A reflective account- Feelings evoked from leading life story work. By Hannah Clarke

Feelings evoked from leading life story work with a child with emotional and behavioural difficulties.

Before starting life story work, I was excited, as the child and I already had a good enough relationship. I found their ‘story’ intriguing and I was looking forward to helping the child make the links, that I thought, would be so beneficial.

Immediately I was disappointed. The Treatment Team (the multi-disciplinary team who oversee each child’s care and education) decided that two adults would be needed for the life story work instead of just myself. I’ve always disliked the feeling of being ‘watched’ and I thought I would have felt much more comfortable and less anxious working on my own. I thought that if I said the wrong thing, I could be judged by the other adult. I had led life story work once before, on my own, but I’d never had any ‘training’ and I didn’t want to look like I didn’t know what I was doing in front of a colleague.

I remember trying to convince the Treatment Team that two adults just felt unnecessary, I would be fine etc. Their reasoning behind having two adults was that the child would often display very angry feelings in therapy and that life story work could evoke the same sort of anger from the child. I felt I would be perfectly safe and I still didn’t feel the need for the second adult. In the end I was overruled and told there would be two adults, I would lead and the other adult would observe the bits I was likely to miss, for example the feeling in the room, the eye contact or body language. To be honest, I felt that I wouldn’t miss things; I thought I’d be perfectly able to sit in a room with a child and notice everything going on.

When I was told about the adult I would be paired with, I felt immediate relief. I knew the adult very well, we had worked together for years and I felt at complete ease. A weight had been lifted and I couldn’t wait to begin planning the sessions.

I am the type of person who likes things to be in order. A plan or a list can make me feel less anxious. It means I know what I will be aiming towards getting done in the session and I won’t be sat in front of the child not knowing what to do or say. I feel that if I am in control of the situation that it will be fine, nothing will go horrendously wrong and, I will survive.

We decided upon the length of time of the life story work with the Treatment Team. We didn’t have a long amount of time before the child was going to be leaving the school. I had a good idea in my head and on paper what we would be able to cover for each session. I got in contact with the child’s parents to find out a bit of background to be clear in my mind. I didn’t want to know everything, because I wouldn’t be giving all the information to the child in one go. I felt if I knew it and I wasn’t sharing it, that I was somehow lying. I also thought information had the potential to slip out of my mouth at the wrong time and this would have made me feel really uncomfortable.

I was told that the child had pretty much been everything that I would be sharing in the sessions. What a let down! Why was I doing life story work then? What was the point? However, I was also told that the child had a history of acting surprised when old information was given, even if it had been heard a few times before. At first I thought this was a bit ridiculous, how could someone have been told something so significant a year or so before and not remember what they had been told?

I began to feel more disappointed about even starting the life story work, to be honest, I thought it was going to be a bit boring. Telling a child things they already know, what was the benefit in that?

So the life story work began. I don’t remember feeling anxious about it, but I probably was. I knew the first session was going to be very low key, which would have lowered my anxiety but also, the child had never made me feel anxious before. I was asked to keep a google doc to document the sessions. I remember initially thinking what on earth am I going to write down; I don’t want to write a running commentary of each session. Looking back at the document now, I can’t believe how much I did write, sometimes pages on just one session.

Theme of fear and creepiness throughout the session. Lots of words referring to being scared. Body language and facial expression expressed a sense of fear as well.’

This is an insert from the google doc of the first session. Looking at these words now, I cannot remember there being these feelings in the room, so I’m glad I wrote them down. These weren’t my feelings, or at least at the time, I didn’t think they were. Perhaps I was scared and a bit creeped out to be leading life story work with no formal training? At the time, I definitely felt that I was describing the feeling from the child.

It was after my first session that it was suggested to me that I write this paper. At first I thought it was a great idea, something for me to do in my spare time. I often get bored and I thought I would be something to get my teeth stuck into. It was only a little while after that I realised the thought of writing the paper was taking over my thoughts of doing the actual life story work. I wanted it to be a good paper, I wanted to impress those that read it. How was I going to focus on what was happening in the life story work if I was so conscious about writing the paper? I started to feel angry that it had been suggested to me so early on, rather than at the end of the life story work.

Looking at my notes, on the google doc, from the second session, I’m starting to question when I was actually asked to write this paper. My notes are brief and I don’t mention anything about how I was feeling. They are an account of what was going on at the time, rather than the feelings in me or the room.

‘Was keen to play with a construction toy (as a distraction) but seemed more able to answer questions and talk whilst fiddling with a toy.’

