Each week I have cycled the eight miles to a house on the outskirts of town to meet with a very important 11-year-old pupil. I’ll call him James. One reason he is important is because is helping me see the lockdown through his eyes. Seven weeks ago on my first visit, James was reluctant to come out from his bedroom. He knew me from school, but he gave the impression I was intruding by coming to his home. To him, I was representative of an adult world that has let him down too often. When James finally emerged from the world of X Box, he looked more like a zombie blinking uncomfortably in the sunlight as he stepped out of his front door.
“Why don’t we go for a walk? You will have to keep your two meters distance from me.” Initially, this walk was just an excuse to check on him and remind him that he wasn’t forgotten. Now these walks have become routine; they have even taken on a name- a safe walk.
I’m not sure our first walk was very safe. James suggested we go to a lake near his home. He wanted to show me the swans that were now flocking to the shore in hope of being fed. Suddenly he panicked as four or five swans surrounded us. “Come back!” I shouted as he vaulted the nearest fence. I tried my best not to collapse in laughter but played the hero and corralled the swans away.
James gingerly reappeared, looking a bit embarrassed.
He lives with his elderly gran, who has health problems and is bedridden some of the time. James is representative of one of Scotland’s more vulnerable youths. Even before the lockdown his attendance at school was spotty at best. His clothes were often smelly and his hair unkempt. His outward appearance spoke of neglect and his demeanour told of his sadness.
Seven weeks later and when I arrive outside James’ house, thankfully less out of breath from the cycle ride than I was at the beginning of the lockdown. He meets me with a big smile, as I show him the skimming stones I have collected in my garden. He enthusiastically leads me down to the lake. We pass a swan sitting on its nest. James tells me he has fed the swan, but I notice he is also keeping his distance. I also notice his hair is longer and as if to make the point he pulls it down over his eyes. We laugh. We arrive at the small beach and he skims each stone, carefully counting how many times they bounce across the water. He watches a dog swimming out to fetch a stick and laments about his dog who won’t even put a paw in the water.
I venture a more direct question. “How is your gran? Is she any better this week?”
“She is okay,” is all he seems to want to say.
I can’t tell from his answer if this is his way of not wanting to think about the seriousness of the current situation. I know from conversations with other young people that many are anxious. I could tell from the tone of voice of another of my pupils that he was deeply concerned he had not heard from his non-custodial father for two weeks. Even before the lockdown, many young people living in kinship care and foster care were already worried about the health of their family members and carers who are often elderly grandparents. For some, these fears have increased their isolation.
I am surprised by how easily James seems to be engaging with me, so I ask another question about whether he misses school. He answers with a resounding, “No! I’m bored sometimes, but I don’t miss school.”
A couple of weeks ago, his social worker persuaded him to attend the local school hub for children of key workers and vulnerable young people. He went for one day. “The teacher shouted at me. He said we shouldn’t be kicking a football.” Like the vast majority of so-called vulnerable young people in Scotland he didn’t go back. Why should he?’ His gran told me that no-one from the school had phoned to ask where he was when he didn’t show up the next day. I know there are teachers who are connecting with children and families by phone, by sending then a card - skimming stones in their own way, but James is not alone in his sense of being unnoticed or unwanted. School wasn’t the most rewarding experience before the lockdown and it will take a concerted effort to change some young people’s perception.
I hear there are leaders in education meeting to talk about how we recover our schools. I wonder how many have been on a safe walk with an 11 year old. Some of the young people I see and talk to each week are happier not in school. One foster carer told me that her three children were much less stressed not having to go to school. If we have any hope of getting young people back to school, it will be because there is at least one relationship they value.
When I say to James, “I better be getting home.” He asks me if I can come earlier next week and walk further with him around the lake. We end our time with a competition to see who can throw stones the furthest.
Perhaps, as we think about going back to school, this will be a time to rethink how we relate to young people and re-imagine how education can help children see they are very important. They need to know, as we all do in order to learn, that they are safe, they are valued and belong. They need to enjoy being with us and us with them. We have an opportunity to recapture the fun and spontaneity children bring to life. They will play a vital part in our recovery as a society.
Adapted from an article by David Woodier
© 2020 David Woodier. Permission granted to reproduce for personal and educational use only.
Is it really a problem of self-esteem? Looking inside may not be the answer to how children can flourish.
Is it really a problem of self-esteem? Looking inside may not be the answer to how children can flourish
“A sign of health is the ability to enter imaginatively and accurately into the thoughts and feelings and hopes and fears of another person; also to allow the other person to do the same” Donald Winnicott
Reminding myself to see children for who they can be
When I first meet a young person in school, I like to set myself a challenge. I ask the teacher, “Don’t point her out. Let me observe for a while and see if I can spot who she is.” Usually I can tell by a child’s dishevelled appearance, by an argument between two children, or when I see the child who tries relentlessly to get her teacher’s attention. However, this simple exercise also helps me think about what a child looks like when he or she is settled and happy. I borrow a metaphor from the garden, flourishing, to describe this kind of happiness in children. A quick search on the internet reveals I am not the first to use this term. The idea of human flourishing has been around at least since the time of Aristotle. However, if we think of flourishing simply in terms of boosting a young person’s self-esteem, we may do more harm than good.
