An old friend was in touch this week to tell me that his mother had died. I was saddened. She had been kind to me when he and I were children. Much more powerfully, I was drawn towards him by his experience of loss, feeling his vulnerability. I was moved to support him, instinctively. My own experiences of loss could be used in service to him. My understanding was required. His needs became my priority.
I was delighted to attend the Roots of Empathy annual conference earlier in the week, where the organisation celebrated 25 years of delivering their programme. Their intervention rests on the understanding that it is a common human response to prioritise the needs of someone more vulnerable than ourselves.
Of course, we don’t all always do this. (Just imagine for a moment if we did).
But Roots of Empathy capture and utilise this insight to teach empathy to young school children all over the world, knowing that some of those children will have had a far from ideal experience of nurturing parental care themselves. Those children are vulnerable: they can learn empathy by interacting with someone even more vulnerable. And who is more vulnerable than a baby?
So each week, facilitators bring a mother and baby into school so children can experience over time the developing relationship and themselves develop their reflective capacity, their sensitivity, their empathy.
This same response to vulnerability is one of the crucial elements that powers Family Group, our own school-based multi-family therapy intervention.
Once safety is established in the group, children venture into the space, gradually opening up as they find the confidentially and trust holds from week to week.
As they reveal more of themselves, pre-conceptions and misunderstandings melt away. They experience support, encouragement, nurturing understanding. Their courage and honesty are acknowledged.
They feel the respect from other children and parents in the room as they take steps to untangle patterns of interaction or understanding that cause them or others distress. Their parent or carer is right there, to support, to witness and to learn.
For it is within our closest relationships that some of those tangles are rooted.
In parent time, once the children have gone back into class, the therapist and school-based partner bring the focus back to analysing what the group has just done together.
Now it is the turn of the adults to touch on their vulnerabilities and to receive that same empathic response they’ve offered the children.
Conversations can go way back into the childhood experience of the parent as the group gently untangle some of the transgenerational baggage evident in the parent-child relationship.
Just like Roots of Empathy, the programme is experiential: you get it cognitively but also emotionally. You feel it. And you feel others feeling it.
Bruce Perry commented on this at the Roots of Empathy Symposium earlier this week, a celebration of 25 years of the programme.
Since his seminal 1995 paper “Childhood trauma, the neurobiology of adaptation, and “use-dependent” development of the brain: How “states” become “traits” that phrase, the USE DEPENDENT DEVELOPMENT OF THE BRAIN, has informed my whole approach as a psychotherapist and social entrepreneur.
It’s one of the key assumptions on which Family Group is based: you have to HAVE the experience.
And achieving prolonged, nurturing, ‘good enough’, real-time experience may require an adjustment in the relational patterns Family Group children are caught within. Understanding and changing those patterns takes time. That’s why it typically takes a primary school child 15 months to graduate from Family Group.
If you’re interested to know more about Roots of Empathy but missed the symposium it’s worth going to the post-event site where you can access some of the Café events which were recorded.
If you’re interested to know more about Family Group well, get in touch and let’s have a chat!
This blog is written by Mark Griffiths, CEO of The School & Family Works. To get in touch with Mark, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
School & Family Works is the trading name of Transgenerational Change Limited, a social enterprise whose purpose is evident in the name. Through Family Group, our aim is to enable change for children from families where the status quo sets the child at school on a trajectory towards poor outcomes. Through creating a true collaboration with parents and school we generate insight into the presenting situation so that a new understanding arises and new possibilities open.
Building on the family context
Family comes first
Schools build on the developmental experience of the child within his/her family system. It is the parents who first set about promoting emotional wellbeing, building resilience, and establishing and protecting good mental health. Schools play a supporting role. Schools need to recognise that the familial level of belonging is primary. Belonging to the class or group or school comes second. Strong, positive relationships between school and home act as a bridge, supporting the child to manage the daily transition between these two support systems. The child will experience difficulty where there is tension between the two systems.
Moving between systems
Schools have an important role in helping children experience belonging to systems other than the family and helping them understand how to move between systems easily.
Throughout our lives, we face the challenge of moving between systems. Each system has a framework, has norms, taboos. Transitions – periods of negotiating and accommodating changes in systems – provoke stress and anxiety. Good experience of managing transitions in early life is a protective factor for good mental health. Commonly, the first major transition for a child is moving between home and school. When the relationship between home and school is secure, most children easily learn how to be flexible, to adapt, and to develop the skills that enable them to belong to more than one system. To facilitate the development of this lifetime skill in the child, teachers need to respect the child’s family and culture. The family system comes first: It is home. The child will be enabled to move between systems easily when home and school demonstrate respect for each other.
