Children don’t often tell stories in a straight line. They give you fragments. Small pieces from different events dished out over time. As a therapist working with children it’s important to chronicle these bits so together with the kids in your care you can assemble the puzzle that brought them to you in the first place. Unfortunately, these bits don’t often get told on the managed care timeline. So you can be just as lost on session 6 as you were on session 1 because you’ve only been given portions of a whole. Parents, even those well intended, are no help because ultimately it’s not their story. So while they can be wonderful informants and necessary allies in a child’s healing process, they cannot be the narrator of the child’s story. It’s your job to listen to everything. Every bit. Every piece. Every fragment. Because it is only once the story is told that the healing may begin.
That’s a daunting concept for a therapist in this age to image that healing for a hurt child will only begin once they have told their story in its entirety and to realize that that story will only be told in fragments that you cannot rush because if you do you will get it wrong and the child’s healing process will be thwarted.
As therapists working with children and youth you instinctively want to go to the source and heal the hurt. You want to solve the problem so the child will be all better and go on to live a happy whole healthy existence. We assess. We plan. We process. We debrief. We evaluate. We reevaluate. Which then leads to a reassessment and a new plan. And we will do this with limitations on service that give us only 6, 8 or 12 visits. We do this knowing that our relationships with the children who come to us for healing are temporal by nature. So we have a tendency to rush the process because we are so rushed. But with children you can’t rush the process. You have to listen to the story. You must figure out ways to help them tell their story in their way in their words without interruption, interference or interjections by the sometimes-well meaning caring adults in their lives (including you).
How might you do that? How might you create an environment where children may feel safe to allow their stories to unfold? How might you be a listener, a witness really for their stories without biases or planning or judgments?
Being able to tell your story, your way is the first step in healing. (Please note: that for many the process of telling is the healing itself.) Without the telling moving to the next step for anyone who has been hurt is an impossible and improbably task. Healing for the hurt child depends on the telling. And the wound no matter how small no matter how large will fester and infect healthy aspects of your being. It will take you over. So that dysfunction becomes the norm. Healing helps contain the infection. Listening is the antibiotic that supports the healing. Listening is the Neosporin of therapy. So my question to you is…Do you know how to listen?
Do you know how to be a silent witness? To not speak, not question, not judge but only hear a story. The assessment, planning and evaluation comes later much later. Do you have the patience to wait it out? Do you have the tools to assist when ‘talking’ is not the child’s means of communicating her or his story? Do you know how to follow so that you don’t get in the way of where the story is going?
Childhood can be such a hazardous place. There are many pitfalls and millions of choices. The messages we send to children about who they must be, where they must live, how they must believe are contradictory and hypercritical. I stand in awe of the resiliency of the average child to navigate it all. The average child may have to endure loss of a grandparent, pet, or divorce. The average child knows grief and disappointment. Depending on their family system they will have learned rudimentary coping systems for managing loss and negotiating feelings of inadequacy (which is a huge part of western culture). The average child grows up and becomes your average productive adult.
The child who has experience a loss without learning and having had modeled for them a coping system that allows them and those around them to continue to function after a life changing event is at risk of becoming a hurt child. As adults we often assume that we know the formula for when a child crosses over from average to hurt based on the event. We hold certain beliefs or judgments about trauma and instead of listening to a child’s story allowing them to define for themselves what the trauma is or where the hurt began we assume we know…
“Obviously she’s suicidal because of the sexual abuse.”
“He’s upset because of the divorce.”
“This depression is a result of an extensive family history of mental illness.”
When we decide we know. We stop listening and we start planning. This is true not only of the children we work with but with the children we raise as well. We just don’t listen. We assess and believe that because we have assessed the situation, asked the right questions, taken the history, reviewed the medical reports or police reports, held a consultation with a teacher or previous caseworker that we know the story.
Its time we stop assuming that we know what children are telling us and actually listen to what they have to say. Its time we learn to listen. Hearing their stories, bearing witness to their tales will heal the children and teach us some very valuable lessons as well.