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CYC-Online Issue 11 DECEMBER 1999 / BACK
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TOOLBOX

Talking 2: Talking about what has happened

Brian Gannon

Brian Gannon continues this series with the second part of his discussion on Talking as a tool in child care work.

Talking is probably the most important tool of the child care worker. Last month we discussed talking about what is going to happen – (a) to reduce anxiety about the future, (b) to help children deal with their feelings about the future, and (c) to prepare them to deal with future tasks with some planning and skills. We used the illustration that children are often anxious about walking down a dark passage – but that if we turn the lights on to show them what is there, they can usually manage this quite well by themselves.

Things that have already happened
It is equally important for us to be able to help children by talking about things in their past. This could include things which happened months or even years ago, things which happened at school today, as well as something which has just happened a moment ago. In this month's feature we will deal with talking to children and young people about two kinds of events: (a) the traumatic and anxiety provoking events which have happened to them; and (b) the day-to-day events from which they could derive better understanding about themselves and others.

Trauma
We have all learned in our training that a child who is preoccupied by anxiety or other strong feelings (hurt, bitterness, resentment, anger) is not free to deal adequately with the present demands and tasks of his life. But a child who is overwhelmed by some trauma (he hasn't had the warning to allow him to prepare his defences against some serious threat or attack or who didn't have the cognitive ability to deal with it when it happened) usually 'swallows it whole'. The experience remains 'undigested', a tightly wrapped terror, best hidden away from his own thoughts and feelings. Many children carry this hidden fear around with them, and this simmering possibility of something terrible happening again edges out their normal day-to-day developmental work. The sunshine goes out of their lives, schoolwork goes downhill, relationships are distrustful and scratchy. Only in a very safe and supportive situation will the child ever have the courage to 'unpack' the experience and deal with it for himself. The harm was often done when there was no adult to accompany the child through times of trauma and transition. But we can still help now. Simple explanations, comfort and human company can help children to manage very frightening events, both when they happen and in retrospect.

A flash of lightning
A helpful illustration would be a small child's first experience of a sudden flash of lightning and a clap of thunder. To any child this is a terrifying event, but the good parent quickly moves to comfort and explain. First of all, they use words: “That was lightning! Did you hear that thunder? Wow! Wasn't it loud?" This response is brim-full of immediately useful messages for the child. It says:

  1. The flash of light is called lightning.

  2. The huge noise is called thunder.

  3. Yes, it's very scary, “Wow!"

  4. But we know what it is.

  5. By laughing and exclaiming, we show that we share the feelings of fright and excitement, and so we reduce the child's anxiety.

  6. More, we can give the child something to take away from the experience: 'Tonight you can tell Dad about what happened!"

Returning to an event
With children in care, helpful adults were unfortunately not around to talk with them when 'lightning' struck their families and their lives. Perhaps it is only years later, when they have come to trust their environments and the people around them, that it becomes possible for them to face these events. One of the principles of psychotherapy when dealing with childhood trauma, is that the person can 'return to the event', with a more mature mind and in the company of a trusted friend, to try to understand and incorporate what really happened. When this can be achieved, the undigested trauma which is causing so much discomfort, can be loosened up, talked about, and can become just part of our conscious experience, one of the 'lessons of life'.

'Opening up'
A word of warning. I have often heard adults talking about 'getting a child to open up'. This reflects the very common experience of child care workers that children are seen to make a dramatic transition in their maturity and their relationships with others after one particular heart-to-heart talk during which significant personal material is discussed. But wanting a child to 'open up' can be as much a sign of our anxiety to make some breakthrough in our work with that child, and we can focus too hard on the child's act of opening up. We must remember that the prior need of the child is to experience a positive and safe environment and a trusted relationship. He cannot 'open up' without these two conditions. Our major work in child care is to replace the child's former experiences of unpredictability and threat with experiences of reliability and consistency. Many children might then not need to 'open up'. Living with adults who are rational, concerned and protective can be dialogue enough for them to be able to face up to and manage their own feelings and fears.

* * *

So we use talking to help children deal with frightening events in their past. We also use talking to help them with day-to-day personal and social functioning.

Ego re-building
Children in care are commonly seen as awkward, selfish, destructive and aggressive. They have a poor sense of self, and with their negative self-image they experience the world as hostile and irrational. This is not surprising when we look at their earlier lives, during which they received little guidance and feedback, and often had to fend for themselves. Social graces do not come easily in the jungle. But when these children move beyond survival needs, these negative qualities become a serious obstacle to their on-going development and relationships, and there are many overdue lessons to be learned. Sometimes we help children dismantle old perceptions about life and replace them with others that 'work better' “what in Adlerian terms are called false beliefs or misconceptions which we try to “prove wrong".

