Barbara Dockar-Drysdale: A personal appreciation. By Richard Rollinson

This is the second previously unpublished paper about Barbara Dockar-Drysdale from the 2012 Mulberry Bush AGM. Richard Rollinson was a former Director of The Mulberry Bush School, and is currently Chair of Trustees.

Barbara Dockar-Drysdale, “Mrs. D”: The Woman and her writings: A Personal Appreciation

By the time Lesley [then my girlfriend and now my wife] and I arrived from York University to live at The Mulberry Bush School in October 1974, Mrs D was fully into her “formidable” phase as Consultant and therapeutic child care expert, or so it seemed to me – a largely bewildered but very interested novice. We were able to see her individually for an hour every fortnight, and I adopted a whole variety of strategems to avoid those occasions.  I could fool myself that I feared too good a feed, as Dr Winnicott would have called it, leading at least to indigestion or even evacuation out! More realistically, face to face with her I couldn’t bear not to know enough at that time [and that says more about me than her]; while in the work itself I wasn’t ready yet for a deep immersion beneath the surface of this world of highly traumatised children and those seeking to understand and help them. For my first year I was just sticking my face a little bit into the water in my own time and at the depth level of my choice – pretty shallow mostly. [There’s more I could say about this time and me, but today is about Mrs D.].

At the same time early on Mrs D’s papers – in her by then two books and the two articles in the RJN Tod collection on Disturbed Children – really spoke to me directly with their immediate presentation of that very intriguing world I had now found myself in, a world far more interesting than historical research alone after 7 years as an undergraduate. BUT, I didn’t understand some things about her papers – in particular the condensing of time and of the context of relationships in her writing so that each paper wasn’t a large book in its own right! In one paper, she writes about a boy for whom she was running a bath. Having been out of the bathroom briefly, she returned to discover his bath towel thrown into the water. She faces him* with the reality that he had done this despite his increasingly strident denials that culminate, first in his breakdown into a panic state and then relief through her emotional as well as safe, physical comforting containment of him. He could now know and needn’t any longer deny or disavow that he had soaked the towel because she could know and name that reality, and not blame and shame him. When I first read this encounter I was rather intimidated. How could she have acted so assuredly in this way and in such an immediate fashion? It seemed a kind of magic, and a bit scary in the way it happened in such a short time and in the way it made me feel that I could never ever operate in so informed a manner in the immediate moment.

I came to learn over time and know now that there was a context to this bit of apparent spontaneous magic, namely the context of their working and living relationship. Mrs D had come to know the child well through her own day to day encounters  with him, through those discussed/reported by staff  and probably by what other children  had said to him or about him as well prior to this event of which she then wrote. She had a good, “live” picture of him in her mind. So, what she said to him and then did was neither a wild guess nor a casual blaming by dint of his  proximity to the “scene of the Crime” alone. By then she knew him, his disturbance, his patterns of behaviours and his tendency to deny his actions. Knowing the child and their relationship with one another did not spring into being from Mrs D’s head immediately and spontaneously in the moment of the event, like fully armoured Athena did from the brow of Zeus. It had grown through many shared experiences of living and learning together about one another [Again, this is the reality of what Mrs D termed Therapy Through Child Care, day after day after day…and so on].  [* When I said “faced him”, I really meant that she had the child alongside her, with both them looking together at the submerged towel. She did not confront him simply face to face. There was an important dimension of the experience being shared.]

Therefore over time during my first year of Mulberry Bush life,[day after day after day, like her, like many of us across the years since 1948], I came to recognise those dimensions of time and relationship building and their importance in the work and in the way we can engage with the children as we come to know them and they us. Of course my realisation happened just in time for Mrs D to retire as Therapeutic Advisor at the end of the summer of 1975; but, luckily for me Robin Reeves stepped into this role, and I was by then able to allow myself to see him regularly and, with my new found realisation, appreciate the perspective a consultant can bring to help our understanding, to inform our practice and to keep us going day to day. In fact I renewed my relationship with Mrs D much later, when I was Director here and she was quite frail and living in the Home in Fairford, first with her husband Stephen, known as ‘Dockar’ and then on her own. On her good days she was interested to hear about the Bush, at least for part of a visit before she grew too tired. But it felt a good re-connection, at least for me in a particular time of great challenge and change in the School.

Focussing directly on her writing now, it is clear that what can be properly called her development of theory came out of experience/practice and was often being changed by her, refined, developed further and clarified in the light of more experiences and conversations. So her theories on Therapy Through Child Care were not simply grand or grandiose ideas alone, that were then applied as a rigid template into which children and adults had to fit.

The theoretical structure devised by Mrs D was:

  • a way of thinking [keeping thinking] while offering care,
  • a way of building relationships with a “professional*” purpose to help children to learn, change, grow and “go”!!,
  • a way of using the ordinary unfolding of the day, the routine of the day to support these processes
  • and a way of paying attention to the detail, those “Minute Particulars” through which we can recognise and meet the needs of the children that will make a positive difference for them.

In fact during the time when she herself was actively involved in the day to day child care[and thanks in great part to the efforts of her husband, Stephen, and several key staff] the structures  and routines remained reliably enough present enough of the time so that the children experienced being there as “organised chaos”, as many of them have since testified with fondness. This chaos, so long as it was “organised enough” was a price she was prepared to pay, determined even, [and to defend when challenged] for ensuring that there would be the possibility for some things to emerge that would help a child/the children, things which might not occur were the structures and controls too tight.

