Love and hate, attachment, attack and rejection. By John Burton.

When you are working at a deep and intense level with a child who has experienced unreliable and disrupted early care, or with a child who has at a later stage experienced devastating loss, rejection, emotional injury and hurt, you are likely to be attacked by that child.

This attack, which is likely to be repeated, may come as a surprise and disappointment. You’ve established a close relationship with the child; they seem to trust you. You are getting great pleasure and satisfaction from your careful work. After weeks, maybe months of trying, you have established a therapeutic and positive relationship. You are the person that the child is beginning to feel “at home” with. They are communicating with you and you with them. They love their bedtime routine, especially when it’s you who are reading them a story and saying goodnight. Progress!

And then . . . bang! You are the person who is apparently most hated and most despised. Suddenly your gentle but firm “No” is the trigger for an extraordinary outburst of hate and violence. The trigger may even be your ability to tune in to the child’s acute anxiety, panic or fear, and as you reassure and attempt to protect the child you are screamed at and punched.

3-year-old Mandy is being collected from nursery by Molly, her adoptive mother. Molly’s father, Mandy’s adoptive grandfather has come along too, but Mandy isn’t expecting him. Molly and her father go into the classroom to collect her. She shows neither surprise nor delight when she sees her Grandpa, with whom she has a strong bond. It’s as if she knows how to behave, but he doesn’t and he needs to understand that when you’re at nursery you don’t just wave and laugh; there is a standard of behaviour to be complied with. This is no place for his antics.

Mandy has taken to nursery very well but it’s a great strain on her. She is very conformist and always wants to do the right thing at nursery. She has a good friend, Ollie, who is much more experimental at nursery and has no idea of how hard Mandy has to work to get through her nursery day. (Of course he hasn’t!)

Mandy has established a little temporary ritual for leaving nursery. She runs off with Ollie to collect her scooter and her mum waits while they do that, and then walks with Mandy (on her scooter), and with Ollie and his mum to the school gate. But this day Ollie is preoccupied with another friend and the ritual doesn’t happen. Everything is going wrong. Grandpa’s here unexpectedly. What else is going to happen to demolish Mandy’s fragile hold on her exhausted emotions? The school gates are got through. There’s a whole crowd of little children and grown-ups, all chatting and laughing and it’s chaotic. They cross the road and it’s even worse the other side. As they walk along, Molly (Mandy’s mother) has to say hello and have a chat with other parents and children she knows. It would be unsociable not to. Mandy is very close to her mother but she can’t keep it all in and Molly isn’t fully available. Mandy breaks down. She starts wailing in her exhausted plea for full attention and containment. Molly responds quickly. She picks her up with the scooter which she hands to Grandpa, and attempts to soothe her. Mandy hits her hard in the face.

The violence of Mandy’s attack was shocking but her mother coped admirably and didn’t retaliate. The child’s overwhelming flash of hate was absorbed and contained. Mandy was fine afterwards. This was a 3-year-old hitting her mother with whom she was recreating and putting together missing elements of her infancy. She struck out at the only person who could have scooped up and held her and absorbed her violence in that way at that moment of crisis. The older children you work with have also missed sufficient essential experience of that early held, contained, absorbed fury of the infant towards its mother, and have never – until now – had the chance to (re)experience it. So, when you encounter it, as you will when you are working well, it is probably a sign that you are doing it right, that the therapeutic relationship and environment are working, although it may feel as if you have failed.


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