It makes me feel relieved to look at my notes and to think, I must have been more focused on the child than writing this paper, otherwise, I would have made more of an effort to note down how I was feeling.

It wasn’t until the fourth session that I realised how wrong I had been about not needing another adult in the room. Not because the child was evoking angry feelings, but because I was missing things.  

‘The other adult noticed the child’s face and ears had gone red and asked the child how they felt and if they were happy to talk about the subject.’

It isn’t easy for me to admit when I’m wrong, especially in a professional capacity, but I was. The observation could have gone unnoticed, which could have left the child feeling a whole range of emotions. I do remember thinking at the time, why didn’t I notice that, I should have!! Rather than thinking, the way I do now, I’m glad there was another adult in the room. Interestingly, later on in the same session I’ve noted that ‘the room was very warm.’ This could have been me feeling embarrassed or anxious that I’d missed something.

For me, it was the fifth session that really evoked some emotion in me, or rather, when I first realised and could comprehend the emotions being evoked in me.

‘I start panicking (heart beating fast, wanting the session to be over, thinking I might have said too much, was the child ready?  I was 98% sure that was what his parents had told me, a niggling doubt thinking, is that right, did I hear wrong? What will his parents say if i got it wrong? Will they be angry at me? Session feels dragged out, very slow, will it ever end, clock watching.’

Looking back at the first session, I describe a feeling of fear from what the child was saying. I hadn’t felt it then, but there it was in writing! It would be quite irrational for me to feel that level of fear. It isn’t until reading it now though, that it dawns on me that these were most probably the child’s feelings rather than my own.

Reading through my notes, I find more evidence that I was wrong!

‘I explained to the child that they had been told lots about their life history before, but that sometimes the brain isn’t ready to hear or accept what was being said, so it might feel like being told for the first time.’

The child couldn’t even remember some of the stuff we had written down in our few sessions. No wonder previous information given by the parents had been forgotten.’

I cannot believe that this idea hadn’t been accepted by my own brain before starting the life story work! It’s not a new concept to me, that the brain could suppress a thought or memory if it was too painful. So I am unsure as to why the idea of it escaped me prior to the sessions starting. All I can think is that my disappointment overtook any logical thinking?

When reading through the google document now, I realise how difficult I made it for myself to pull out the important parts of text ready for writing this paper. Some text is normal, some in bold, some in italics and a whole range of tenses have been used. I wrote in the google doc, nearly exactly after each session so that I wouldn’t forget how I was feeling or what happened. Largely because I have quite a bad memory but also because I knew I would need it for later use. I hope I thought at the time that I was also writing it to make better sense of what was happening for the child, so that I could revisit an emotion felt in a previous session. I genuinely think, at times, I was thinking more about this paper, which drove my feeling of frustration to have been asked to have written it so early on. Perhaps the muddled text in the google doc portrays/reflects the mixture of emotions I was feeling from the child?

‘The child moved their hand in front of their face in a really slow motion kind of a way, almost like they were seeing their hand for the first time and realising it was real. “Oh yeah, it all makes sense now.”

I remember this very vividly. I remember feeling like I’d hit the jackpot! I felt like a trained therapist who had finally noticed something of relevance. It was more than I thought I would notice from the child, to link how they were potentially feeling from a couple of seconds of their body moving. My interpretation of this insert was that the child was making brain links to what I was saying and that it might be the right time for the information to stay put. I felt confident that his life history was making sense and that if asked again in a year, that the child would remember because their brain was finally ready for the information.

‘During this conversation, the child had been playing with a construction toy. The child started off by making an aggressive toy, running around the room chaotically, hiding and then making loud noises. The toy then changed into a much softer young child’s toy, like a baby’s rattle, then back to an aggressive toy and then back to a rattle. The child’s voice also changed from angry to a baby squeaky voice.

I pointed this out to the child and linked it to how they had described changing as a person over time. The child said the two toys he made were completely opposite. I pointed out that this is how the child had been describing themselves at points. “Oh yeahhhhhhh!” the child says.’

Again I remember feeling like the life story work was going really well. I was glad that not only were we getting somewhere by being able to piece together parts of the history, but that the child’s whole body seemed to be connecting the dots.

Throughout a lot of the google doc, I make reference to feeling sad.

‘Very sad feeling in the room. Little to no movement from the child other than quietly playing chess. I felt teary. Flat. Slow. Still.’

Not an overwhelming sense of sadness, but acknowledging that the emotion was there and it probably wasn’t mine. I remember having a conversation with the adults in the child’s Treatment Team and how one particular adult would often comment how they were close to tears or at least very upset whilst reading the document. It amazed me at first that the projection from this child was going through me, onto paper and then into the reader of the document.

