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CYC-Online Issue 11 DECEMBER 1999 / BACK
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Helping children to find their roots

Nicola van Rensburg

The search for connections with our past is a common human need. It is a search for people, places and events in the past which will add understanding and meaning to the present. For some this is a delight, a rich savouring of past experience which warms, confirms and encourages; for others it is an endless scanning of emptiness, the painful pursuit of poorly connected fragments, of times of rejection and confusion and despair. As child care workers we are often confronted by children's yearnings to make sense of their past, to resolve the fears and hurts of their separations from family and home, their “removals" from one foster placement to another, perhaps one children's institution to another. We need to be sensitive to their need to come to terms with the past so that they can achieve some degree of mastery over the present “and hope for the future. How often do we find a tattered photograph of some significant person taped up inside their cupboard door, an ordinary-looking possession or article of clothing which seems to have some special significance or fiercely guarded value?

Personal albums
I have often used Life Books “personal albums or scrapbooks “to help children reassemble the significant people and events in their lives. This concrete collection of what is important and familiar becomes something they can turn to with much satisfaction and reassurance, perhaps restoring some continuity to the broken pieces of their lives. The memories are, of course, often unhappy memories. It is important therefore that making up a Life Book is something a child care worker does together with the child.

Coming to grips with realities in their past can be hurtful, and children often use denial and evasion to avoid facing up to these. The information they rediscover is often uncomfortable and disturbing, and they need support in dealing with this. When she was three or four, a child's experiences of rejection or separation were devastating, since she had little capacity to grasp what was happening. What we as child care workers can do, is help her to recall that experience, not only with the better understanding she now has as an older child, but also with us alongside her to allow, to reflect and share her feelings.

Letting a little light and air in amongst the skeletons in the cupboard often robs them of the power to threaten and frighten, and makes it easier for children to incorporate them with meaning into their life histories. The effort and time we put into helping youngsters to find their roots, though difficult, pays dividends in their easier acceptance of the past, and in freeing their energy for constructively facing the present and the future.

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