Psychotherapy Services in South West London

Therapy with disturbed children.

Initially children exposed to extremes of violence, poverty and neglect are traumatised, passively begging for change. They plead, sometimes they protest, and when they realise there is no hope for change, they undergo a psychological transformation. In a depleted but determined way, they shut down their capacity to feel. Numb to the world, their environmental disturbances cease to upset. In the short term this is a common reaction to traumatic events but in the long term, when the defence of being emotionally shut down is sustained, the child is deprived of a rich emotional repertoire. To be emotional, like all other human experiences, needs to be learned in a reciprocal exchange. These emotionally cold children fail to elicit care from those around them, they seem defensive as if wearing a suit or armour. Any kind of touch provokes rage or rigidity in them. Their entire emotional repertoire is so narrowed down that they just become preoccupied with survival. These children are sensitive to humiliation, they have been exposed to a catastrophic loss of power, their humiliation is often confirmed in the onlooker’s gaze. The child being “looked at” ceases to be passive and takes charge in an attack. They may assault the onlooker or rebuff them with an aggressive “What are you looking at?” When the heat or threat has subsided, most of these children are shocked by their own violent reactions. Disorientated, they stand to absorb the rage and punishment of those who care from them but are baffled by their extreme behaviours. A punishment never stays with them long enough to be called up on as a learning that could inform their future choice, emotionally disturbed children are too impulsive and disorganized to make links. The punishing grown-up is perceived simply as yet another untrustworthy adult who behaves in a predictably aggressive way. The legacy of their intervention is always shame but never guilt or remorse. Children such as these have an impaired capacity for empathy  they are unable to feel sorrow for themselves and therefore cannot by proxy feel the pain of their victims. Having gone through years of their lives like feeling less rubber dolls, they believe others to be equally void. When they hurt their victims they cannot imaging  pain.  Adults dealing with children who are exposed to such profound levels of despair often feel so deskilled that they too experience despair. For children who have already lost everything, threats of deprivation are redundant. A genuine thoughtful and individually tailored acts of care surprise them. It is as if, to engage them, the carers needs to do something that makes both their humanities visible. The only hope of returning these young people to the centre of society rests in restoring to them the capacity to feel. A non toxic reverie needs to be established between the therapeutic worker and the child. Children who have been emotionally frozen for years and whose sense of self is so fragmented find it difficult to tolerate the therapist’s attention. It would be a mistake to think that the limitation of therapeutic interventions can achieve astounding results. Therapy with disturbed children is about visiting the extremes of pain and somehow surviving beyond them. It is about the power of love to rekindle the will to live. A capacity to be thoughtful about their behaviour leads to more relevant intervention strategies.

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