What is the Best Way to Give Children and Young People in Care Some Control?

Posted on 17 December 2015 by Barbara Schwalm

A young boy laughs as he swings on a monkey bar

An important part of raising a child is giving him or her the opportunity to make their own decisions in an appropriate manner. This may be allowing a five year old to select which pair of socks to wear, to asking a 10 year old to decide what sport she would like to play, to encouraging a 15 year old to choose for himself what subjects to study at school.

Children in care are just the same. When children are given choices, it helps them feel like they have some power and control over what they do, and is a step in growing up.

In particular, children and young people who have experienced complex trauma often feel safer when they have a sense of control. It communicates that we trust them. It gives them confidence in their own choices and is an important part of growing up.

As foster carers, you can help to actively empower a child or young person in care by creating opportunities for them to make their own choices where appropriate. A good way to start giving children choices is to select two or three things and let the child choose from them. As they get older, you can involve children in the decision-making process for, say, what activities they are going to participate in for the week or how they will wear their hair. 

In more challenging situations, you can use the ‘When-Then’ strategy. If a child or young person says to you “I want to go bike riding now”, but their routine requires them to tidy their room, it might feel natural to respond like this: “You can’t go bike riding until you’ve tidied your room”. However it is likely the child or young person only hears the negative aspect of your response.

With the ‘When-Then’ strategy, you are supporting them in their request, while pointing out how to achieve it. For example, you could say “Great, as soon as you tidy your room, we can go. Come on, I’m going to fold some of my clothes too and put a load of washing on. It’s a beautiful day for bike riding today”.

Be mindful to help the child or young person feel in control by phrasing your interactions carefully. For example you can say “When you have made your choice, let me know” or “You can make the decision about this: you can either clean your room slowly and have little time to play, or you can do it quickly and have more time to play”.

If you need to set boundaries or rules, try to always involve the child or young person in the rule setting process. The more involvement they have, the more likely it will be that they will try to follow the rules.

Remember that giving your kids a sense of control isn’t about you losing control, it’s about shifting your own sense of control and focusing more on guiding the child or young person in you care to make the right choices.