Sunday, 27 September 2020

The Body Remembers

How are you feeling about facing a new lockdown? It seems as though we might be heading that way even if we're still at the "bespoke" stage.

Personally, I’m concerned. As a counsellor and, I hope, a caring member of society, I am worried about what emotional damage another lockdown would do to us. Will it really save us from this pernicious virus? Is it even right?

We are living in traumatic times. Babette Rothschild’s definitive book: The Body Remembers tells us that experiences of trauma can remain as a body memory long after the reality has faded. My fear is that those in charge have not given much thought how this trauma may affect its citizens of the future. 

I'd like to share a personal story which explains my views.

For almost two years, I have been a devoted carer to a small child. I visited once a week as a family member until she was nine months old and then took over her care for two full days a week while her parents worked. 

The arrangement came to an end in December of last year (to the relief of my body, at least) when she went to nursery full-time but I still collected and delivered and she came to my house so the steady, loving relationship continued.

Until March 23 of this year and lockdown when the relationship was abruptly severed and FaceTime became the “new norm”, a far-from-normal two-dimensional substitute. 

She was puzzled; I was upset but we persevered. She enjoyed pressing the red button at the end and was fairly overanxious to use it. She wasn’t speaking so we were limited to my chatting and waving and her waving hesitantly back until she became distracted elsewhere. It was unsatisfying but better than nothing. This went on for five weeks.

Then came Barnard Castle and the trip by the elusive Dominic Cummings when everything changed. I decided, like many others, if he could interpret the rules in his favour, so could I. The child's father finally agreed that I could come and see her and take her for a walk as long as we were outside the house. That was okay by me. It was Spring and I could do with the exercise. It was agreed I would do that twice a week.

Now for the interesting part. 

I drove over, parked the car outside the house and dropped off two bags of flour (remember the days when everyone was trying to bake and there was no flour around? I found a secret supplier) and went to drive off to park the car round the corner. By chance, I looked up and there was my little girl standing at her bedroom window looking out at me with a slightly puzzled gaze. She put her lovely chubby hand towards the window and hesitantly waved. I waved back with greater enthusiasm and then opened the door to get into the car. She continued to wave and then started to blow kisses. I drove off.

Some minutes later, I saw her in her full three-dimensional glory before she saw me. She was in her pushchair happily babbling to her father without a care in the world. 

Her father stopped walking and she looked around with some surprise. Then she saw me and there was a slow dawning recognition as she gave a joyful gasp. This little person who is usually quite reserved and, at that time, hard to coax a smile from, was so overjoyed at our reunion that she tried to scramble out of the buggy and fling her arms round my neck. It was a wonderful moment for both of us.

Her father left us (socially distanced at all times) and we reverted to our easy one-to-one relationship. When it was time to go, her father met us and walked back with me to my car. As I said goodbye, she began screaming and tried again to get out of the buggy. I was distraught, too, but kept my screaming to myself.

This pattern continued for some weeks and there were difficulties, though not with me. She was desperate for the swings, saying: "Peeese" in the hope that, if she asked nicely enough, I'd open the gate. I explained but she didn't understand of course. When the gate was officially opened, she was hesitant, holding back, uncertain about other children and the greater expanse of play area. 

We settled down and, later, I was “allowed” inside the house because restrictions had been lifted and the social bubble extended. (As I write this, I am astonished that phrases such as social distancing and social bubbles seem so ordinary. However did that happen?). The baby and I resume our relationship and I go over at least once a week to help out. 

If the lockdown is tightened, I will still be all right, as will she. I have “carer” status so there will be no more exclusions for me. But what about everyone else. How will they - you - and your loved ones fare?

FaceTime, Zoom and other computer meet-ups can be useful and are good at times of need. But nothing beats real human contact. Three-dimensional life matters.

By: Lulu Sinclair

Photo 1 by Rod Long on Unsplash

Photo 3 by Ben Garratt on Unsplash

Monday, 7 September 2020

Why First Impressions Count

Do you have a family member or friend who is starting a new school or encountering a new form teacher any time soon? This may be of interest to you.

