Teaching Children How to Self Comfort
Most children in foster care treatment do not know how to self comfort. Some learned how, but their efforts could not match the stressors they experienced in their family. Comforting behaviors are generally learned at a very early age. How the primary caretaker takes care of the child is the very start of a child’s comfort experience. It is from the primary care taker that the child not only gets the comfort that every human being needs, but the learning on how to comfort themselves.
Imagine an infant in her crib, crying, wet, hungry, and no one comes to care for her for several hours. In most cases, these children will eventually go to sleep to find relief from their discomfort (read: pain). While going to sleep is the only thing the baby can do, and it is effective, it does not qualify as self comforting. It is simply a way to avoid the pain of not being comforted. This process, repeated over and over for years adds up to a child who does not know how to self comfort, and when emotional pain strikes, does what they have to in order to avoid pain. On top of that, the child, deeply angry about not being comforted as needed, may reject other’s attempts to do so.
Infants and toddlers often self comfort by putting things into their mouths: thumbs, fingers, fists, binkies, or even toes! Some children rock themselves (or some body part) to sleep. Some children eventually add or substitute a blanket or stuffed animal to cuddle. As children get older, they may find different forms of play or music to be self comforting.
Some children in care may exhibit aberrant forms of self comfort, such as over eating, hoarding food, or frequent and public masturbation. Some older children in their teen years, may even engage in self harm behaviors like “cutting” as a sick form of self comfort.
Children in care can not get enough positive affection from you. By giving these children hugs, pats, tickles, cuddles, and “smootches“, they are fed the affection that they may be very hungry for. While it may not be appropriate for older children to get tickles and “smootches“ from us, they still need hugs! Admittedly, it may be hard at times to offer these affections to a child who has just acted out for the tenth time in one day, but think of it as “medicine”. Our signs of affection for the child tells them that they are valuable and cared for. It also teaches them what healthy affection and comfort looks like.
If a small child (or even a child as old as ten or twelve) is in your care, help them to find a comforting object like a Teddy Bear or blanket. Be sure to let the older child know that this does not make them a baby…you might even playfully hug and snuggle the Teddy Bear yourself to demonstrate! Observe the child closely and note what activities seem to help them calm down. These activities could be something that could be encouraged and developed into a self comforting tools. Try introducing other activities that you or other people use to self comfort: music, exercise, art, or meditation. If you do not have the talent to teach the child an activity that they are interested in, find someone who can.
Teaching the children in our care how to self comfort is a very practical endeavor: when a child can self comfort, they will have fewer acting out episodes, making our lives a bit easier. It is also a profound gift to the child; they will have learned a healthy way to self comfort. It is a gift that could last their whole life.
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