Fresh Insights on Corona Virus : What we can learn about ourselves and othersTelling someone who is scared not to be is about as supportive and effective as telling someone who is ranting to calm down.
It doesn’t work. It doesn’t help.
The thing about a big event like this pandemic is that it affects us. It restricts us. This invisible ‘thing’ is now the reason we cannot do what we want to do. We cannot live the way we want to. We cannot travel. We cannot work. We cannot go visit our family who may be sick. Even if we are not feeling the physical effects of the virus, many of us are feeling our lives be curtailed by this thing we didn’t see coming.
Some of us are ok with it.
Being calm is easy. Empathy abounds. We have no problem seeing ourselves as a significant member of our national / global community. We are flexible, resourceful, creative. Being logical is no big deal.
But for some of us it can leave us feeling overwhelmed. Feeling small. Feeling powerless.
And if there is any event back in the earlier pages of our life story where something happened that had us feeling these same feelings; small, overwhelmed, dis-empowered, then our current reality may well be accompanied by the music of that time. Our body instinctively moving the same dance: muscles extra tight. Our heart rate elevated. Our breathing quicker and our view of the world the same : not a happy or safe place to be. We have to give in. We want to hide.
We want to whisper “please don’t tell me to stop feeling scared. You have no idea of the nightmares that have been triggered in me. My body remembers… This is how things are. We are being overwhelmed by this ‘thing’. We can’t get away… it’s out to get us and it will. That’s just how it is.”
And for some of us it can leave us feeling on edge. Anxious. Wondering what is coming next. Waiting for the inevitable… next.
Because if there are moments, even far back in our story, where we lived this way before, where we were used to being on the look-out, waiting, anticipating the next bad thing to happen… we learnt that there is …. always… a next… And those harmonies will accompany our current experience. And our body will start that dance again… tight muscles, sweaty palms, racing thoughts, butterflies in the tummy and hyper-focusing on every detail of what is going on around us…
We want to beg “don’t tell me to not worry. Don’t tell me It’s nothing. I am scared, and my body remembers. I am at the mercy of this invisible force out to hurt us all. I need to watch its every move. Need to keep moving. To duck and dive, to run. I can smell it coming… my nightmares have begun again.”
And for some of us it can leave us feeling annoyed. Feeling angry. Feeling disrespected.
The echoes of not being noticed, not being honoured, from times gone by now pumping their revengeful war-dance through our entire system. We want to shout ”I will not be pushed around! I will not be dwarfed and belittled by this force. I will defend myself. Defend my rights. I will survive. I will do what it takes and keep moving. I am full of energy and I will shop and travel and keep living MY life on MY terms. I will make sure I am the bigger one this time! I cannot, will not, allow myself to do otherwise.”
You see for most of us right now – trying to be logical and explain facts will not help. We live from our nervous system state and if our body has us in a defense state (mobilise or shut down) then it is impossible to truly hear and comprehend facts. It is impossible to discern truth from hype. It is impossible for your brain to calm your body when your body memories have been a-woken and are screaming messages of un-safety at your brain.
So What CAN We Do now?
Let us not tell each other to calm down – but let’s lead ourselves. Let us be the change we want to see.
It is for each of us to really pay honest attention to our own response to this situation and extend ourselves some compassion and permission to listen to the music we are hearing. To listen out for the internal strains of fear, overwhelm, or defiance… To notice the dance we are doing in our body and quietly ask ourselves when we learnt those steps?
To consider what this experience reminds me of?
To pay attention to ourselves in a new and gentle way.
Because the truth is – it is unlikely we have actually lived this exact situation before.
The truth is that it just feels like we are unsafe now the way we were unsafe in the past…
Now we can notice ourselves and our body.
Now we can move – our arms and legs, we can get up, we can move from room to room, into the garden, or outside.
Now we can acknowledge the pent-up energy in our body and express it safely, or honour it and soothe it.
Now we can choose what we will focus on. We can listen to the story our body is singing and see where we may still need to befriend ourselves, to heal and to grow in order to bring that old music to a close.
Now we can reach out and connect with others who are safe for us. We can use technology and still benefit from their calming smile, their twinkly eyes, their soothing, honouring, respectful presence, and their ability to help us giggle our way to safety, and find logic and perspective again.
And when we are brought into a state of safety within, then and ONLY then, we can intentionally choose our own response to the way our life is being altered and find the good in it, the things we can be grateful for, the space, the time, the peace, the spontaneous fun.
I recently heard about a group of children who were told that they were important but that all the adults who work with them were replaceable.
