Helping children heal – A social worker’s experience

girl with long hair in field of flowers

“Gill, have you seen her hair lately? It’s so long and thick now, it’s beautiful!”

“Oh my goodness, so it is!”

This was me chatting with one of our adoptive mums, whose 6-year-old daughter had come into her home, and heart, just over a year earlier.

Amazingly, her little girl now had the most gorgeous long dark hair where it had looked thin, and ever so slightly straggly, just a year or so before. She has literally blossomed, and her lovely hair was just one of the small and unexpected outward signs we were noticing in a wee girl who has settled into her adoptive home, and who is slowly learning to accept secure and permanent love. She has been able to relax into the knowledge that the fear and uncertainty of moves through birth home and foster care are over, and she is finally home.

So, as she twirled about, we enjoyed and celebrated this little one’s hair, as we celebrate all of the small but very significant milestones along the way for our adopted and fostered children. Because they are somehow just extra special. We know how hard won they are.

Of everything I do as an adoption and fostering social worker, this has to be the part of my work that I love the most. It still always means so much to see a child come into a loving home and begin to heal and recover from incredibly difficult starts in life. And you can bet if their eyes become bright and their hair shiny and thick, the same thing is going on inside. Their self-esteem is growing too, and their confidence in who they are.

Through a child’s eyes

Trying to put myself into the shoes of the children I work with is a huge privilege. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think you can ever completely understand another person’s experience, not unless you’ve had the very same experiences yourself. So I am always, always, aware that I am slightly on the outside, trying to deeply imagine how things must have felt like for a child, and what the impact might be. And of course, we never know everything about what a child might have experienced, so putting together the puzzle of what a child is telling us is a fascinating and often emotive journey.

So, me, and the brave and inspirational mums and dads of our adopted and fostered children, turn into detectives. Poirot hasn’t got a look in! We put our heads together to try to understand children’s early lives and experiences, and the behaviours that come from them. We sit down over a cup of tea (or lots of cups of tea!) to talk, read, ask, explore, and work together to try to make sense of what a child might be telling us and, most importantly, how we can help them.

The games we play…

Helping children heal with theraplay by blowing bubbles

Thankfully, there are many ways we can support children’s recovery. Nurture, love, and consistent routines are key, and play itself is a natural route to helping children who have experienced trauma. At St Andrew’s Children’s Society, one of the approaches we use to support children is Theraplay™. This is a range of therapeutic play techniques designed to help children and their parents create secure and healthy attachment relationships. It’s amazingly effective, and a lot of fun too (more to come on Theraplay™ – watch this blog space!).

Quite often though, (and this always amazes me) children will surprise us, and show us that they can create their very own path to healing by using ordinary and simple games they choose for themselves.

Here’s a couple of examples; I once worked with a 4-year-old little girl who wanted to play ‘hide and seek’ every waking moment. She absolutely loved this game. Oh my, it was exhausting for mum and dad, and utterly boring and repetitive after a while. But they understood their little girl, and they knew that she was playing and replaying that sense of being lost and alone, and then being found, swept up, and hugged and loved. She wanted to feel this, over, and over, and over again. So for quite a long time, this was the very favourite game, above all others. Because this was what she needed most.

Then there’s the 6-year-old little boy who came into his adoptive home carrying a bag of soft toys with him; every single one of them was named and special to him. He called them his ‘family’. So heartbreaking to understand this little boy’s greatest need was to create a feeling of belonging for himself in the face of multiple moves through care.

I also worked with a 5-year-old little boy who went around the house sneaking up behind everyone or hiding and waiting so he could shout and jump out at them. All for the sole purpose of giving them almighty frights. He would do this repeatedly (no fun at all for those on the receiving end, I can tell you!). But we didn’t need to be rocket scientists to understand that he was playing and replaying the fear and terror of his early years, and making sure, time and time again, that really, truthfully, people can be frightened out of their wits, but that nothing bad happens. They were still okay, and it could even be funny.

Toddler playing with teddy bear

Play as therapy

The therapeutic value of play. Ordinary kid’s games really, except there’s a whole extra dimension to them. With adopted and fostered children, we often see an obsessive or repetitive quality about the way they are played out that points to some kind of trauma, and an effort to overcome or reframe difficult experiences through play.

And for the poor, besieged mums and dads at the end of this repetitive behaviour (we know it’s relentless), yes, they say, it does feel just a tiny bit easier that we’re having to play hide and seek for what seems like the zillionth time… or tolerating continually getting sneaked up on… or taking part in long, complicated routines at night to settle every single soft toy into place… because we know that what our child is actually doing is creating repeated experiences of safety and security, and laying down positive new pathways in their brains.
Creating a whole new world view, actually!

Art and music

child drawing on white paper with crayons

Art is another way children tell us the depth and breadth of their experiences. I’ve been astonished at the insight and accuracy in children’s art. It often says so much more than could ever be put into words.

And music too. I know of a little boy whose experiences were so difficult he couldn’t articulate them into speech. But he could sing them. And this he did, with the help of a practitioner skilled in music therapy.

I’m so grateful that there are many imaginative ways to reach a child who is hurting

Child’s play?

We have a throwaway saying in our society; ‘Oh, that’s just child’s play’. Well, I’m happy to say that, through the children I work with, I now understand a whole lot more about the subtle and important meanings and purpose in children’s play. I think anyone who has been fascinated by watching ‘the secret lives of four years olds’ will know exactly what I mean!

In the words of philosopher Martin Buber;

“Play is the exultation of the possible.”

I really like that thought.


If you would like to find out more about adopting or fostering a child through St Andrew’s Children’s Society please call 0131 454 3370 or email


Gill McHaffie

Senior Practitioner