Exploring Courage and Supporting Children in Care
Courage, a word I knew the dictionary definition of ‘to be brave, or finding strength in a fearful situation or circumstance’, and was sure I had felt. I took risks, put myself in situations where I was nervous and scared and always came out the other side. I soon began to realise there were levels, or depths of courage, and it’s not until you are, weak and vulnerable, in the pit of despair, you need the most amount of strength and courage to pull you out. A few years ago I found myself in this hole and thankfully was able to get out, I knew and felt courage like something I had never experienced before, it engulfed and empowered me, yet it still worried me, I was sceptical of how much to trust my own courage, would it betray me? I made some life changing decisions and walked away from self-destruction, having a good therapist and forgiving myself, allowed me to do this. Counselling enables you to climb out of the hole, it gives you a rope and a choice to use it, to pull and heave yourself up, safely, draining you of energy and with the uncertainty of what’s at the top (this being what you may have left behind and not knowing if you can cope with the change). Working with clients who find themselves at rock bottom, overwhelmed with the feeling of emptiness and becoming numb to any emotion or sensation, as we know, it is therapeutic and appropriate to stay with them. Usually for one hour a week, camped out in that hole or if that’s too powerful, to be at the top, on the outside, a presence who is actively listening. These difficult and low feelings can affect us all, be it experiencing it ourselves or watching others at their darkest times, finding strength is the first step away from our lowest point. Courage can’t be forced, without sounding cliche, it truly comes from within.
From my own experience of personal therapy and counselling others, including ten years of supporting the most vulnerable of young people, there are always glimmers of courage and strength, these are very individual and manifest in many forms. This could be a client making a decision not to take drugs or even socialise with their friends who do or it could be an individual asking for help, needing to talk, even just for 5 minutes about their feelings. Working with children in care, who have been removed from their families under child protection, they have often been in abusive situations or experienced abuse directly. Unbeknown to them, they may have found courage at a young age, merely to survive or protect themselves or their younger siblings. These traumatic experiences are often repressed or have been repeatedly discussed in front of them through a group of professionals, or even in a court room, their times of struggle presented as a story, or a list of facts, invalidating any feelings, their anger and shame, their vulnerabilities, and their courage. In the counselling room, I mainly use creative therapies with children and young people, usually starting with a timeline of their life (including 5 years in the future). Through this they can mark significant moments or feelings by drawing, through the use of colour and a few powerful words, exploring with them what’s there and what isn’t - years of blanks can speak volumes. Using a therapeutic tool allows the lesser verbal client to speak through another means, for their journey to be heard and with the option to be changed and added to, creating a working document. Demonstrating their past does not define them, they can accept it, shake hands with it and make changes if they want. The future years are an opportunity to create goals and aspirations or to state (which is often the case) to ‘feel happier and accept who I am’. For a client to see their life moving forward can be both scary and helpful, it is our role of the counsellor to support these feelings and give the client the opportunity to understand them. When supporting looked after children, I recognise they have been in many situations where ‘choice’ has been taken away, they have usually too lost what they considered their ‘safe place’, this may have been school. I see this with many younger clients, a chance to leave a destructive environment (home) and not be the parent role or victim of abuse. Unfortunately this is also the place where many children in care have been told they will not be returning home and will now be placed into care, they leave home and go to school one day and not return, and are sometimes even split up from their siblings. These actions are taken understandably for their own safety, but the emotional consequences of this event have taken away their choice and their only remaining ‘safe place’.
Children see school as a place where they are safe, where responsible adults (seen as positive parent roles) keep them from harm, to be taken into care and possibly not fully understand what this means, drastically changes their view on their school environment. It doesn’t come as a surprise that 40% of care leavers in England are not in education, employment or training, this is in comparison to the national average of 14% of 19-21 year olds† (Department of Education, 2016). Providing these two basic needs in the therapeutic space are fundamental in their personal development in later life, and their ability to cope with difficult situations, including decision making, building relationships, loss and endings. For this client group, it couldn’t be more significant to explore their strengths, allow them to understand what courage is and how they can use this to move forward in life.
Counsellor & Wellbeing Facilitator at Riverwood Counselling and Wellbeing Practice, www.riverwoodcounselling.co.uk
†Department of Education (2016) National Statistics: Children looked after in England including adoption 2015 to 2016 [online] September 2016. Available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/556331/SFR41_2016_Text.pdf [Accessed: 17th April 2017]