Notice me! Rather than low self-esteem, attention seeking may be a cry for mutuality
Nathan’s teacher made a discovery and she wanted to share it. “I know what it looks like when he is settled. He isn’t looking at me.” She must have recognized my slightly puzzled expression and so she added, “I realized that whenever I look at the class, he is already looking at me, but when he is really into something he isn’t constantly watching me.” Nathan’s teacher had nailed it on the head. (I must have metaphors on the brain.) This little boy was usually in a state of constant vigilance. I remember observing him once responding to conversations happening on the other side of the room.
It wasn’t just his hypervigilance that worried his teacher. He constantly sought her attention. He interrupted her lessons, and if that didn’t work, he was expert in creating mini-disasters. I have seen water bottles, pencils, and jotters spilled to the floor in a whirl of activity. It would have been easy to think this little boy’s problems were all about attention seeking and low self-esteem.
Nathan’s teacher came to me one day quite distressed. “Nathan is telling me he is bad. How do I help him have a better self-esteem?” She paused and then added, “I keep telling him he is not bad and that no one is bad, but he told me again, ‘Miss, I am bad.’”
I wondered if Nathan wasn’t trying to communicate a sense of, “Don’t forget me! I can’t bear the thought that you don’t notice me.” Boosting Nathan’s self-esteem wasn’t going to fix this. He needed empathy; someone who would hear how hurt he was and not reject him. I tried to model a response for his teacher. “Oh, Nathan, if you believe you are bad that must be so hard for you.” Rather than attention seeking, a child may be operating from a profound sense of loss, unable to share their grief with others for fear of being abandoned (1).
I have been in many meetings in which a teacher talks about a child who is afraid of failure, lacks friends, has poor personal hygiene, seeks attention, or lacks confidence. It is often thought of as a problem of low self-esteem. What concerns me about thinking in terms of self-esteem is that we may miss not only a child’s deeper needs but also become blinded to what true flourishing looks like.
Shouldn’t we boost young people’s self-esteem?
Not so long ago, the idea of boosting self-esteem was presented as a cure-all for a wide range of social ills such as teenage pregnancy, drug misuse, and other anti-social behaviours (2). I once interviewed a group of African-American boys growing up in the inner city of Chicago. Naively I assumed they would all have low self-esteem. By the end of the interview, I realized that I was the one with a self-esteem problem. My informal survey surprisingly corresponded to the findings of much larger and more scientific studies. Young people’s perceptions of themselves improved significantly during the 1980’s and 90’s. However, according to some even more rigorous studies that tracked young people over several decades, improving self-esteem did not reduce drug misuse or risky sexual behaviours. It seems that Bowlby was right to hold self-esteem ideology in contempt for its simplistic reductionism (2).
The wounded self may mask its true needs
I don’t want to minimize the depth of harm caused to a child who suffers maltreatment or the devastating impact that neglect and abuse can have on a child’s developing sense of self. An infant’s earliest experience of intimacy with another human being should be one of safety and security. It is in that state of dependence that the infant should be able to experience a sense of rightness and wholeness about themselves. When safety, security, and continuity of care are lacking, a child may suffer a primal, narcissistic wound (1).
Put simply, we were not built to flourish as separated beings, so recovery shouldn’t be thought of as boosting self-esteem. Rather, a young person needs to experience relationships in which he or she can be free from a preoccupation with self. Donald Winnicott warned that a child may develop a ‘false self’ as a way of masking their true need for mutuality* (3,4). I think children and young people are happier when they experience the freedom of self-forgetfulness; instead of using a false self to protect themselves, they are able to experience an integrity of self. Again, put simply, they can enjoy other people enjoying being with them.
Not being preoccupied with self allowed him to enjoy being with his classmates
Several years later, in another school and with another teacher, I walked in to Nathan’s classroom and for a moment I couldn’t see him. He was reading a book with two other children. They were peering down at the pages, each with his or her chin cupped in hands. Nathan seemed totally absorbed in the moment. So much so that even his posture was a mirror image of the two other children. I am not being unrealistic; I didn’t think for one moment that Nathan would never struggle again. However, this little glimpse of Nathan being able to relate to others in a way in which he could express his comfort with just being himself helped me think of him not just as an injured, traumatised little boy.
Human flourishing as having the freedom to forget self
For the past thirty years, I have taken young people to summer camp. This year was no exception. Driving back from a day trip, my car was packed with teenagers. Someone asked to play music from Les Miserables. The young people sang along at the top of their lungs, but one voice stood out to me, not because it was louder but because I had never heard that young person singing before. A young man, one of my pupils, who has lived in fourteen different homes and suffered relentless rejection and loss. He wasn’t trying to draw attention to himself; he was just enjoying being part of the group. For a few moments, I was reminded of what it looks like when young people are flourishing. I find that I never stop needing to be reminded of what that looks like.