‘The child starts singing a song in a an evil voice, and starts talking about blood. I mention to the child that they seem to change when we talk about birth mum and dad. They say they know, it feels weird. “Weird, weird” feels weird talking about dead people. Not sure how it feels inside.’

I think I choose this insert just to acknowledge that doing life story work does feel weird, it is unusual to talk to a child about their birth parents, especially when they didn’t know them. There are multiple times that I think I didn’t know how to feel whilst I was in that room, and until I was able to reflect on those feelings, I really just didn’t know.

I hadn’t expected to feel such emotion, before the life story work started. I remember explaining to other adults at the school that my relationship with the child was ambivalent. I think it was naïve to think that because I didn’t have as close a relationship as I do, or have done, with other children, that this child wouldn’t affect me emotionally.

‘When both letters were read, the child appeared incredibly sad, like they wanted to cry but wouldn’t allow themselves to. I also felt very sad. I had cried when reading the letters the night before and I told the child I was worried I would cry when trying to read them outloud. I said I had a headache and they said they felt like this too. The other adult expressed it felt very heavy in the room.’

I remember having ideas of things to do in life story work. I thought some would be tricky to sit through, but I didn’t want to shy away from them just because of my emotions, I didn’t want my emotions to get in the way. I hope that the child didn’t pick up my anxiety but it is very probable that they did.

‘I asked the child if they wanted me to play a song that had been played at the birth mum’s funeral as this was named in the letter. The child declined, it was too much. I felt slightly relieved they said no, as I probably wouldn’t have been able to hold back the tears. But also glad the child was in touch with their emotions enough not to become overwhelmed.’

I had become reliant on having the other adult in the room, to pick up on the things I had missed. It feels strange to admit that at the beginning I had been so arrogant that I had felt I didn’t need that person there and when he wasn’t able to attend one of the sessions, I really felt it.

‘I notice at this point that I am not observing things going on in the room and I want the other adult to be there.’

It was quite late on that I had my first moments of boredom. I don’t like to admit that I felt bored whilst being with a child part way through their life story work, but I did. I think it was because things had been going so well, (in my mind), we were covering a lot of ground, the child was engaged and responsive and all of a sudden, it just became stuck. I don’t know if this was because I hadn’t been answering any new questions, or if I felt the child had got what they wanted from me and now they were bored, but I definitely felt boredom. I remember whilst attending a supervision training course having been told that if you feel tired, for example, whilst with someone in supervision, it could be that something was being left unsaid. Perhaps something similar was happening here.

‘I felt tired and was yawning.’

I had quite a few weeks whereby I wasn’t looking forward to going into the sessions. I didn’t feel like the child was getting anything from me, or the sessions. I tried referring to my plan/lists but I just couldn’t think of what to do. Amazingly this wasn’t making me feel anxious, and It was almost like an epiphany , I didn’t need lists or plans to make me feel less anxious, I didn’t need to be in control of the sessions. It was then that I realised how little I had been following the plan we had drawn up before the sessions had started and it filled me with confidence that I wasn’t using my time at home or all my business time to think about what I could possibly do each week.  

‘By this point I felt like I was struggling to know what to talk to him about.’

The sessions were starting to come to an end and we had decided to plan a trip to visit places of reference to the child’s life history. I was excited; I thought it was what we had been waiting for, what we had been leading up to, what could really cement all the hard work the child had participated in through all the sessions. In everyday life of working with the child, they struggled to be in touch with their emotions and especially to talk about them. I felt privileged that the child felt able to share their feelings and had let me feed back how I thought they felt through their body language or words.

‘By this point the child was very quiet, slow, lethargic and wanting a rest. I spoke outloud about emotional exhaustion rather than physical exhaustion’.

Towards the end of the life story work, I felt a sense of achievement; I think the child felt a sense of achievement. I felt really lucky that we had got so far, that we were ending the life story work with a way of going forward with their parents if that was wanted. I felt the child was lucky that they were in a place where the brain was able to take in the information and make links. I really felt that the life story work had a positive effect on the child’s ability to be in touch with themselves and their emotions. I think the life story work was crucial to their placement at the Mulberry Bush and I’m glad we made the decision to start it.

I realise that life story work does not always go this way, my first experience was certainly completely different. However, I hope that by writing this all down, those who are contemplating or being asked to take part in a child’s life history, will be more able to understand the vast array of emotions that can be felt and what it could possibly be like.

‘Time finishes. We again acknowledge that was the last session. I ask the child if they want me to look after the book until they leave the school, the child agrees.’