Child Guidance

This is the sixth in a series about Valerie Jackson’s career as a teacher.

I worked with the outpatients who visited the Psychologist and Psychiatrist once a week. These were challenging times as I never knew who was going to walk through the door.


I worked with one little boy, Matthew, who was the only child of a vicar and his wife. He was such a mild-mannered child. He hardly ever spoke and was reluctant to move. He had been referred through his General Practitioner because of suicidal tendencies – whatever they were I didn’t find out. I showed him into the play room and explained that he could do anything in here that he wanted except for deliberately hurt himself or someone else. We had shatterproof windows and brick walls so there was nothing to harm.

He sat in a corner and played with some toy cars. I asked him if he wanted to draw and he said he did. I suggested that he draw himself. He drew the most beautiful picture of an owl sitting in a corner of the paper. I asked him if that was how he saw himself and he nodded. I could only assume that he felt that he was more or less invisible and he quite liked that silent watcher persona. If he felt that he wasn’t noticed, then he felt safe.

On one occasion, another, more boisterous child – Joseph – came in and I introduced them. Joseph made overtures of friendship which Matthew reciprocated up to the point where the new boy put his hands round Matthew’s neck and pretended to choke him. Matthew looked at him and then Joseph dropped his hands and said sorry and smiled.

I couldn’t follow up his story as he was only an outpatient so I didn’t know how his life turned out.


He was seven when he came for sessions at the clinic. He had the most amazing curly white-blonde hair. It looked like cotton wool on his head. He had piercing blue eyes and an angelic smile. He was a killer. He had a naivety that could fool people into thinking he was a wonderful child. He was the closest thing I got to working with a sociopath.

He constantly asked, “What happens when…” – usually about death or killing. He called ambulances “bandage cars” and appeared to have no in-built conscience about any misdeeds of his. He lived with his mother and two sisters. They were constantly on the run from ex-partners or clients who had had their money stolen by their prostitute mother.

No one seemed to want to protect this family and although this was still in the time where domestic violence was considered no one’s business, it still strikes me that women in particular had a very difficult time if they were considered to be outcasts in society, even if there were children involved. Joseph and his family had from time to time, hidden in ditches overnight or had been chased by men wielding shotguns.

I am not sure if he ever felt fear. His mother and sisters were all very striking to look at with the same white hair and blue eyes. There must have been some Nordic influences there, which were not too surprising as we were very close to Denmark and Norway and had been invaded on several occasions in the distant past. At the time I went to school and consequently returned to work in Cumbria, lots of businesses especially fish sales, were operated by Danish families with names such as Hansen and Tomson. In fact the whole of that north west area around Whitehaven was heavily influenced by seafaring types, such as Fletcher Christian, whose is buried near there, and John Paul Jones, a notable sea captain.

“The boy, as is wont with Scottish boys, however humble, received the elements of education, but could not have advanced very far with his books, since we find him at the age of twelve apprenticed to the sea. The situation of Kirkbean, on the shore of the Solway, naturally gave a youth of spirit an inclination to life on the ocean; and he had not far to seek for employment in the trading-port of Whitehaven, in the opposite county of Cumberland. Paul’s first adventure–the appendix of Jones was an after-thought of his career–was in the service of Mr. Younger, a merchant in the American trade, who sent his apprentice on a voyage to Virginia, where an elder brother of Paul had profitably established himself at Fredericksburg. This gave him an early introduction to the country with which the fame of the future soldier of fortune was to be especially identified.

The person of Paul Jones is well known by the numerous prints devoted to his brilliant exploits. You will see him, a little active man of medium height, not robust but vigorous, a keen black eye, lighting a dark, weather-beaten visage, compact and determined, with a certain melancholy grace.

John Paul Jones was one of nature’s self-made men; that is, nature gave the genius, and he supplied the industry, for he knew how to labour, and must have often exerted himself to secure the attainments which he possessed. He was a good sea-man, as well as a most gallant officer; sagacious in the application of means; vain, indeed, and expensive, but natural and generous; something of a poet in verse, much more in the quickness and vivacity of his imagination, which led him to plan nobly; an accomplished writer; and as he was found worthy of the warm and unchanging friendship of Franklin, that sage who sought for excellence while he looked with a kindly eye upon human infirmity, we, too, may peruse the virtues of the man and smile upon his frailties.”