Today, some of Mrs D’s papers can be a bit archaic in ideas and in language. And after all, quite a time has passed since some of them were written. However, many more of them remain very topical when we address them with a mind open to her insights into children, their needs and how we can try to meet them. For me three of her papers remain particularly outstanding:

Damage and Restitution (1952) – the first paper she ever wrote and presented. It is clear, measured, thoughtful and insightful.

The problem of making adaptation to the needs of the individual child  in a group (1961) –  here Mrs D shows how her insights are gained through being close in with and sharing in the lives of children and staff and paying attention to the detail of what’s happening even in the midst of that “organised chaos”.


The management of violence in disturbed children (1971) – Actually I think the population of children with whom the Bush now works has changed significantly in several ways. In particular as a group they are far more prone to violence as a rapid impulse reaction than were many of the children with whom Mrs D worked. Nevertheless, precisely because of this her paper is a timely reminder of how we can understand and deal with this phenomenon.

Looking more closely, if briefly today, at each of these papers in turn, I begin with Damage and Restitution and allow Mrs D herself to speak, via her introduction to the paper: “ My choice of subject was important, since I was at that time struggling to communicate my first experiences with emotionally deprived children…..I found it difficult to show the justification of a treatment approach which accepted destructive behaviour as often inevitable.”

 Early on in this paper she declares that a tolerant attitude towards all kinds of attacks on things is necessary while a child, having had the experiences these children had, is making a positive relationship with an adult. The child can express some of the hostile aspects of that relationship against inanimate objects and ideas. She then emphasises that the key to keeping troubled children safe when they might well be out of control of themselves at times is to ensure a strong framework of community life [living not just in a group but as a group]. As she says, based on her experience of providing it, “this [community living] encloses the child and keeps him safe”. Finally I wish to mention that speaking of the school’s approach she carefully and fully emphasises the importance of not enforcing restitution by the children, which would not really be theirs, but of making available the means for spontaneous restitution. It is not only a more natural process and more effective, as you will read, but as she also observes, it saves many a situation because it is much more often that the adult seeks retribution rather than restitution. Here is where organised chaos, which will produce some damage, yields that something that can actually make a difference. READ the paper!

Now The problem of making adaptation to the individual child:

In his Introduction to her paper published in the Collection he edited, entitled Disturbed Children (Longman, 1968), RJN Tod wrote: “Here is an article to read…. to absorb [her] concerned sensitivity or empathy for unhappy children…She also surprises us with her suggestion that our own failure to meet the needs of a child, provided we can face and understand it, can be an opportunity to help a child painfully to recognise his/her own separate identity”.

For me, in her detailed description of helping the children to settle at bedtime, she makes the valuable observation that each child getting the same amount of the sultanas she is giving them is not the important thing. What matters is the way in which what they get is received, according to how they each want to receive them from her. And she responds by following their various leads. Crucially too in the paper Mrs D cites communication as a way of meeting a child’s need and as a lifeline between child and grown up – so the child will be heard, be understood and be responded to in the medium the child has chosen, sometimes a veiled, symbolic one, ostensibly about something/someone else but definitely about him/herself, even if the child herself is not consciously aware of this.

And here too she makes clear “we can’t take a child back to search for something he has lost; we have to take him forward to discover something he has never known”. This highlights an idea that she develops further in a paper 2 years later, Regression in a structured environment, detailing a much misunderstood and sometimes misused concept. But from the start Mrs D was clear – we don’t drag or encourage children artificially to regress. We go to meet them where emotionally they are and help them come forward by making a focussed adaptation to a need they have. And finally today she insists that the grownups being reliable is the most essential ingredient in the work. No amount of theoretical knowledge will be able to compensate for the absence of that.

Management of Violence – There are so many pieces of practical advice and wise observations made throughout the 12 pages. Above all she observes that for grownups seeking to manage the violence of/in children they must first recognise and manage their own potential for violence, and notice the feelings aroused in them by a child’s violence. Only then are we ready to manage violence in others – by anticipation or thoughtful response, each of which uses communication about feelings. When we are in control of ourselves [a healthy self aware control], we are far more able to stay in our role as a grown up who can carry on thinking and caring through our responses in the moment. She states – “thinking is the essential way of containing feelings” which then can be transformed into words and communication, thus relieving the unthinkable anxieties that produce and maintain the violence. So she encourages us to see all acting out as a breakdown in thinking and communication, whose restoration also restores stability of behaviour. [But her ideas are so much more rich, here and in the other papers too; do read them!]

In much of her writing Mrs D still offers much to encourage those of us interested in trying to understand and to help highly emotionally troubled and sometimes troublesome children, and young people too. We now will, like she once did, have to pay heed to what our experiences tell us and make sense of how to use and adapt her ideas so that they can help us in our work face to face with these children.

Little could it have been known or imagined on the day she was born in 1912 just what this person would bring to the lives of desperately emotionally hurt and derived children. But it was to the good fortune of many that by dint of her own extraordinary qualities Barbara Dockar-Drysdale found her way to their troubled worlds. And in the centenary year of her birth she continues to offer a welcome and much needed freshness to contribute to a child care system, especially a residential one, close to being overwhelmed by regulation, procedures, check lists and even (largely ill informed) professional and public denigration.

Richard Rollinson

19 October 2012


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