I’d like to repeat something told to me by a teacher. “Make sure your child behaves him/herself for the first term at least. Otherwise, the teachers will have made up their mind about that child and their reputation will be carried on throughout their school career - and possibly influence their future prospects.”

I was shocked. I was disturbed by the idea that still-developing personalities could be judged on a comparatively short-term acquaintance in a strange and unfamiliar situation. And what I found particularly unsettling was that the teacher - part of a team of professionals who has so much power over young lives - did not seem concerned about the approach. 

Most of us know that we make judgments about one another in the blink - or even less - of an eye. That stems from way back when. Our reptilian brain - the amygdala - is on high alert in new situations to keep us safe from danger. It is the part of the brain that activates our fight, flight or freeze reaction and it is so fast to react that we are likely to be unaware of what is actually going on until we reflect on it moments afterwards. 

An example we’ve given before is of someone walking down the street looking at their smart phone, not concentrating and being unaware of the world around them. They come to a road and are about to step off the pavement when something stops them and they stand stock still. A moment later a bus goes by and they feel the rush of air as it passes centimetres (or inches if you are still on imperial measures) away. They are shocked. As they feel a rush of adrenalin and an extremely heightened sense of awareness, they think: “If I had stepped out …” 

The amygdala - their reptilian brain - has saved them. It is amazing and fantastic and astonishing to think that a part of our brain that has been here since we first arrived millions of years ago is still of vital importance to us. Vital, of course, in the truly literal sense of the word.

But (hu)mans cannot live by amygdala alone so, fortunately, we have the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex to complete the limbic system, and us.

What this means is the combined intelligence of the whole of our brain allows us to move from instinct through to emotions and memories (ie learning from experience) to reason, judgment, self-control or freewill and to manage the decision-making process. In other words, the whole emotional and reasoning experience that goes to make us a complete adult. I say “adult” because these parts of our brain develop as we mature - the prefrontal cortex will develop during adolescence and should be fully mature by the age of around 25.  

Let's return to the school teacher meeting a child for the first time. 

The child is likely to have mixed emotions because they are facing a new experience. Some may welcome it, some may be hesitant, some may be very resistant - however they are, there is every chance they will act different to how they might do in a situation to which they are used.  

Meanwhile, the teacher - while clearly an adult in a physical form at any rate - who may be more used to, and more understanding of the situation, is also going to experience his or her own complex emotions. 

It might be their first day in charge, they might be a last-minute stand-in, there could be unexpected trouble at home or, even, they are in a state of high excitement and can’t wait to meet the new intake. Whatever their emotional state, they will still make a judgment and it will still be instinctive and that judgment, so that teacher tells me, is very likely to stay with the child during their school journey.  

I know I'm talking about an initial meeting but imagine that initial impression being stretched out over the next few weeks. The child who is compliant, keen, eager to please, may be easier to like. The resistant child who is determined not to give of themselves no matter how hard the teacher tries is likely to find themselves "dismissed" more easily, leading to more resistance and so the pattern continues. And that is what made me so sad.

This blog, I hope, will give some understanding to both sides of what may be going on within, even when we are unaware. 

Perhaps parents and others taking children to a school for the first time could encourage their child (don’t frighten or threaten or the point is lost!) to understand the importance of first meetings and the impression they want to give. Urge them to give as good as they can, in every way. I'm not suggesting selling out their individual and precious souls but thinking about how they appear or how they might want to appear and see how the two can come closer together, if need be. The power, after all, is most likely with the teacher.  

And teachers, remember these are little people (teenagers, too, however big they appear) with a long way to go. They may have stuff in the background of which you are unaware. May I ask you to aim to work with all those parts of your mature brain before you judge and decide the worth of the child in front of you. Use your instinct, your emotions and your reasoned training wisely. How you react to that child over the course of the term may have a strong and influential effect on their future - either good or bad.

Perhaps there’s a lesson here that all of us would do well to learn.

By Lulu Sinclair

Photos of children in class: CDC on Unsplash