Friday, 20 February 2015

"Will I Always Know You?": Re-imagining Professional Boundaries (Podcast episode 03)

Had another fun and rich conversation with Adela for this episode. Adela brought in the subject of professional boundaries and continuity of relationships when working with children who then leave your service.

As I know she is as much a Sopranos fan as I am, my example of Tony Soprano and Dr Jenny Melfi's relationship kind of made sense! Enjoy the discussion and let us know your thoughts on the subject... (Check it on iTunes too)

Thursday, 29 January 2015

THE WOODEN KNIFE: Brief Interactions in Youth Work

Today I was training a group of ‘independent visitors’ whose job it will be to pay visits to children and young people in state-run residential care (known in the USA as ‘group homes’). One of them mentioned that several professionals had questioned their role, and suggested that children cannot benefit from brief relationships like these.

My answer focused on how meaningful their interactions were, rather than the overall length of the relationship. We discussed how with each safe interaction they have with children who have known betrayal, abuse and neglect, they contribute to a healing process that changed the child’s perception of the world as a hostile place. Following the workshop, I continued thinking about the discussion and I remembered my wooden knife.

When I was about 8 years old, I lived in Bogota, in Colombia. At the time Bogota had the highest crime and murder rate in the universe. For some reason there was a policeman who was regularly stationed outside our home. I don’t know if my father or his employer payed for it, or if they were just stationed around the place, but I remember the man. He was an indigenous Indo, and as he stood on guard, he would carve traditional figurines and whittle sticks into anything he wanted.

I think he also took a fancy to Hortencia, my nanny (who wouldn’t? she was gorgeous) and that’s also why he hung around. I used to stand out there chatting with him, he took a real interest and spoke to me like I was an adult.

I said to him, “can you carve me something?” and he told me he could, whatever I wanted, if I found a piece of wood. I ran into the yard and found a piece of wood. I took it to him and said, “could you make me a knife? I want one exactly like yours”.  “Of course” he said, and began to whittle. He made me a little wooden version of his knife, and I treasured it.

For whatever reason, shortly thereafter, I didn’t see him again. It was a brief, but safe relationship, but the wooden knife was the most special thing I had, and 38 years later, I still have it.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Monday, 29 September 2014

GRAND THEFT BIRO: Kleptomania And Validation

A young man in one of our therapeutic care programs, ‘Timmy’, had the harmless habit of stealing pens from desks, bags and shirt pockets. It was harmless enough, but it needed to be addressed, partly because some people are rather attached to their pens (some are rather expensive) and mostly because stealing is a rather maladaptive and unlawful habit.

At 13, this particular boy had already led a tumultuous life subject to cruelty and neglect and his behaviour required a trauma-informed approach, which can be at times counter-intuitive and in opposition to traditional behaviour approaches.

 A common behaviour modification approach would reward him when he chooses not to steal, and punish him, in the form of a minor sanction or admonition, when he takes a pen. But as many people find, this does not deal with the real issue, and usually won’t work. He already feels unworthy and punishable, so he behaves unconsciously in ways that seek evidence of it. When we reproach him for his behaviour, it only affirms what he already believes; that he is bad.

So what to do?

 I had an idea to test a trauma-informed approach that instead validates him as a person, and that I thought might address the issue of worthiness at its core. I went to the local newsagent store and bought the fanciest looking pen I could find, with a shiny metal casing. Then I had it engraved with these words:

‘This one’s for you Timmy’

The next day I placed the pen conspicuously in my top pocket, and I saw immediately when it caught Timmy’s eye. I eluded Timmy most of the day, and I could see that he had the pen in his sights, formulating his grand theft plan. It was not until the end of the day that he put his plan into action, and I saw him waiting at my car. He put out his hand for our usual daggy gangster handshake as we said goodbye, and deftly slipped it to my top pocket, took the pen and ran up the driveway with a victorious chuckle.

He slowed to a walk and then I saw him stop and utter the words,

 “What the fuck?!”

He looked back once with a smile that stretched from one ear to the other,  and then continued on his way. He kept that pen like a prized possession and to the surprise of my behavioural experts, never stole another one.

The pen was not a gift, nor a reward for bad behaviour, as some might believe. It was a message that said, ‘you are worthy, we think of you when we don’t see you, and we will provide you with everything you need’. It was one small but significant step to changing his internal working model.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

MARY NEWTON The Angel : Boys don’t just need ‘strong male role models’

My treasured and only photo of me (at 20) and Mary

Here’s a story that is much bigger than these brief words, but I will keep it short. The message is that boys don’t necessarily need good male role models; they just need good, safe people in their lives.

I met her on the day of my sister’s funeral. I was 16. On that day I held staunchly onto a thread that I hoped would keep me upright, brave, strong…all those things a boy was supposed to be when his beloved little sister was taken away by a cruel and uncaring God. I couldn’t fall apart because I thought I needed to be a ‘strong’ boy, for my mum and dad, and my 3 other sisters.

However, inside I was a crumbling wall on that day. I stood there on my own amongst so many strangers in my home, friends and family, Barry the next door neighbour drunk with whisky and grief, and an uninvited priest with protruding teeth and an unwelcome smile. I must have been somewhat disassociated, in a trance of numbing disbelief. 

And then I felt a hand, so tiny and so warm. Like an unexpected heat-pack placed gently on the back of my neck. I heard her little voice, a little husky and so gentle.

Oh little one”, she said.

My wall stopped crumbling at that moment.

