‘Jennifer’ aged 15, and ‘James’ aged 11 were siblings in a mainstream secondary school where I was working on a consultancy basis. There were six children in the family and neither parent worked, Mr. X being unable to work for the previous fifteen years owing to a chronic back problem. Both Jennifer and James had a long history of disruptive behaviour, poor relationships with staff and underachievement. A plethora of support and interventions had been put in place by the school and there had also been CAMHS involvement on two separate occasions when each child had received a six-week intervention at Tier 11. Nothing had yielded positive change.
Regular fixed-term exclusions triggered meetings at which parents were helpful and fully supportive but “devastated” and “completely baffled” by their children’s behaviour. At this point, parents were advised that unless behaviour improved, permanent exclusion from school would be the sad but most likely outcome as all avenues of support had been exhausted and the negative impact on the learning of other students was great.
Matters reached a critical point when James had been found with a carving knife in his bag at school. He had told staff when questioned that it had been his intention to kill himself on his way home from school that afternoon.
Parents were invited to attend an urgent meeting, with me in attendance. In response to my questioning, parents willingly explained their family routines and relationships. The descriptions of family life could have been lifted from a script of the Waltons! Both children agreed that the happy home life parents were describing was accurate. There appeared not to be a single blot on their emotional landscape: nothing, that provided any clues as to why the children were behaving as they did, nothing for me to work with.
I gently challenged Jennifer with the task of explaining why she engaged in constant attention-seeking and or destructive behaviour when she agreed that she received a healthy and appropriate amount of attention both in school and at home. Jennifer didn’t respond verbally but hung her head and began to cry. Following coaxing and gentle persuasion, Jennifer eventually confided that she received “things attention”, and “words attention”. Her parents immediately looked upset and anxious and her father quickly said, “Jen, you know why that it is, we’ve told you. That can’t change. We don’t talk about it.” At that point, I asked that the children be taken to a different room and I spoke with the parents alone.
Parents reluctantly explained that they had both been sexually abused as children, a situation that had led to them being placed in the care of the Local Authority (LA). Neither parent had benefitted from a successful foster placement and had spent their adolescent years in a children’s home which is where their relationship began. Whilst in LA care, both parents had been told that as they had been sexually abused they would likely grow up to become abusers themselves; an outrageous prediction that had devastated and terrified them both. Mr. X had been further abused whilst in LA care.
On finding themselves expecting their first child, these parents formed a pact. Whilst greatly distressed they explained that they had decided that once the child was walking, it would be held only when holding was essential to practical care giving. It was also decided that the father would not work and that each parent would be a chaperone for the other. I suspected that the convenient back issue was a psychogenic manifestation, born out of terror and essential to what parents had perceived to be the safeguarding of their children. That is the tragic system that prevailed in the household at the time of our meeting; home was a ‘cuddle free’ zone.
I suggested to parents that some therapy was essential to resolving the trauma of their pasts and to enable them to overcome the negative conditioning that had been imposed whilst in care. The school was delighted to divert some of my time to providing this therapy; parents had four sessions which included use of the trauma re-wind technique. We also did some work around the realities of appropriate parental touching and holding.
Jennifer has now completed her compulsory education and gained 9 GCSEs, 7 at grade C or above. Jennifer now attends college and is studying 3 A Levels and hopes to work with adolescents when she is older. James in situated in Yr. 11 and is meeting his academic targets working hard toward his predicted 10 GCSEs all at grade C or above. There are now two other siblings in the school. These children all behave well, teachers describe that they are “a pleasure to teach”; the children report that they “love hugs best of all!” The future for this family looks very healthy indeed!