Bearing the Unbearable

This reflection is taken from my earlier work as a class teacher.


In my work, I come across challenging children the whole time; it is what I love to do.  But what do you do when you meet a child who triggers you so much that you become ineffective in dealing and teaching him or her?

I have recently come across this very problem as a teacher in a school for children with emotional and behavioural problems.  Never before have I been flooded with terror and hatred I was experiencing both emotionally and physically.  Sure, with such severely damaged kids, I had most definitely experienced being hated, threatened, left feeling powerless and manipulated but had always managed to remain resilient and use the transference to inform me.

The normal strategies used at school were not giving me methods to help me deal with the overwhelming feelings I was receiving from this particular child.  I knew I needed to stand strong and show him that I was indeed solid enough to survive his attacks yet how to stay well enough to do it?  How could I bear the unbearable?
This is where I learnt the true value of psychological supervision whilst doing this work.  And this is where I took my concerns, feelings and frustrations.  It took several lengthy (and costly!) sessions with well-versed practitioners particularly trained in dealing with these very damaged and hurt young people to start to understand how I could become strong enough to withstand the attacks.  What was it triggering in me?  Could I do it?  How could I do it?
In David Taransaud’s book, ‘You Think I’m Evil’, he talks about how we as adults working with these children can react in one of four defensive ways: as an Enforcer; the Ignorer; the Surrenderer or the Rescuer.  He empathises with all of these reactions but goes on to explain how each of them a) don’t initiate the change either we want or the child needs and b) prevent us from forming a relationship with the child or adolescent that is so necessary to his/her recovery.   More often than not, the reason we are so triggered is that there is something in us that is hurting and of which we are most likely shameful.  Taransaud goes on to say that we need to face this shadow part of ourselves so that we can become an effective tool in staying alongside the child.
Easier said than done, right?  Right.  Taransaud again suggests a few ways forward which I call: know thyself; accept thyself and view through different eyes.  For me, that meant embarking on a path to acknowledge my own feelings of vulnerability and powerlessness (tied up in all kinds of shame); to start to accept the feelings of hatred and rejection that went with it.  ‘The Guest House’ by Rumi kept coming to mind:

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

When he started struggling in the classroom, I tried to locate the experience I was having inside me and in my head.  I was more able to relax into the feeling and the situation.  As I did, a little more of me was able to connect to him.  One time as he stood a metre away from me and had a computer screen over his head ready to throw at me, I was able to pause and check in with myself and even be able to say, “Woah.  I’m feeling really scared and alone right now.” And at that very moment, his eyes looked at mine and we connected.  His arms relaxed slightly before I became stuck/frozen again.  But the heavy object was no longer directed at me.  It was powerful.  It seemed through accepting my desperate vulnerability and powerlessness I was able to connect to him and maybe him to me.
In addition to responding in the moment, I also took the advice of Daniel A Hughes and Louise Bomber from their book, ‘Settling Troubled Pupils to Learn’, and asked more questions about the pupil’s history.  The first page of his file read that he had experienced severe trauma and when I asked more, found out that he had seen his mother being beaten nearly to death by his own father.  My heart could start to connect a little more, open a little more.
Back to Taransaud’s gems, and viewing through different eyes.  In the book there is a great explanation about all of these children possibly all of us.  There is an omnipotent self and a wounded self and underneath both of them an untapped potential.  First of all, I looked at myself; the transference I was receiving (eg terrorised). The Ominpotent self I was experiencing from him was domination and exploitation and the positive attributes underneath this, according to Taransaud, could be the ability to guide and counsel.  This is just an example of one of them.   But as I went through them, the list of positive attributes were many: this young person it would seem had empathy, could be assertive, ambitious and confident, be brave and courageous, be tender, hopeful and careful.  In the classroom, I then focused my attention on watching for these attributes and highlighting them to him through using ‘I like the part of you….’ cards.
This long blog seems to suggest that I have it all figured out.  I don’t.  I haven’t cracked it.  The reason the police, his mum and I would guess many others have ‘rejected’ him even if temporarily, is because he presents such challenging behaviours and terrorises those around him.  Yes, he challenges me to the core and makes me want to reject him. Yes, I still become frozen at interludes and just don’t know.  But I am committed to staying strong for him.  I don’t want him to metaphorically ‘kill me off’.  Not because I am proud and need to protect my ego but because he needs me and all others around him to bear the unbearable in order to heal.
Ever since the day I showed him my own vulnerability, things have shifted. The other day, we sat in the classroom and he started sharing his hating being away from his Mum for such long periods of time.  I was able to empathise and tell him the story of my niece who is also away from home at a young age.  ‘Is she there ‘cos she’s bad?’ he asked. I was able to empathise with him, share her story as well as those of the other boys in the school who had often told me that they liked being at school but wish they could see their mum every day.  We were able to talk about how he was not ‘bad’ and had never been.  To empathise that he and all the other boys around him had experienced really horrible things in their lives and how their behaviour was one way of showing their feelings.  How everyone at the school was committed to listening to the behaviour and then finding other ways of dealing with the overwhelming feelings he had.  Relaxed, he stayed silent.  The lunch bell rang.  He didn’t move.  We sat there and shared a slice of silence.  It was not entirely resolved but we had turned a fork in the road.
Bomber, L & Hughes DA, (2013)Settling to Learn, Worth Publishing, UK
Taransaud, D (2011), You Think I’mEvil, Worth Publishing, UK