Beware 'poor you' ...

Posted: Tuesday 27th October 2020

I remember, years ago, working with a boy and his foster carers. After 10 years living together, the foster carers had reluctantly come to the conclusion that they could no longer provide a home for the boy. They told me that it just didn’t seem to be working any more. They had started to believe that there must be better carers out there somewhere for this boy whom they cared about so much. ‘It’s 10 years down the drain’ they said with great sadness. ‘I’m losing everything’ said the boy. Of course it was an extremely sad conversation, with many tears. My own heart ached terribly at their loss and grief.

Slowly, slowly, through our conversation, we pulled apart the ideas and expectations that underpinned the carers’ sense that they were failing the boy. And with this process, they began to reconsider. As they did so, the boy uttered a second rare contribution to the talking: ‘I just can’t help hurting people. I don’t know how to stop.’ The carers were aghast. A vital penny dropped. ‘O, he is just as flummoxed about how to outwit this awful problem as we are. We need to continue together to crack this stubborn problem.’ And with that, the mood lifted.

As the therapist, at this point I could have followed a ‘poor you, it’s so tough’ line. There is a prejudice that can accompany big stubborn problems of early life; a prejudice that the damage is done and all we can do now is make the best of the fragments that remain. But as the mood changed, I sensed a chance to shift from exploring the hardships of living with a big stubborn problem, to something else: Hope.

I said ‘Sometimes, when people have had a hard start in life, they can start to think things like ‘people like me aren’t going to come to much now’. I wonder whether you believe that you can have a brilliant and happy life?’. (Perhaps I thought myself a little bit clever in spotting the ‘poor you’ prejudice and disobeying it.) I continued my new line of questioning. ‘I wonder how confident you feel that you can have a brilliant and happy life. What kind of percentage of confidence would you say you have?’ I asked the boy. ‘80% confident’ he replied instantly. O wow, I’d expected him to say ‘10%’ if that. I’d expected to need to work hard on how he might be more optimistic. But no, he was 80% confident of living a brilliant and happy life. He already knew how to disobey the ‘poor you’ prejudice.

I continued on down my line of questioning and turned to his carers. ‘And how confident do you feel that he can have a brilliant and happy life? What percentage would you give it?’ I asked. ‘99% confident’ they replied immediately. I smiled, this family had surprised me again. The boy beamed too. At last his therapist was asking about his potential. How good it felt to talk about his capabilities as well as his difficulties. His carers also looked surprised to hear their own answers to my questions.

So yes, children looked after often have some big stubborn problems to attend to, and sometimes these take everyone to the edge of feeling there might be no way forward, but beware a ‘poor you’ attitude. We’re wise to never underestimate what human beings are capable of. And let’s just admit it, it’s something that many of us professionals know from first-hand experience; notwithstanding the suffering, sometimes our hardest experiences can be the very making of us.

Jen & Jael

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