It is incredible to me that someone would say that to children…. that someone would say that at all…
and as far as children go, in my professional opinion, it is absolute rubbish.
Children survive and thrive in relationship. If you have read GROUNDED then you will know the inside info on how this works, but let’s simply say here that the relationships they have with the people around them MATTER. Which means, if you are a grown up around children in any capacity; YOU MATTER. You are UNIQUE. You are NOT replaceable.
The relationship that each child has with you is unique. That relationship is NOT replaceable. If you were to go away the child (and you the adult) looses that unique relationship. It is gone. It lives on, only in memory.
Children need role models… and they will model themselves on the grown-ups around them. The media would have us believe that the only role models children value are the out-of-touch celebrities they see on TV or the slightly more ‘reachable’ YouTubers.
It’s not true. Yes those people have some influence. However, children learn how to be, how to do life, by watching closely the people around them. Their brains and bodies react and respond positively to the people they feel good around, the people who understand them, respect them and make them feel safe.
So let’s get personal. Let’s really bring this into your world. Let me ask you – what’s your number?
I’m not talking contact details… 😉
I want to ask you if you have ever stopped and thought about the number of children who love the fact that you are in their world? The number of children who would be significantly impacted if you weren’t there anymore. The number of children you influence?
You Have Influence
It’s worth taking time to think about it. Maybe even write it down. Here is a little list to help jog your memory:-
- kids you are related to
- kids you share home with permanently or occasionally
- kids who visit your home for any reason (play dates, meals etc)
- kids you take places (car runs etc)
- kids you work with 1:1
- kids you work with in groups
- kids you work with in classes
- kids you are responsible for, who know your name and who see you regularly
So add them all up – What’s your number?
That number represents lives you influence, lives you impact, lives YOU ARE IMPORTANT to.
I wonder, when you really stop and think about it, how do you feel about that?
It can be so easy to get swept along in the busy and fall into the trap of
thinking our relationship with all these children is somehow one way – that we think about them, that we plan for and look after them, that we notice when they are not ok.
Let me tell you it goes both ways. If you have influence in a child’s life, they see you too.
What you do matters.
WHO YOU ARE matters.
I know this story is well known. I’m sure you have heard it before. This is my version of it. It ‘s good to come back to and remember it’s message now and again. We may not be in a position to change the world for all children, but we can certainly make a difference…
One day a man was taking his dog for a walk to the beach. It was early in the morning – a great time of day for a walk, especially with a dog.
As the man got to the top of the cliff he could see the debris from the storm that had rampaged against the shore all night long. The beach was covered in all sorts of things: seaweed, drift wood, rubbish… and starfish.
There were hundreds and hundreds of starfish that had been carried up onto the beach by the waves. Now the tide had gone back out, the waves had abandoned their cargo and if these starfish didn’t get back into the water – well…
Everyone knows that starfish need water.
Water is the environment that they can thrive in.
The man got down the steep path with his dog, and onto the beach. And he could see now that he wasn’t alone. There was someone else on the beach early this morning too.
It was a boy and he was throwing things into the sea.
The man got near to the boy as he was going in that direction anyway… and as he approached he could see that it wasn’t pebbles or wood the boy was throwing in, but starfish!
The man shook his head and carried on walking. The beach was covered in the tiny creatures. What could anybody do to save them? It was ridiculous to try. “Ridiculous…” he muttered to himself and on he went.
When he had got as far as the big rock – the only thing it seemed the sea hadn’t moved in last nights’ storm, he turned, called his dog and started heading back up the beach towards home.
He was amazed to see that, after all this time (he walked slowly, did the man) the boy was still there. Still patiently and carefully picking starfish up one at a time and throwing them back in to the waves.
The man started muttering and mumbling to himself again… but his dog went bounding up to the boy, wagging his tail and curious to see what was in his hand.
The man, who was obviously older and knew a thing or two about life, couldn’t help himself. He told the boy he was being ridiculous. That he should stop what he was doing right now and go back home. There were too many starfish up on the beach… and he was just a boy. The man finished his ‘advice’ with the simple, emphatic statement: “There are too many of them. There is nothing you can do to make a difference.”
The boy stopped still for just a moment. Was he deciding to listen to the man? Was he contemplating the truth of what the man was saying? Or was he trying to figure out something else.
Quietly the boy turned and bent to pick up another starfish. He walked it to the sea’s edge and gently tossed it back in. “Made a difference to that one…” he said, and he bent to pick up another. “Made a difference to that one… “as it flew threw the air and splashed back home.” Made a difference to that one…” with each and every starfish that he saved.