Child care writer Chris Beedel (1970) referred to helping tasks of child care workers as including:

  1. Exploratory ego building, which makes up for past deprivation of ego building experience;

  2. Remedial ego building, where a child's ego building has run into some sort of block, and where perhaps something has to be unlearned; and

  3. Personality integration, where past experiences have led to tangled and unsatisfying patterns of behaviour and relationships.

Guilt or responsibility?
Why is it that troubled children so often have a reduced or distorted sense of their own part in their lives? To those who have been made to feel powerless, things “just happen", or they happen because someone else makes them happen. To those who have been scape-goated and blamed, things that happen are “their fault". Others, brought up inconsistently and punitively, deny responsibility for what they do and will see problems as being due to 'someone else's fault'. So today we hear them say things like “He just picked on me, “ “it wasn't my fault," or “Nobody likes me." Here, as a special 'tool of our trade', we use talking to link what happens in their lives to their own actions. The key is that we want to make children feel responsible for what they do (as against feeling guilty or being irresponsible). We do not want to reply: “You started it," or “It was all your fault," or “I don't blame people for not liking you." Rather, we try to help youngsters to piece together the sequences of events so that they can see the part they played in how things turned out.

Teaching, not moralising
We are tempted to moralise. “There you are," we say. “See what happens when you are rude to people." The children will pick up the blaming in this message, but not the lesson we want to teach. We have to be far more neutral and less critical in the words we choose. For example, we can say: “It seemed that when you came in you bumped Peter. He felt that you were attacking him or pushing him out of the way and he got angry. Because of that he hit out at you." This is a purely descriptive message, attaching no blame to anybody, and explaining the sequence of events. It helps the child to understand that the behaviour had a cause and that he played a part in it. This is the whole idea behind the “i-messages" which child care workers are taught to give “as against 'You-messages" which are seen as accusing, blaming, comparing, rejecting or directing.

  1. We do not want to blame, put down or criticise. We do not say: “You are lazy and untidy about your room."

  2. We do not want to load children with guilt: We do not say: “You upset me and cause me unhappiness by your unhelpfulness."

  3. We do want children to understand the effect their behaviour has on others. We use I-messages like these: “I feel embarrassed when people shout ugly words at me" or “I feel worried when I don't know where you are and it's late." The key element of an I-message is that it is descriptive, not attacking.

Describing and positive feedback
The Teaching Family Model (TFM) of child care (Blase and Fixsen, 1987) includes this non-critical description technique for helping children to change inappropriate behaviour. Listen to this communication: “John, you are still walking back and forth. Would you sit down please?" The way we talk is important. The message we give must be “I want you to get this right" not “I want you to stop irritating others." Children in care usually got only one part of the message in the past: “You are annoying me" or “I'm sick and tired of you." This simply leaves them feeling disapproved of, without understanding why. Rather, we fill in the blanks for them by describing their inappropriate behaviour and indicating a preferred behaviour -- without the message of rejection. Today we may have to say: “You left your books at home this morning. This made your teacher frustrated." Tomorrow we can remember to say: “You remembered your books today. Your teacher appreciated that." Instead of the old messages which said: “You are bad, you are a loser, we are fed up with you", youngsters begin to get these new messages: “I saw how hard you tried at that, I noticed your improvement at that, you did that well" and their whole self-perception changes. Then, rather than denying responsibility for things, they want to claim responsibility for what they do. They discover what it is like to be the central character their own lives. It is we, by our talking, who have to tell them that.

Debriefing
You will have recognised the idea of debriefing in this discussion of talking about what has happened. The central plank of child and youth care work is being together with young people in their life space and using everyday events as the learning curriculum. What makes this valuable is the way we help them make sense of what happens, the way they learn to recognise sequences and cause and effect, the extent to which we help them to understand and predict – and thus control their own lives.

In the previous article we emphasised the importance of saying to troubled kids “This is what is going to happen." Today we have seen that it is also important to say “This is what has happened."

References

Beedell, C. (1970) Residential Life with Children. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Blase, K. and Fixsen, D (1987) Integrated Therapeutic Interactions. Journal of Child Care, 3, 1. pp. 59-72.

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