Children who have had been hurt or neglected, by the very people who should have loved and protected them, can come to believe that they are bad, and that the world is a scary place. It can be too frightening for a child to think that a parent or a carer cannot look after them properly, and easier to believe that it is their own fault that their needs are not being met. These children often learn to lock their feelings away inside. They learn very early on that it is better to try to look after themselves and to feel nothing, than to open themselves up to the heartache of being let down again.
When a child comes to therapy with their new family, we gently explore together why it is so difficult for the child to trust these parents and accept their care. We think about how the past is organising how they make sense of the present. I support parents to let their child know they understand why it is hard for them to believe that they are loved and safe now. Learning to trust again can take time and we work hard to communicate that we will be patient. We know they are a hurt child and not a bad child. We will work at their pace to build the courage and confidence to open their hearts again.
Sometimes we draw their heart & use building bricks to create a wall around it. We think about what each of the bricks might represent for them and why they have needed to build the wall tall and strong. Over time, we can start to explore whether they would like to start dismantling the wall and what the benefits of this might be. Hearing a child talk proudly about the times they have felt able to take down a few bricks or poke a hole in the wall for their parent’s love to come through, can become a lovely part of the therapeutic conversation.
I have found Ali Redford’s book, The Boy Who Built a Wall Around Himself, to be a beautiful story that perfectly compliments such work. It clearly and simply charts a small boy’s journey from fear and loneliness to love and connection with ‘someone kind’. As the boy slowly responds to the gentle curiosity and playfulness of the caring adult, so the illustrations gradually transform from black and white to a rainbow of colours. The story cleverly reminds us all of the thoughts and feelings behind the boys difficult behaviour, thereby increasing understanding and empathy. The fact that that the ‘someone kind’ in the story could be a parent, carer or therapist, makes it a useful book in a range of different situations for children.