Now it was the man’s turn to be quiet. He watched the boy for a few moments, his dog hovering by his side wondering what would happen next… and if it was home-time still. Then the man bent down. His eye fell on a beautiful starfish that had slightly different colouring to the others. He gently picked it up, walked it to the water’s edge and released it quietly, whispering “made a difference to that one…”
While we all continue to raise our voices and advocate for better provision for the mental health of children and young people, we need to talk about what is already happening. It may be that we can make what is there even better, even more effective. Many organisations are suggesting we need a play therapist in every school – and don’t get me wrong, it would be a great step in the right direction – but there are certain things we need to talk about when it comes to therapy provided in school. Many schools around the country have taken the courageous decision to employ a qualified play therapist at least 1 day a week. Many schools know it is important and have fought to retain that provision through the crazy current budget situations. Many schools don’t realize what they have really done by doing that! What do I mean? Well beyond the obvious ‘we have employed a qualified mental health professional to work with a few of our children’ is hidden something else. It is this:
‘We have brought into our school, a mental health professional who works in a different way, with different priorities, different processes and a whole different way of thinking.’
Many schools and therapists actively say they value diversity, however, it is a common phenomenon across the country, that when therapists start working in schools, these differences, between their culture and school culture, if not handled proactively, can bring confusion, frustration and quiet animosity on both sides. Understanding the main points where these two cultures clash can bring real insight and when openly addressed actually improve the quality of the mental health provision for each child.
In a school a closed door is frequently hardly noticed (apart from the door to the Head’s office?) and is opened and often walked through without acknowledging it even existed. Any message it may be giving is unheard, un-acknowledged and not respected. Closed doors have little-to-no meaning, and whatever a person needs on the other side of the door, whatever activity is happening there that they will interrupt, they are allowed to proceed to their agenda. That is common door culture in schools. In the world of therapists a closed door is imbued with profound meaning. It is a sacred way of protecting a client. Helping them know they are safe here; there will be no interruption, intrusion or any distraction. It lets them know that this room, this space is for them. It lets them know that they are important, they are valuable. It reassures them that the often hideous things they have experienced that may have them feeling worthless and vulnerable, will not happen here. A respected closed door communicates to the hurting child that they, and the things they may need to concentrate on in this session, are IMPORTANT, will be HONOURED and are worth PROTECTING.
In schools change is the one constant. Room changes, timetable changes, lesson changes (curriculum changes and government focus changes!). One of the qualities of a proficient teacher is to be able to ‘go with the flow‘ be spontaneous and keep the learning agenda high whilst juggling, being flexible and creating ‘on the hoof’. In the therapy world consistency is another sacred way of showing respect for the client and the journey they need to make. Therapists will resist change and it is important that they do. Sessions need to be at the same time, on the same day, in the same place each week. Children learn very quickly when their session is, and that time and day becomes an anchor for them in their often turbulent weeks. Keeping things looking the same, and in the same place in the room (without items suddenly missing or being added) helps children develop relationship with the room as well as the therapist. It is a big part of helping a child feel safe and trusting this space. I will never forget the child who made a card to stick on the cupboard before he left his last play therapy session before the Christmas holidays. What did he write on it? ‘Bye room. See you next year.’
In school playing with toys, or doing anything that is not timetabled or sitting in the classroom with the rest of the class can be seen as a ‘treat’. If a child isn’t in school then they don’t get to go swimming, they don’t get to see the pantomime, they don’t go to Lego club, and they don’t get Golden Time; they don’t get their ‘treats’. Therapy is a mental health provision. It is there to support a child as they try to survive and heal from the challenges that life has thrown them. Therapy is often very hard work. It may seem like fun to an outsider, because a client gets to choose what they ‘play with’ but really a child is just choosing their safest way to express what has happened to them in the past, what they are dealing with in the present or what the are scared about in the future. Going there, thinking about that stuff, is rarely fun. Therapy is not a treat. Even though it may happen on the school premises it is not ‘school’ ie education, it is a mental health provision. If a child is unwell they will obviously miss a session. If a child is excluded however, they will still need to attend their session (and they now have even more to process) and then go home again.