Her name was Mary Newton, she was a friend of my parents, and had taught my sister, and so many other cancer patients simple meditation techniques. I’d heard of her, this old blind mystic from Camberwell, who had given her time to comfort so many. She was half my size, so tiny, but I felt like she carried me in strong arms. Funny, from then on, she always called me ‘Little One”, and it always made me laugh.

We formed a friendship there and then, that was to last until the day of her death 10 years later. I lived in Tyabb on the Mornington Peninsula, and I’d take a bus, a train and then a tram, on a 3-hour journey to see her weekly. We’d sit for hours and drink tea, chat about books and philosophy, and meditate.

It all sounds very mystical doesn’t it? But it wasn’t magic, she just gave me a safe haven, she never judged me, always loved me and always listened, really listened, to what I said. I’d talk about my family, school, my martial arts training; even girls (“…oh don’t you worry about her Little One, there will be a dozen more come and go before you find the right one…”).

 By truly listening and just sitting with me, she helped me to come to terms with my sister’s passing. She taught me the value of helping others, and I became her assistant at the meditation groups, making tea for the many cancer sufferers that filled her house. She believed in ‘healing through service’; that in helping others, we somehow vicariously heal ourselves.

There is no doubt, that if it weren’t for Mary, I would not be in my field of work. She set my trajectory for life. She was my best friend, an angel that came when I needed one, and my heart broke the day I said goodbye at the age of 26. I’m 45 now, I still have the pink floral teacup she left me, I still feel her hand on my back, and I still hear her voice whenever a young person asks for my help.

It is why, when I see a young person’s ‘challenging’ behaviour, be it destructive, violent, distressed or otherwise, I always begin by thinking “oh Little One…”

*Mary Newton was unknown, but she was a great influence on my work and on proponents of meditation for healing, such as Ian Gawler (Founder of the Ian Gawler Foundation) and the late Ainsley Meares.

Saturday, 31 May 2014

DON’T BE AN ASSHOLE: The First Step to Therapeutic Outcomes

It is the first rule of all 'helping' professions, it seems to be the most logical, yet somehow, it is the first to be forgotten. At the risk of being guilty of ethical reductionism, I suggest the first rule is, just don’t be an asshole.

If you think that by virtue of being a ‘helper’ by profession, whether it be as a therapeutic youth worker, nurse, doctor, psychotherapist or clinician, that you are immune from assholism, think again.

Therapeutic residential care is full of academic theories around complex trauma, attachment and psychodynamics, it seems difficult and expensive, but too many forget the first, simplest and most inexpensive step: be kind…always.

Phillip Zimbardo, principal of the famous Stanford Prison Experiment, demonstrated how good people could do evil things in an unchecked, institutional environment. Of course we are not talking about being ‘evil’. We are talking about the nurse who is rough, rude and impersonal; the teacher who publicly tells the difficult child that they ‘should know better’ (in a tone that makes screeching fingernails sound pleasurable); the Youth Justice worker who treats incarcerated young people like nasty criminals, rather than harmed children whose sense of hopelessness could be altered by a kind and patient voice; or the residential carer who refuses to change the TV channel for a kid because they can’t miss Antique Roadshow or Bargain Hunters, or some other form of televised torture.

Young people who have experienced childhood abuse and neglect will look for signs that you do not care; they seek evidence that supports an internal belief that they are unworthy and unlovable. If you feel bitter about your work, your personal life, or a lost football game, and express that bitterness around children in your care, it is evidence enough to set back a long healing process.

I have written about many aspects to creating a healing environment for those living with PTSD, about psychodynamics, and therapeutic approaches; and in coming months I will be writing more on dyadic conversations, acceptance parenting and healing responses to challenging behaviours. But, to be a tad blunt, if you act like an asshole, none of it will work.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Video: The difference between 'trauma-based' and 'naughty' behaviour

I recently received a question over the Knightlamp Facebook page (thank you Sandra Telford), "How do you differentiate between naughty child/teenage behaviour and trauma based behaviour?" The video is a brief response to the question while I took a little walk on a magical beach. The topic of course requires more than a 5 minute response, and indeed we spend whole days on this theme in seminars, but I thought a brief answer might initiate discussion and some thought on what is an important question...

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Welcome! (Lab rats, White bunnies and Santa not allowed)

I drove past this childcare centre the other day, and was surprised to see its name. Why on earth would you choose ‘Little Albert’?

 I can see the logic, it’s on Albert Street, and full of little people, so ‘Little Albert’ makes sense. But anybody who has ever enrolled in Psych 101 will see a different association.

‘Little Albert’  was the pseudonym given to an infant used by John B Watkins at the John Hopkins University to show empirical evidence for classical conditioning. Watkins induced fear in ‘Little Albert’ by frightening the child with loud clanging sounds when he played with a white lab rat. ‘Little Albert’ later developed phobias of other white fluffy things, and was even triggered by a Santa Claus Beard.

So if the name is really a reference to the Watkins experiment, what does it mean? It may be a tribute of sorts, I guess. Like saying ‘as a community, little Albert, we hereby apologise, because that was plain crap, so we’ve named this child care centre after you…hope that makes up for it’

This was one of several unethical experiments by early psychologists, which set a trend for harmful experiments that played with the quality every day people’s lives and included Jane Elliot’s ‘blue eyed/brown eyed’ experiment with third graders in the 60’s, and Phillip Zimbardo’s famous ‘Stanford Prison Experiment’ with college students.

As annoying as they can be when submitting proposals for a thesis, we can be grateful for research Ethics Committees!