Creative Meetings: Inclusive Practice with Young People
If we are to work inclusively with young people, then truly creative practice may mean therapy in a football court or on a street corner rather than in a room packed with art materials. As part of Children’s Mental Health Week, Arts Psychotherapist, Adolescent Counsellor and Group Analyst Anthea Benjamin reflects on the importance of meeting children where they really are.
‘Central to transformative relationships are empathy and compassion, making emotional contact with another, showing that we are prepared to join them on a journey, but not as too distant an expert, nor as a fellow traveller lost without a map’ (Graham Music, Nurturing Children, 2019).
We are well versed in the idea that all behaviour is communication, but some behaviours and forms of communication are easier to tolerate or be alongside than others. I spend a lot of my time within my private practice working with children with attachment difficulties, as well as supporting therapists and other professionals who are learning how to be alongside children who have, for the most part, given up on trusting anyone, let alone another adult.
To be betrayed by the people who are meant to keep you safe is a deep wound that never truly heals. Winnicott talks beautifully about the importance of being held in mind and the sense of ease and safety this provides. To have been deprived of this is a huge disturbance in the emotional and psychological world of a child, and to remain open enough to allow for another opportunity to receive this experience is a complicated business. It requires a deep courage, both for the young person and for the practitioner walking alongside them.
This is made more complicated by issues of oppression and inequality, which replicate experiences of social marginalisation when a young person has experienced a homelife that is chaotic and unsafe. They must come out into a world in which organisations and systems can reinforce a sense of their worthlessness.
Many young people caught up in the school to prison pipeline have this experience – before they even have a chance to tell their story, they are labelled and set up, through punitive punishment systems, to become criminalised. Race is a big marker for this labelling process, as stereotypes of black children are used in society to rationalise feelings towards them that are rooted in Eurocentrism.
My experience of working with young people like this is they are yearning and often desperate to be seen… really seen. Unfortunately, they are all too often projected onto before they have a chance to work out who they are and, more importantly, who they could be.
My approach is informed by Rogerian therapy, especially unconditional positive regard, and Dan Hughes’ Dyadic Developmental Psychotherapy, with its commitment to connection before correction and to relationship repair. But I think we need to go further if we really want to ‘meet’ and ‘be alongside’ young people.
My training taught me that the way to offer safety and containment was to have a nice therapy room and arts materials to work with young people. But when young people have often had difficult things happen to them, being cornered in a room and staying still for more than five minutes fills them with high anxiety.
The question can become: who is our Eurocentric sense of a therapeutic frame really serving? I think the therapeutic frame can be an internal frame and can be taken and extended into different contexts. For some, this may mean doing work on the street corner, or at Nando’s or on the football court, in essence somewhere the young person feels safe and can be met. This external frame can become a transitional space for them before they can consider stepping into a therapy room.
For many young people who have had to fit into the world’s idea of them, it makes sense to me, for once, that they can be met on their own terms. This way of working has sometimes been seen to be unethical and unsafe. Again, the question is for whom?
Including social justice frameworks within therapeutic practice enables us to eliminate barriers for young people to accessing the therapy they need. Inclusive practice means surrendering the expert position of ‘knowing’ how best to offer therapy and collaborating with young people to build and co-construct safe spaces to meet and heal.