We are all quickly preoccupied with events or issues that lead us to feeling unsettled or insecure within our families. Dissonance/difficulty with child in school may be understood as a call from the family system. There is something unbalanced at home, and as a loyal member of the family, the child is pulled to support the system. At such times, it is important for school staff to support the child’s position even when it pulls against the norms of the school.
Consequences of exclusion from systems
A common characteristic of the families we support (those sometimes described as facing severe and multiple disadvantages) is that they have been excluded from many systems. This often goes back a generation or more. Many of the parents we support struggled as children. As children, they may have had experiences that shamed and isolated them, immobilising them within their family of origin, cutting them off from any support available within their schools. For some, communicating their need for support triggered the engagement of services that intervened incisively into their family system, cutting members in or out, raising issues of disloyalty, transgression, guilt.
It is common to find that Family Group parents had difficulties at or were themselves excluded from, school. The positive experience of moving between two systems remains foreign, unknown. With few qualifications, inadequate family support and under-developed relational skills, negotiating a way into the working world is often difficult. A common experience is of being the outsider: rejected. Withdrawing into isolation, loyalties become fixed: patterns set. Opportunities to experience difference reduce. Opportunities reduce for the supported transition from one group to another.
Loss, rejection and transgression combine with a sense of helplessness and hopelessness: ‘this is all I’ve known and I’m stuck with it’. From a place of isolation, change, which means the loosening of belonging ties, the opening to ‘other’, can seem impossible.
‘I’ll do it for my child’
Parents come to Family Group spurred by a desire that their children thrive in school. They come for their children. Their selfless desire to support their child takes precedence over their own entrenched patterns. This admirable parental aspiration trumps the anxieties of individuals who have felt stuck; it is a triumph of hope over experience. Parents make a huge commitment; they will come for ‘as long as it takes’. Some take time off work, unpaid, weekly, for months on end. These heroic folk are addressing the task of breaking negative transgenerational patterns. This is hard work and needs support. By joining Family Group they forge a support community and enable the experience of belonging for themselves and others.
The Family Group intervention creates communities, new belonging groups of disparate individuals joined by the desire to ensure their children experience success in school. Parents share skills and experiences, resourcing each other with support and challenge, in a group endeavour to make a difference for the most vulnerable group members, the children. This enables and maintains good mental health for isolated, marginalized adults, and provides strong, healthy models, relational skills, and support to children at risk of poor outcomes.
Written by Mark Griffiths, CEO of The School & Family Works
Don’t put pressure on yourself to be happy
Feelings arise, feelings inhabit us for a while, and feelings pass. That’s a natural process. Christmas seems to require us to be happy; it’s an additional pressure many of us feel at this time of year.
Christmas present resonates with Christmas past. There may be unwelcome feelings and memories. It’s the sticky complicated feelings that bung us up. Whatever feelings you have, try to separate them out and acknowledge them. Give yourself time and space to process. Tell someone if you can, or express yourself creatively. Once the stuck feeling is out of you, there’s space for other feelings to arise.
Christmas can seem to be about what you have. But children remember what you do
Christmas means so much more than presents. It is a chance to connect with your children and find comfort in relationships. With this in mind, consider starting a Christmas tradition that you can do each year. Talk to your children and find out what they would like to do. Perhaps you can all make a decoration for your home or Christmas tree together or all have breakfast in bed on Christmas morning. Whatever it is, it can be something you do each year. These may be small things but your children will remember them in years to come.
Managing family conflict at Christmas
Christmas often means spending time with family members we would perhaps rather not see. Sometimes we find ourselves locked into patterns of behaviour, with messy, unwanted but entirely predictable consequences. What to do? Reflect on your own patterns. What is it that you always do? Can you factor in a change? How can you act outside your pattern – without exposing yourself to hurt? A difference in you invites a difference in the other person, and new possibilities arise.
Make a little time for yourself
Most parents struggle to make time for themselves and this is particularly true at Christmas. Have a think about how you could find (or steal) some time for you. Self-care is essential. Even just 5 minutes a day will make a difference to how you feel. Perhaps take a bath, read a book or go for a short walk. Set an alarm on your phone to remind yourself to do this each day. It helps your children. ‘I need ME time to give YOU time’. Make it your mantra.
When all else fails, remember to breathe
When we are feeling stressed and anxious, it activates our fight or flight response. This makes us breathe faster and shallower, which in turn increases our stress and anxiety. When you feel triggered, breathe OUT. Then, without inhaling, breathe out AGAIN. Without air inside, you’re not fighting or fleeing from anything! Those few seconds of calm space open a vital reflective gap.
Remembering to take a few deep breaths whenever things get on top of you can really help to calm you down. Combining this with a positive mantra such as “This too shall pass” or “It’s ok to not be ok” will also help to ease your tension.
Use the calendar or list of months to view entries made on those dates.