Powerful stuff ...

Posted: Tuesday 8th September 2020

Central to our MyST teams are our Young People’s Practitioners (YPPs). These practitioners are the ones who bend and stretch to meet the children at the heart of our service. Once a relationship has eventually formed, our YPPs stick like glue to children through the thick and thin of our therapeutic work, and indeed the thick and thin of their lives. One of our customs is for the two of us to meet regularly with all of the YPPs across our different locality teams together for a group supervision process. Yesterday’s session left a particular mark on our thinking.

We got to thinking about power. One way of looking at the traumatic experiences of the children that we work with is as misuses and abuses of power. Children looked after have commonly experienced adults misusing power with them, both at an intimate relational level right the way to the societal misuses of power which create and maintain disadvantage. And just as has been spotlighted by the recent tragic killing of George Floyd and subsequent dialogues in relation to Black Lives Matter, our MyST YPPs spoke about how it is not enough to think that we are not actively misusing power with our young people. We need to acknowledge how privilege involves holding a fundamental power advantage, and how not acknowledging this perpetuates inequality.  In truth, we are perhaps all involved in misuses of power, whether we like it or not.

As the conversation with our YPPs developed, we honed in on the particular power-related issues which commonly blight children looked after. After all, being looked after already provides a stigma all of its own. Many children looked after who have experienced power abuses in intimate relationships form a model of power as if there were only a ‘win’ and a ‘lose’ position. Having experienced ‘losing’ and the suffering which goes with it, many children looked after make a silent vow: If it’s either win or lose, I’ll do whatever is necessary to be the winner from now on thank you very much. This can mean that the children we work with are determined not to allow an adult to be in a powerful position with them ever again. Children can enact this determination in many different ways from kicking against the rules and expectations of the adult world, to refusing dependence upon an attachment figure.

The family therapist John Burnham (1993) developed a brilliant framework to guide therapists’ exploration of issues of difference with their clients called the Social Graces. The framework continually evolves over time, but in essence, it reminds us about a wide variety of ways that difference can take shape. At MyST, we use this framework to help us to consider issues of difference and power in our work.

G – Gender, Gender identity, Geography, Generation

R – Race, Religion

A – Age, Ability, Appearance

C – Class, Culture

E – Education, Ethnicity, Economic

S – Spirituality, Sexuality, Sexual Orientation.

So if we always hold power, whether we like it or not, what messages about power might children read from their first glances at our own ‘Social Graces’? In the way that we just walk into a room and say ‘hello’, what might our manner convey? We thought of it as if we gave out a message by wearing our own ‘power slogan t-shirt’. What might each of our t-shirts say in the eyes of children? Going around the room there were a variety: A young, white, athletic man thought his power slogan t-shirt might be read as ‘I’m entitled to power.’. A young softly spoke middle class woman thought hers might be read as ‘You can dominate me.’. A feisty Welsh valleys woman thought hers might be read as ‘You can’t get away with anything with me.’. And a charismatic older man thought his might be read as ‘I have the power to see right into you.’.

Of course, we noted together, these imagined ‘power slogan t-shirts’ are just stereotypes, and not who our YPPs think themselves to be. The YPPs each hoped that as children got to know them better, they would slowly discover that they are not as they might appear at first glance. They also hoped that through their work with children, they could share models of power which are different to the ‘win / lose’ model. These different models might include sharing power, using power benevolently for the benefit of others, promoting others’ power, or voluntarily giving up power. However, if this were to be at all possible, it seemed that those power slogan t-shirts need to be acknowledged and then challenged by the YPPs themselves in their work with children.

When we honestly talk together about power, we create an opportunity to move away from stereotypes and towards our unique and our shared humanity. One of the primary rights of us humans, and key to our good mental health, is the power to self-define. There’s a word for this: ‘Freedom’. Freedom is powerful stuff.

Jen & Jael

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