Don’t take it personally

17 July, 2020

The other day, whilst out for an al fresco meeting, on the breeze we overheard a passing waft of two friends gossiping about a third. ‘O she’s always been difficult that one!’ they agreed. It struck us, how easy it is to assume that what people do is just down to them personally, their personality you could say. This person is being difficult, and that’s because they are a difficult person. This person is being inspirational, and that’s because they are an inspirational person.

Yet, that’s not how we see it. How we see it is that people are constructed in relationships and contexts. We only need look at ourselves. Are we really the same person with our parents as with our friends? With our lover as with our boss? Do we enact the same person when we are despairing as when we are joyful? How about when we are successful compared to when we’ve failed? No, there’s more to it than just some kind of static personality accounting for who we are and how we speak, behave, think and feel, our hopes and dreams, our talents and capabilities.

So if we understand people in terms of being socially constructed, in an essential dynamic flow with their contexts, then what might we see and do differently? If the context and the relationship with another person is what forms who a person is and what they decide to say and do in any given moment, then what possibilities does this raise?

At MyST, we are often part of professional discussions about where children looked after are ‘placed’. During these discussions, we frequently hear colleagues making statements like ‘if this foster carer couldn’t handle him, then that foster carer won’t be able to’, and ‘if she’s tying ligatures and cutting in the residential home, then there’s no way she’d cope back at home with her family’. We very often respond with an offer of seeing it differently: Seeing the child’s behaviour and indeed the child themselves as contextually and relationally bound.

In our experience, what gets constructed in a relationship with one carer isn’t necessarily a wholly reliable guide to what will happen with the next carer. We also have countless experiences of children whose risky behaviours in residential care settle enormously when back with their families or with foster carers in their communities. And why? Because one person’s responses to a child aren’t the same as another’s, and this makes all the difference. Because the protective factors that one person or place can offer a child are not the same as another’s, regardless of the degree of official ‘specialism’ attributed to these people and places.

And remember this, not only is someone not fixed as ‘just a difficult person’, nor is someone fixed as ‘just an inspirational person’, nor ‘just not an inspirational person’. Every child, indeed every person can become an inspirational person in the right contextual and relational conditions. We need to remember this when we are trying to improve things for children looked after and those that love them.

Jen & Jael

A Gwent Partnership Board Service