Day one for a new group arriving from the hustle of the city, the hurly burly of their huge school. The difference astonishes them: the sights and smells of the farm, the space, the landscape, the beauty of nature. All this and scenes of birthing lambs in the quiet of the shed leave them hushed and awed. A long walk, a game around the fire, a huge supper and talk around the table. Smiles, laughter, some thoughtful and quiet, some giddy with excess excitement, but one girl stands alone, armoured and defended.
Mia bothers me. She is almost frightening. Her face is a scowl, her reactions to any requests from adults result in a sigh, but she joins in, albeit reluctantly. Her prickles are sharp but not laced with poison. She said she did not want to be on the farm. Her teachers had made her come. Maybe she needed to parade her negativity to protect her vulnerability. Her need is for privacy and here we share a lot. Despite her protests she does not outright rebel. She needs her objections felt but does not need battles. Seamlessly she joins in with peers while keeping adults at bay. Her contributions are minimal, but enough not to be seen as downright refusals. She stays just above the line of unacceptable. She knows right from wrong.
A child who seems so brittle can easily evoke a hostile reception from the world. As Jamie’s Farm staff, we brace ourselves and maintain our smile, find the positive, do not allow ourselves to be beaten down by another negativity. Here with Mia I notice she does the minimum to not cause a rebuke, but seems rigidly to be defending her right to be outwardly unhappy to be here. I am curious. What would create such a feeling? What would trigger such distrust? We may never know but one thing is for certain, we must keep trying, keep believing, keep relating as if the other side of her is in reach, not too far beneath the surface, not lost but there to find.
It is only Monday and a week ahead can lead to all routes. I am reminding myself that children are not all they seem. There are many layers and many faces. Mia is needing to use this current mask of defiance and seems angry but who knows what will emerge. It may be that trust will be slow to form, and I hold in mind this may be for a particularly good reason for this child. It is not about being a detective and delving in without permissions. I need to wait, to be patient, and remember the work of the farm often goes on well beyond a week and only time will tell.
On Tuesday, Mia is leaving the other Jamie’s Farm staff puzzled, a bit lost, frustrated, sad. I offer to have a one to one conversation with her over a walk and this leaves me too feeling useless. Many routes lead to dead ends. Mia is a skilful stonewaller. There are no windows or ladders on offer to get a peek over her barricade. I get a picture from her reluctant conversation of a girl lost in a huge family where the rules are clear but the chance of individuality is minimal. There seems to be no intimacy, comfort or closeness. No preferred siblings or parent, no interests beyond the family, no ambition, no sense of future. Is it just me who gets this frosty reception? I check but the feelings of other staff is similar. Mia is a puzzle who does not want to be solved.
Sometimes we meet a child like this and have to be so patient. I know that more is seeping in from the friendships and warmth Mia is being offered at the farm than she is showing. I know the experiences do not leave her untouched. She just needs to guard them closely. I may never find the root cause of her defences but in this case, I can still bear witness, reflect back her need for containment and privacy, respect her, not pry, and be accepting. I try but still I feel I have failed.
On Thursday, the reflections begin to distil. I recognise that maybe my sense of failure with Mia mirrors some of her own feelings of failure. My feelings of frustration may match hers. So often we carry the emotions of another and take it personally, fail to separate, fail to reflect and fail to trust that not all children want to be accessible, even if deep down they want to be loved. Defences form for good reason. They protect our softer underbelly. We need to remember not to take a sledgehammer to a nut. Sometimes we need to wait for the child to come us, not the other way round. Maybe what will help her most is to be held in mind. Maybe she needs our concern not our judgement. We have had so many conversations about her, with fellow staff puzzled, wanting to help, to make a difference. By holding her in mind and showing our concern, we haven’t rejected her or forgotten her.
It’s Friday, and the groups go round sharing their last reflections before leaving. They share what they have learnt about themselves. Mia always checked in out of 10 between a 3 and a 5 – indicating very sad feelings relative to the rest of the group. Today on leaving she is an 8 and can say she is pleased she came to Jamie’s Farm. I feel optimistic, I remember that so often, the biggest gains come from the children who can show the least. I will wait and see. It’s the first hopeful sign, not a big one, but sometimes – in the face of chaos and trauma – children need to be in charge of parts of their life that they can control. Sometimes this control manifests itself in fussiness with food; in this case, the child controls tightly her outward persona.
Leaving the farm is another beginning. Returning to school can be a fresh start there. On the back of a joint experience on the farm, the accompanying teachers will have forged a deeper, more meaningful relationship with the child. Trust, like a snowball, may begin to roll, and roll, and grow and grow. We suggest a peer mentor or counsellor, and the school now have Mia on their radar. A child who was disliked, dislikeable, has now changed shape. The jigsaw that surrounds her, her previous relationships with teachers and peers, has to change in response.
Post script: We hear Mia returned to school with a smile on her face. She is more positive. Staff feel better about her. She has engaged with a school counsellor and with her classes. She has had her new beginning once again.
Written by Tish Feilden, Founder and Lead Psychotherapist
Tish is a UKCP Registered Psychotherapist with over 30 years experience of working with children in schools, residential settings, clinical settings and the community. Tish co-founded Jamie’s Farm when in 2006 the very first visits were welcomed to her home. Tish now leads the therapy strand of our work across all three farms, directly working with children as well as indirectly supporting our staff to uphold the highest standards of therapeutic practice. She is currently writing a book focused on our methodology and the experiences of the thousands of young people she has been able to speak to through her 30+ years as a Psychotherapist (10 years with Jamie’s Farm). The book is intended to help teachers and other practitioners understand young people’s behaviours.