Monday, 9 April 2012

Flying to Safety: The importance of shared experience

I was recently asked to assist with three siblings with extremely traumatised histories. Their behaviour was beyond challenging, very oppositional, terrified and terrorising. After being warned that they would probably destroy my car, attack me, and run away, I decided to tread gently and create a shared experience to develop a connection.

They really were quite oppositional and (understandably) didn’t want anything to do with me. I found some big sheets of paper and asked the youngest where I could find pencils, to which they all responded in unison,

"We’re not doing art!"

I said, "oh good coz I only have enough paper for me, can I

use your pencils?"

Then I said “can you draw a squiggle for me? Usually I make picture out of squiggles".

So he did, and I then used the ‘squiggle’ to form a very poor picture of a Mexican on a bike.

"Do you like it?”

"Nah, its shit".

So then I drew a squiggle, "here you try" 

And he did, before long we were chatting about where he was born, where I was born, where I was from and so on. I told him all about Melbourne and how cold it is in winter, but how lovely it is in autumn, and soon we were joined by the others.  One of them tried a picture from a squiggle, became angry at the result and scrunched it up and threw it.

At this stage things could have turned pear-shaped, because the undercurrent of shame is often at the source of aggressive behaviour in children who have experienced abuse. I therefore resorted to taking a small risk, as often we do in clinical work, and said

"Cool! Your picture flies! I'm doing the same with mine!" so I made a paper airplane, and flew it. 

Before long, I was showing all three how to make airplanes out of our pictures, and we pitched our flying skills against each other on the lawn. The aim was to fly them from one end, which we called Cairns, to the other, which we named Melbourne. This connected them with my story of flying from Melbourne to see them. They became part of my story and through a simple game, I became part of theirs.

I worked with the siblings for the following week before returning to Melbourne. Two months later, I returned and the youngest one was being held in the Cairns Watchhouse (I will reserve my thoughts on holding children in adult Watchhouses for another blogging!).

I went to see him and he looked frightened and isolated. He appeared triggered and slightly dissociated, not recognising me at all. As I sat on the other side of the perforated Perspex (as I said, another blog!) I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to help his state, or if he would recognise me at all. I then remembered the squiggles and the planes, and said,

“ I just flew up all the way from Melbourne on that paper plane we made”

At these words he finally relaxed, and I saw that he finally recognised me. Then he said,

“Well it wasn’t my plane, remember mine only made it to Brisbane!”

The experience, as simple as it was, confirmed and taught me a great deal about working with children recovering from trauma and attachment disruption. In particular the importance of unique shared experiences, and how crucial it is that we refer to them during times of crisis and dissociation to re-establish a safe connection. It is only then that we can begin healing and significant therapeutic progress.

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