Sensitivity, in this context, refers to the caregiver's capacity to ‘stand in the shoes' of the child, to think flexibly about what the child may be thinking and feeling and to reflect this back to the child. The sensitive caregiver also thinks about their own feelings and shares them appropriately with the child. The child thus learns to think about and value his or her own ideas and feelings and the thoughts and feelings of others and is helped to reflect on, organise and manage their own feelings and behaviour.

The child's needs and behaviour

Many children from difficult backgrounds have often lacked opportunities to have their thoughts and feelings acknowledged and understood. They may have been in situations where there was no one able or available to help them deal with strong feelings, so panic, anger or despair may have overwhelmed them at times. Or they may have had caregivers who denied their feelings, distorting their sense of reality to the point where they could not discern the ‘truth' of what they felt in any situation. Sometimes, they will have been cared for by adults who could not manage and regulate their own feelings and children may have been blamed or feel themselves to blame for chaos or violence in the household. For a range of reasons, previous caregivers may have been too anxiously absorbed with their own distress or too preoccupied with their own needs to attune themselves to the minds of their children.

Lacking the resource of a safe and containing adult mind or a supportive scaffolding for managing their feelings, children develop their own ways of coping with them. This might involve letting feelings go excessively, using feelings to control others, holding feelings in or denying that they exist at all. Each strategy is problematic in a family setting, where feelings are normally communicated fairly openly, in a managed and regulated way within trusting relationships.

Caregiver thinking and feeling

For new caregivers, a primary task is to reflect on and make sense of their children's feelings and behaviours. They must attempt to tune in to their child, stand in the child's shoes and try to imagine what might this child be thinking and feeling? They must be particularly thoughtful about the child's previous experiences and flexible in their thinking about how these might have shaped his thinking processes and expression of feelings. Although it is painful to do so, the capacity to project oneself into the mind of a child who has been maltreated is important. It is from this starting point that caregivers can begin to think about the child's beliefs and expectations of himself and others and to reflect on how this might connect with his current behaviours.

The caregiver thinking will not only be about what is in the child's mind about the past - it will also be about making sense of the way in which the child will be reacting to daily small events. But the darkness of aspects of the child's history and the impact of the child's anxieties and dysregulated feelings on carers in the present can, if not fully understood, seem to contaminate the mind of the caregiver or even contaminate the cheerful and positive atmosphere of the household. In this context, there is really no substitute for a containing relationship with a thoughtful, reflective social worker, who can bear the pain of thinking about the child's history and current behaviours accurately, without distortion and without being overwhelmed; who can allow the caregiver to reflect honestly on the question, how does this child make me feel?

Caregiving behaviour

With this supportive framework in place, caregivers can begin to adopt a range of approaches geared towards helping children to understand and express their feelings appropriately. An important first stage is that of naming feelings, helping the child to reflect on them, recognise them and think about their origin. Often the expression of feelings is either suppressed or excessive and caregivers must help some children to show feelings more freely and others to contain and moderate them. In order to help children to understand and respond to the feelings of others, caregivers need to feel comfortable in expressing and discussing the full range of their own feelings. They are then in a position to model the fact that both positive and negative feelings can be safely managed. In particular they can show children that mixed feelings are ‘normal' and that combinations of love and anger, longing and distrust, anxiety and eager anticipation are part of the human condition - affecting not only them but also their birth parents, foster carers, friends and social workers.

The child's thinking and feeling

The emotional education provided by sensitive caregivers enables the child to discover that my feelings make sense and I can manage my feelings, gaining confidence that feelings will not become overwhelming to himself or others. Finally, the child can be helped to understand that other people have thoughts and feelings, that must also be addressed and taken into account.

As the child's thinking shifts and develops in these important ways, feelings are better regulated, there is a likelihood of more constructive relationships, greater empathy and more pro-social than antisocial behaviour.

Linked resources

Sensitivity cycle pdf

Positive caregiving approaches

Video clip of foster carers, Sam and Linda, demonstrating sensitivity

Attachment Handbook for Foster Care and Adoption