* Mutuality can be defined as an empathetic exchange between a child and an adult that communicates a sense of being understood. The child’s thoughts and feelings are matched in intensity of involvement and interest (4). Donald Winnicott gave this example: ‘“Settled in for a feed, the baby looks at the mother’s face and his or her hand reaches up so that in play the baby is feeding the mother by means of a finger in the mouth.” The baby whose mother is involved in this intense identification with him benefits from the experience of feeling understood’ (4, p82).
Keeping It Real
1. What do we really mean when we say a child has low self-esteem?
2. What other needs might the child be trying to communicate?
3. How do I refresh my vision of what it looks like when children are truly flourishing?
1. Newton Verrier, N. The primal wound: understanding the adopted child. CoramBAAF; 2009.
2. Harrison, G. The Big ego trip: finding true significance in a culture of self-esteem. Nottingham: Intervarsity Press; 2013.
3. Phillips, A. Winnicott. London: Fontana Press;1988.
4. V Jordan, Judith. The meaning of mutuality. work in progress. Wellesley Centres for Women; 1986. Available from: https://www.wcwonline.org/vmfiles/23sc.pdf [Accessed 2/10/2017].
5. Abram, J. The language of Winnicott: a dictionary of Winnicott’s use of words. 2nd edition. London: Karnac; 2007.
© 2018 David Woodier. Permission granted to reproduce for personal and educational use only. Copyright notice must remain intact. Illustrations by Tom Donaldson https://www.etsy.com/shop/tomdonaldsonart
As parents of teenagers with attachment difficulties, we may need an extraordinary sensitivity and resilience to stay connected and engaged with our children. It is something we can’t do on our own, and yet finding help for adopted teenagers and for those who are in foster care can be difficult. We see our children struggling, but we can’t get others to recognize they need help. Sometimes help comes in an unusual form, even from a couple of rabbits.
Have you ever had an experience like this? “Mr. Woodier, what you are describing about your daughter* sounds like any other fifteen-year old.”
I feel a wave of despair wash over me. Perhaps this teacher is just trying to reassure me, but it has the opposite effect. My daughter is struggling. Why can’t the teachers hear what I am trying to say? I have been trying to get them to understand for years.
In my experience, parenting an adopted teenager is different. I have four children, and my youngest is adopted. All four of them experienced the teen years differently. Although they all faced challenges growing up, my adopted daughter’s struggles are more intense. She gets knocked back harder by failure and rejection.
One of the most important things I learned as a youth worker, teacher, and parent is the importance of staying connected, of not letting my children become alienated during those turbulent years.
But that’s not so easy because good parenting is a two-way thing. Dan Hughes and Jonathan Baylin, authors of Brain Based Parenting, describe this as a kind of reciprocal relationship, “When a mother and her infant feel mutual joy in each other’s presence, the infant experiences herself as capable of eliciting Mom’s joy, and the mother experiences herself as capable of eliciting her infant’s joy1.” Feeling I have helped my son with a problem or shared a joke with my daughter helps me stay positive, open, and engaged with my children especially when they are struggling. But too often, with my daughter, I am drawn into a conflict, and I am made to feel that I have nothing to offer.
In addition, when I was going through a difficult time with my sons, I could go back and remember what they were like before they became teenagers, the cute and cuddly years. But that is not so easy with my adopted daughter. It has never been easy for her to show love. There isn’t so much of a good ‘before teenager’ time to refer back to.
I try to imagine what life is like from my daughter’s perspective. She wants her friends to accept her, but she doesn’t want to stand out at school. She wants her parents to respect her as an adult, but she still hugs a teddy bear. She worries what the future will look like and whether she will pass her exams. She can’t stop thinking about a boy at school, but she lives in dread that he will find out she likes him. No wonder she seems stressed when she gets home from school.
So as a parent I have to work even harder to stay connected to my daughter. I don’t want her to feel alienated or alone. In order to do this, my daughter and I recently became bunny rabbit foster parents. (Yes, there is a charity in Scotland for homeless rabbits). The rabbits also come with strange names. I remember one particularly difficult day, and we were both upset. I said, “Come on. You hold Hey Diddle and I will hold Nuts in May.” We sat there in silence for a few minutes. As our stress levels dropped, we began to talk about the rabbits. The angry words were quickly forgotten and life looked more hopeful again.
Parenting my daughter takes every ounce of creativity, patience, and hopefulness I have and then some more. I hold on to every good moment because I know that somewhere in there is a young person who may just need a bit longer to sort out her life. When I get little back that helps me feel like I am a doing a good job as a parent, I need affirmation from friends and family.
So, on behalf of all those parents of troubled teenagers, we know you can’t fix everything, but don’t minimize what we are going through. We need as much help as we can get during this really important time in our children’s lives. Finally, I love my garden but if it helps me stay connected to a very special daughter, I am willing to share it with a couple of rabbits.
*My daughter has given me permission to publish these details. “Dad, none of my friends read your blog anyway.”
I am taking a break over the summer, but look for future blogs on why inclusion matters, how understanding attachment helps build resilience in young people, and an interview with Helen Minnis, Professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Glasgow University.
1. J. Baylin, and D. A. Hughes, Brain Based Parenting: The Neuroscience of Caregiving for Healthy Attachment (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2010).
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