Treasure hunting

19 May, 2021

Meeting with a parent the other day, we were asked for help with a child’s behaviour. This Mum described her child as extremely picky about what happened at home, when it happened and how it was done. If the toast wasn’t buttered correctly, the child couldn’t be consoled. If a friend said the wrong thing, the day was a write off. If bedtime didn’t follow the precise routine, the child couldn’t settle to sleep. ‘I feel like I’m working for the most demanding boss, who’s got their eye on me all of the time, making sure I’m always working in a way they want me to.’ the Mum said. ‘I think she must need specialist psychology therapy.’ she added.

In our mental health work with children who are looked after, we commonly hear this theme of control in descriptions of children’s behaviour. For children who have experienced repeated traumatic life events, it is often understood as a consequence of children’s experience of relational hurts. As if children think ‘after all of the hurts and disappointments, I can’t trust other people to act in my best interests, to keep me safe, and so I will take matters into my own hands, and I will try to control things.’.  The wish to control can also be understood as a response to children’s anxiety and lack of trust, as if children think ‘I don’t know what is going to happen next. Based on my previous life experiences I am so fearful that it may be terrible, and this feeling of dreadful anticipation is so hard to bear, that I’m going to try to take control of things.’

Looking at ourselves, many of us could probably find some uses of control amongst our ways of coping. In extremes of use however, this strategy of control can have severe impacts: ‘I need to control everything, and everyone, all of the time, and I will attack or avoid anyone and anything that tries to stop me. I will pay any price except surrender my power to control things.’ We can probably all imagine the places that this kind of extreme attachment to a strategy of control can take young people and their families. We can also probably all appreciate the sense of desperation felt by parents and carers to find the extraordinary intervention powerful enough to release children from the grip of extreme controlling behaviours.

To get back out of such places, there is an often slow process of regaining trust that others can be relied upon, that life won’t necessarily hurt and harm, and that it is possible to be vulnerable and safe at the same time. Rebuilding trust can provide a way out of a reliance on control and all that this strategy can bring and take. Our experience is that it is the apparently little, ordinary things which possess the power to rebuild this trust. Yes, counter-intuitive as it seems, not something extraordinary and unusual, just little ordinary things that we can all do.

What are these common little ordinary things that make the difference to such big problems? In our experience, they include: Being reliable – doing what we say to children we will do. Being consistent – forming a predictable pattern of behaviour which becomes familiar and reassuring to children. Being straightforward and authentic – easy to read with no hidden messages for children to become confused by. Putting children’s needs first – letting children know that we have enough resource to care for them and ourselves. Reflecting back to children a positive image of themselves – giving them opportunities to experience themselves as worthwhile and capable in our eyes. Accepting children’s mistakes and current limits – letting them know we’re not expecting or even wanting perfection.

Because this is our understanding, then alongside working therapeutically with children directly, our work at MyST also involves encouraging the adults around children to enact the little ordinary things that help. Sometimes it’s hard to resist the idea that the answer to a big problem must be something rare and extraordinary. Sometimes, in scanning the horizon for an answer that is beyond us, we can miss what is already lying in the palm of our hand. Have a look in your palms….what treasures already lie there quietly awaiting discovery?

Jen & Jael

A Gwent Partnership Board Service