There are festive foods that are a direct result of the sea trade on this coast: rum butter, served at christenings and other celebrations, is very traditional. It is produced by mixing quantities of butter, sugar – brown and dark rum to make a stiff paste which can be scooped up by dry bread and eaten at the end of a meal.

Joseph must have descended form such stock. He was a lovely child nevertheless, and I enjoyed working with him to help him improve his reading and writing skills. It was hard for him because he was constantly distracted by his more fearsome imagination and wanting to know “what if”. I could imagine how difficult it would have been to contain him in a large class of children.

After a few months, he returned to mainstream school. I heard that he had been caught with some older boys having broken into his old school, drunk all the tea and hot chocolate in the staff room and thrown the guinea pigs and rabbits over the school roof in order to avoid detection. No sense and no sensitivity sums him up. I still remember him with fondness but would never be surprised if he was jailed for murder.


I feel very privileged to have met so many different children and their families. It helped me in my career so much. I don’t think there was anything I hadn’t seen or had to deal with and that helped me be stronger and more proactive in my attitude.

There was one girl who had severe learning and communication problems. She had so many stereotype mannerisms. She rocked and hummed. She could make the most frightening faces especially when she was looking at her mother. She got lengths of string and binding and tied them tightly round her waist under her clothes so that they cut into her skin or burned her when she pulled them tighter or rubbed them round her waist. He mother had to watch her closely as she was very keen to hurt herself. She had a habit of biting the skin on the back of her hand and letting it snap back. I can still cringe at anything that sounds similar. She was covered in scars and marks where she had made herself bleed and then pestered the wound to cause septic infections. She rocked violently on her chair and was so difficult to manage that the local special needs schools had agreed that she could stay at home as there wasn’t enough funding to pay for a one to one person. Her mother was exhausted but there was very little help available at that time.

Another child had suffered brain damage during his birth. He was quite misshapen in his body and head. He had little or no communication and spent his time using his pincer grip to collect any crumb or speck of fluff from the carpet. The family had the dedicated support of an Occupational Therapist, who had taken them to her heart and spent more time than she was paid for.

I remember some of the families with fondness. One family who lived in very poor circumstances was part of my regular home visits. The husband and wife had a wonderful relationship – they were both mad! She was very petite and was convinced she looked like a small Marilyn Monroe. He was very tall and thought he looked like Elvis. They went to the local pubs and clubs to perform a dancing act. Even though most people laughed at them they were happy in their notoriety. Their children, a very bright and articulate girl and a younger, very disabled boy were the joy of their lives.

Their house was always filthy and it was one of those where I sprayed the bottom of my trousers with flea spray before I went inside. I never had a drink as I had always “just had one thank you” and I hardly ever sat down. They received plenty of clothing and bedding from Social Services so had wardrobes full. The problem was that they never washed their clothes, so everything smelled and was put to the bottom of the pile on the floor and a new lot taken out.

Joseph was a very difficult child who displayed many autistic traits, such as spinning chairs, lids and anything that he could manipulate. He made a constant noise like a raging bull and hardly ever slept without medication. He was challenging for any parent. One time I visited, the husband told me that he could levitate. He described how he had put himself into a trance and found himself floating round the room. His wife confirmed this.

Sadly, one evening after countless nights with no sleep, the father made a mistake. He was so stressed that he tried to put a rope round his son’s neck to silence him. His wife stopped him but the damage had been done. The children were placed in care and the couple struggled to survive. Whenever the father saw his son, he couldn’t allow himself to get close as he was so ashamed of what he had done. He was now frightened of his own behaviour.

Eventually they got the children back but things were never the same again. They changed from a fairly happy-go-lucky family to a beaten down, depressed group whose daughter was removed and placed in care so that she could live a ‘normal’ life and eventually the son was placed in a residential setting. In effect, that one action, spontaneous as it was, signalled the end of this family. Whilst I would never condone what happened to the son, I feel there are some people who have to be offered a more sympathetic treatment, because the father was so frightened by what he did I knew he would never do anything similar again.

Learning and moving on

I learned so much during my years in child guidance and achieved many different qualifications. It sparked a real interest in the benefits of counselling and one to one support, which I eventually turned to practical use with a higher degree in therapy. There are so many children I remember with fondness and some with pride for what they did to help themselves. There were some casualties of this experience, not least my marriage. I married a man who didn’t want me or our lives to change. In child guidance, everyone changes and life never remains the same from one day to the next so we parted ways.

I moved from the area to start afresh.

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