In school any educational process is governed by the progress and outcomes that are provable. Each lesson, intervention group, and module of work is assessed and evidence is gathered that progress is being made in lines with already pre-determined markers. Progress in these terms is more-or-less a straight upward trajectory. If there is evidence that things are getting better then ‘it’ is working. In therapy assessing ‘progress’ is an altogether different scenario. General tick box-assessments (SDQs etc) are made regularly (probably termly). However, in between these tools, which are only 1 element to a wider review process, ‘progress’ may look different to the therapist than it does to school staff. A child who has been shut down, possibly in freeze following earlier life trauma will always hit into the massive survival energies of the fight/flight physiology as they start to feel safe enough to ‘heal’. As I explain in detail in GROUNDED, this is a particular area where staff can easily mistake behaviour that is more challenging for no-progress or things getting worse.
In school extra educational provision can stop on a whim. Heads are under intense scrutiny from higher powers to line up budgets, to justify spending, to use the little money they have for the greatest return. They think big picture. What’s best for everyone, and make most of their decisions of success inline with section 4 above. If something isn’t seeming to them to be ‘working’ they are used to having the power and autonomy and (internal sense of responsibility) to make a decision and stop it swiftly. In therapy endings are INCREDIBLY important. The child is likely to have already had a collection of losses in their life – possibly leaving them with self-beliefs like ‘people always leave me’, ‘don’t trust people- they will go’, ‘people don’t want to be with me’, ‘people don’t like me and go away’. If a child has been through a deep healing journey with a therapist they will need a long run of sessions to process all their thoughts and feelings as their relationship and their access to their safe space comes to an end. 6 weeks of counting down with the child enables them to do what they need to, say what they want to and have a positive ending experience that leaves a good deposit in their life. They are part of the process and empowered by it. Ending a child’s therapy should be a joint decision made by the therapist, school, parents AND the CHILD. Any deviation to this procedure and the therapist will likely challenge the decision. They will advocate for their client. It is their job. It is important for that child’s mental health that they do. Of course, emergencies happen, and will be managed as best as possible by the therapist, however as a rule they should be the rare exception. Suddenly imposed endings cause damage to a child’s mental health. No one wants to be responsible for that.
Schools and therapists both long for happy children. Schools and therapists agree that there are oceans of unhappy children currently swirling through schools. Therapy can absolutely be a life raft for them, but only when the school and therapist work hard to communicate. Communicate needs. Communicate expectations. Communicate about communication! Communicate with curiosity, respect and with a desire to understand each other. We only manage to build bridges and work together with those from other cultures when we can first acknowledge we are not the same. Supporting our children’s mental health and supporting effective therapeutic provision in schools is going to challenge, test and grow us all! Are these children worth it? I believe we already know the answer to that… Claire Wilson is the Clinical Director of CHEW Initiatives and has many years experience as a teacher and subsequently an accredited play therapist. She is now a therapeutic adviser to schools, and is the author of GROUNDED: Discovering the Missing Piece in the Puzzle of Children’s Behaviour written for parents and all professionals working with and around children (www.groundedbook.net)
More than CPD
In June last year (2017) I was in London for a few days. I was there to be part of a specialist training for further enhancing my skills and credentials of working with trauma and the body – with children. I was excited about the training – in fact I heard from the organiser I was the first one booked on it. However, as I look back, those days mean even more to me now.
I arrived the afternoon before and met some of the other participants (from all over the world) for a meal. When walking back from that meal, we passed this march… You may/may not remember that that was a few days after the horrific fire at Grenfell Tower – just down the road from where we were staying.
I will never forget the energy of that moment… we stopped still and honoured those that marched past – the survivors… their anger, their grief, their fight, their trauma and I felt I became part of that moment, honouring them all, and those who were impacted by the trauma of the fire.
Over the years I have learnt so much about trauma. About how it can change people, the elements needed to heal from it, that it can change the course of your life, but doesn’t have to be a life sentence. About how brains and bodies change. About the hope there is.
At the end of the training days, when we sat in a big circle in a closing activity, I remember talking about Grenfell and committing myself to do my part to contribute to changing society views around trauma, and those who have experienced it.
What you wont know, is that just before that course, a few hours before that meal, and a few hours before witnessing that march I had pulled out my iPad in my hotel room in London and started writing… my book.
Catalyst for Good
Grenfell had had an impact on me – as my car crash had years before – that same ‘you never really know when your time is up’.
I didn’t want my time to be up without passing on some of the things I have learnt over 25 years working with and around children and families. Things I have learnt and researched and seen in action about what it really takes to bring the best out in children – trauma or not. Things that are not common knowledge…yet. That would be a waste. Grenfell was my catalyst to stop procrastinating and start using my voice. It was time to start getting what was in me out.
GROUNDED is a book that has come from over 25 years of working with and around children. Insight from years as a teacher, an accredited play therapist, a clinical supervisor, a therapeutic adviser to schools and families – and a trauma specialist still helping people of all ages heal from the impact of their experiences.
