As the guardian of an unaccompanied child, it is very important to share all information with the child in a culturally sensitive manner. You should be interested but not too curious, especially in the initial phase. By showing an interest in their background, things that are important to them and what they desire, you actively engage with the child’s needs.
The child and their family must have control over what they want to share about the child’s life, their flight and the extended family. Sharing confidential information with a professional is not self-evident for a refugee child, even if the contact between the two of you is good. Distrust and restraint with regard to what you say is the basic attitude of most refugees. Questions are often considered to be intrusive as refugees often have negative experiences with, for example, intelligence services and civil servants who deal with refugees.
The ALFACA-manual developed by Nidos in the Netherlands and its partners provides the following information on culturally sensitive communication:
Culture is dynamic, so knowing about other cultural backgrounds is not enough to improve communication. A professional can only acquire knowledge about the other person by meeting them and having interaction and dialogue. This means empathising with them, being interested in who they are and what is important to them, and respecting their boundaries.
It is important for the unaccompanied child that the conversation is experienced as safe. The intention of the discussion must be clear: agree on the frameworks and talk about what will happen with the information. If the professional has to deal with traumatisation or if there are difficult topics or secrets, it is important to agree on what will/will not be discussed, or to decide when exactly the discussion will stop.
By asking open questions (who, what, how, when), the other person is invited to share things. Active listening requires probing further into what the other person says, this is only possible if you deviate from your planned approach for the interview. The professional has to give them the opportunity to ask questions and has to know their attitude towards different cultures as well as their own. The tendency to favour conformity to dominant social norms is often greater than many people are aware of. It is important to really connect with the other person by having an open approach. In the case of children, it is also important to assess the development level.
In intercultural communication, issues may arise because people interpret behaviour differently. It is therefore important to be conscious of the danger of an ethnocentric bias, putting your own values and standards above universal ones. The following method helps to be aware of and deal with this.
The three-step method on intercultural communication developed by Pinto
Following the three-step method developed by Pinto (2007) may contribute to more effective intercultural communication. The first two steps teach us to look at things from both perspectives (that of the person themselves and of the other person). In step 3, any differences may be indicated for both cultures.
Step 1: You become conscious of the influence of your own culture on your own behaviour.
Step 2: You become conscious, ask about, learn about and gain insight into the culture of the other person and the behaviour that stems from it.
Step 3: The insights this knowledge gives you, enable you to really connect and bridge the divide1.
Training and tools
Training: Alternative Family Care (ALFACA)
In the ALFACA-project, Nidos (the Netherlands) and its partners developed the ALFACA training. This training addresses, among other things, intercultural communication. It consists of English e-learning and a manual in English, German, French, Dutch, Italian, Greek, Czech, Danish and Swedish. The ALFACA training also offers extra literature (for example, on guidance in cases of threats to personal development) and tools in English. All of this is available here.
Training: avatar-based interview training (AvBIT)
The Institute of Police Education at Linnaeus University in Sweden has developed an avatar-based interview training (AvBIT) programme. The training is for professionals working for social services, refugee locations, hospitals, police and schools. It is a web-based method that teaches them how to interview children who have experienced trauma about sensitive topics. Trainees can practise the conversations on their computer with an avatar that is a real child. More information is available here.
Tool: knowledge framework for guardians
The Scottish Guardianship Service developed a Practice Manual in 2013 which includes a helpful knowledge framework for guardians in Appendix 4 (pages 90-94).
Training: intercultural listening training (in Dutch)
Nidos in the Netherlands has developed a two-day intercultural, active child-focused listening training course that is obligatory for all Dutch guardians. The training provides knowledge, insight and skills in culturally sensitive communication and active listening.
Training: working in a multicultural setting (in Finnish)
Online training meant for social and medical professionals working with multicultural clients. The training includes sections on cultural understanding and culturally sensitive communication that are useful for guardians as well (Finnish National Institute for Health and Welfare).
Tool: material on intercultural knowledge in communication with children (in Finnish)
In Finland, the project Yksin Suomessa (Alone in Finland) has produced material on intercultural knowledge in communication with children.