For many years as a frontline practitioner and later as a respite foster carer, I have often driven children and young people to supervised contact visits with birth family members or to 1:1 session outside of the home. After talking to some workers the other day, we all agreed that these car rides provide opportunities for some of our most powerful conversations to take place with the young people in our care.
Many of us recognise the importance of this uninterrupted, private time with no risk of a direct gaze which often enables children to share and process their experiences and emotions. Then, I had a ‘light bulb’ moment and thought about it in the context of the child’s trauma and attachment needs, and these car conversations made even more sense.
Children who develop in homes where they experience stress and fear because adults are emotionally unavailable due to their own trauma, their mental illness, substance dependency, interpersonal violence, or are perpetrators of sexual or other abuse don’t get to internalise a sense of a safe person or place they can go to, either literally or metaphorically. They have more reactive survival brains and fear/threat responses that are easily triggered.
Daily life can be a brutal assault on their senses, triggering continual fight, flight, freeze, friend or flop responses in a random way so car journeys can feel more contained, predictable and less sensory stimulating. Hence why I have often arrived at the fast food outlet and the young person has preferred to carry on talking and it’s been my anxiety about feeding them which has eventually got us out and into McDonald’s!
Thinking of the children’s early childhood relationships which have often been largely unpredictable, chaotic and/or inconsistent then the time spent with a worker who offers a better attachment experience can be calming and reassuring. A car journey can become a non-threatening, attachment focused, time and space without too much sensory overload with a trusted adult to begin to explore, express and invite a reaction or response to complex, memories issues or concerns. The side of someone’s head who is slightly distracted by driving can offer a less intense interaction allowing a child to think and share what they feel the need too.
Of course, for some youngsters, cars may remind them of traumatic events. I remember a 6 year old telling me how Daddy had hit Mummy in the car, and he had tried to stop him. Then, he showed me how he had tried to wedge himself between them. We talked about how this had felt for him and our journeys gave him a different experience and memories. Other children may find being in a confined space with a relative stranger very frightening and triggering so they may not settle well, may fiddle with things and wriggle about as they get the urge to flee without the opportunity to fulfill this need.
As workers, hopefully we can see car journeys as potential opportunities to listen whilst taking the foot off the ‘find out information/fix it gas, so we can focus on relationship building and just ‘being’ emotionally available and present with the child or youngster in our care. Then, we can offer them a journey that’s not just getting from A to B, but a space that is about them.