It is a book that is relatable to teachers, parents, TAs, grandparents, aunts and uncles, football coaches and Scout leaders. It is packed with current neuroscience and everyday stories that make it all so easy to read and understand. It is a book that advocates for children – and has a message they often can’t speak for themselves. It is a book for all adults who want to be the best they can be for the kids they know. It is a book with a message and a mission. It is a book of hope.
GROUNDED is a book that is endorsed by teachers, Heads, parents, grandparents, play therapists, psychotherapists, international trauma specialists and world leading neuro-scientists.
It is done. GROUNDED is out.
There is a lot more I could say about the book, but I wanted to let you know some of the story of where it came from.
Now I want to share it with you all, with gratitude, as you have felt like part of the team that has helped bring it to birth.
I was standing on the dock of a bay… Waiting for a boat to come and take my friends and me to another island. The sea was emerald, the sky was blue, the sun was warm and the air was dry. This idyllic corner of the world was colourful and vibrant with people and life and bustle…
…and I felt scared. My heart was racing, I felt tight and small, and vulnerable.
I was in a different country, experiencing a different culture, and a few feet away from where I was standing waiting for the boat, were a group of men.
Men who were deep in ‘discussion’… although I didn’t realise it was discussion. I thought they were having a full blown argument.
I couldn’t understand what they were saying, but it didn’t matter as I was getting quite enough from all the other ways they were ‘communicating’
, and all I knew was what was happening with them made me feel unsafe.
They were shouting. Shouting loud and so very fast. They were gesturing aggressively with hands slapping, fists hitting palms and arms waving. They were getting in each other’s space. They were really, really animated… And I had never seen anything like this before… in real life. I had also never seen this kind of thing (even on TV) end well.
Our sense of safety is largely driven by subconscious processes. We take in information through our senses and use the information of what is happening around us to help us decide whether we are safe or not… and then what to do next.
Adults shouting, jumping, gesticulating, making passionate, emotional faces that look angry, and generally behaving aggressively can be scary. I was an adult – I even knew a couple of the men – and I was really unnerved by it.
I was reminded of this moment in my life recently and the implications of hearing people shouting – for a child.
- Being around adults who are shouting, whether they understand why or not, can be scary for children.
- Being around adults while they watch a football match on TV can be scary for children.
- Being around adults who are loud and drunk and ‘just having a good time’ can be scary for children.
- Being around adults who use shouting as their means of control in a house, sports field, gym or classroom can be scary for children.
When children are scared they can’t be their best selves.
When children are scared they can feel totally alone and vulnerable.
When everyone else thinks they are having a great time ‘enjoying’ the sport / the party / keeping control, a scared child can feel confused, ashamed and misunderstood as well as unsafe.
It’s worth a chat
If you want to have a chat with the children you know about their experiences of being around adults who are shouting, get ready to listen, respect and honour the things they will tell you.
Whether it was a ‘fun’ thing that was happening, a neutral thing, or a recognizably horrible thing, children often react in their body when they hear adults shouting. That’s not wrong, that’s how they were made. Shouting is generally interpreted as a sign of danger. Until the child is totally comfortable with the shouting, it will likely be setting off alarms in their subconscious and their body in a way that doesn’t feel nice.
If you have that chat with the children you know, be wary of dismissing their body-felt experiences and making them feel embarrassed for feeling the way they do when ‘it’s only a sports match’ ‘they were just having a disagreement’ ‘I’m just getting their attention’.
The world is different through the eyes of a child, and their body is programmed to know that when adults are shouting, they are not safe.
Let’s be honest, it’s easy for adults to get caught up in the moment and overlook the things that can impact children. That’s why I am writing this. I’ve had enough of these conversations with children of all ages myself over the years to know this ‘shouting thing’ is a ‘thing’ and is important for adults to consider. And it is not just hard for the kids who are known to have sensory issues – or those who have experienced domestic abuse (although they will be even more sensitive to it) it is how we are all wired.
What can be done?
So what can we do, because clearly shouting is not going anywhere?
- We can warn children ahead of time that there will be shouting (during a sports match, even in the classroom) – and help them make a plan for what to do if they don’t feel OK with it.
- We can be curious and find out from them what it was like hearing adults shouting after the event – and really listen and empathise without needing to explain the shouting away.
- And, if appropriate, we can take our shouting elsewhere – or better still find ways to communicate with someone else that don’t include shouting when children are around…
Children don’t like it when adults shout. It makes them feel horrible. Why not ask them and see what you find out?