forms of abuse toward Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Demonstrate respect for Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander peoples in your community and in different sectors.
- Make the home environment open to discussions and debates so children and young people can speak freely about how racism affects them.
- Value diversity-express respect for role models that may have suffered from racism and bullying and still achieved great heights.
- Encourage free expression from the child but don’t make promises you cannot keep, such as ‘I’m going to make sure this never happens to you again.
In order to support and maintain the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander child’s emotional care/health you (the carer) should be aware and understand how important it is to repair their spirit. This is where you could try your best to ensure that the child is still connected or reconnecting with country, language and culture, to celebrate their Aboriginality.4
What can you do?
“The trauma and abuse the child in your care may have experienced will affect them whilst they are in your care, and most likely for the rest of their lives. The very fact that they have been separated from their family, whether it is a short or long-term ‘thing’ can be a traumatic process for the child-these can create feelings of loss and grief for them. ‘They could feel hurt and not have much trust in anyone.” 5
TIPS to support the child
and make them feel safe whilst in your care
- Be open; let them know you are there to talk to them. Ask them how they are going. Make sure you provide an open and supportive space for them to express their emotions. To assist in this process, you may also want to be able to talk about your feelings.
- Let them know that it is okay to be angry, sad or cry.
- Reassure them, by acknowledging and validating their feelings. Let them know that is it not their fault.
- Participate in activities, which may assist in the healing process. Things such as, drawing, and/or writing a letter or poem about how they feel.
- Be aware of any signs or indications as to whether the child may not be coping.
- Try as best as you can to be consistent with family/house routines.
- Set boundaries, without being too harsh or intimidating. Explain the reasons for the house rules, so that they child feels loved, safe and supported.
- It is also important to give the child autonomy. Provide them with choices and give them responsibilities when able.
- If their behaviour becomes difficult to handle, remain as calm as possible, so you are able to demonstrate how to manage emotions and feelings.
- Make them feel loved, with hugs and cuddles-it is important for kids to feel warmth and closeness. However, be sensitive to the fact that human contact for the child could be associated with their past experiences (trauma/abuse). As them if this is okay? As well as being receptive to the way they respond and change your interaction to make them feel as comfortable as possible.
- Don’t leave them alone for long periods
- Make sure they are sleeping well and getting sufficient rest
- Throughout the process of supporting and loving the child, while they are going through difficult times, do your best to be culturally aware and appropriate.
- Try to keep them connected to their family, community and land, so that way they don’t feel as though they have lost everything.
- Try your best to gain as much knowledge and professional advice as possible, so that you are able to respond in the best and most appropriate way. It is likely that you will need to seek out external assistance, either from the caseworker and an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander specific service.
Links to further readings and resources
1N. Purdie, P. Dudgeon and R. Walker. Working Together: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Mental Health and Wellbeing Practices, (2010), p76.
2National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation, (2012).
3SNAICC Policy Paper, Achieving Stable and Culturally Strong Out of Home Care for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children,(2005), p9
4 Mental Health and Wellbeing: Supporting and Promoting Aboriginal Mental Health, p3
5Raising them Strong, Support for Aboriginal kinship and foster carers in NSW, (2011).