There’s a book that’s just been published that, I think, may help us to better understand why it is that children in the care system – and adults that have been through it – generally have poorer outcomes in life, whether in relationships, health, education, or employment.
David Robson is a neuroscientist and his book, ‘The Expectation Effect’ (2022), explores how your mindset can transform your life – or otherwise. His research is robust and deals with very specific examples; so, for instance, did you know that people who believe that ageing brings wisdom, live longer and are generally more content? Thus it appears that our beliefs can influence how we cope with life’s challenges and the good outcomes that some achieve – while others falter. Our responses to difficult situations are often the product of our expectations – and our beliefs about our own capacities can influence outcomes.
He doesn’t address the issue of children who have had early adversity in their lives and have been taken into the care system – but can you see how his research can help our understanding here? Children from nurturing families who have built a secure attachment to a parental figure typically have the expectation that they will achieve and be happy in their lives. And they do and they are – even when their parents have not necessarily articulated any expectations. On the other hand, a child whose birth parent has made it clear from the outset – both by actions and by words – that they have little worth and she/he has no expectation that they will achieve, is far less likely to prove that parent wrong. Instead, the child will struggle to believe in their capacity to achieve – to the point where they are almost paralysed by that negative expectation.
A related area of research is around the ‘placebo effect’. Henry K. Beecher came up with this term when he was a doctor in the Second World War and he ran out of morphine when treating injured soldiers in a field hospital. He chose to inject them with a saline solution, telling them it was morphine. 40% of those soldiers who received the saline solution experienced pain reduction and were able to sleep. I would hypothesise that those soldiers for whom the placebo worked were ones who, as a result of their secure attachment, – and thus their trust in parental/authority figures – absolutely believed what they were told by Beecher; with the expectation of pain relief they experienced that physiological response. Those soldiers who experienced no pain relief from the placebo are likely to be those whose expectations were nowhere near as high as those in the 40% – and so were not convinced that their needs were going to be met from the outset. The children that some of us parent in the care system would almost certainly have been in that latter group. They have little expectation of feeling good, their resilience is low and they have limited experience of being given good things.
So, our task is surely to be proactive in generating positive expectations in the children we care for or people we interact with? Each individual is different in what they need from us, but we have to find ways of building their self-esteem so that they do expect good things and have the emotional six-pack they need to deal with life’s adversity.
Martha and Rachel