Three girls sit a row, identical hairstyles- 60s buns. Their eyebrows are painted painstakingly well. Black and straight and even they define deliberate expression. Carisa is from Poland, Katie is from Northern Ireland and Bethany from the Eastend*. Now in a school in Hackney these girls represent their own Mafia. It seems that most of the visiting group offer them reverence based in fear. Fear of being publicly shamed, or the butt of reprisals. It is hard not to feel scared of these girls even as an adult.
Cultures seem to form around whatever currency is available. These girls come from disparate places, their common ground is School. Here they have established a code, dress code, and behaviours too. The masks they wear are dramatic, deliberately designed, almost dangerous. The girls behind the façade are lost, the individuals hard to find. The differences between them are erased. The group is defined, it signals ‘No Entry, keep out, membership only. We are us and you, are you, no mingling’.
A deep breath and I remember, remember that these girls may feel wariness inside. They may be vulnerable and not very strong, they may unite in their loneliness, their feelings of not belonging, of loss. They need to look tough on the outside and I need to find what is below the surface. It is in our humanity to seek belonging- to have identity, membership of a group, closeness to others. But to belong can also make us like a possession.
Family is a Jamie’s Farm value. This means for us working together, shared endeavour, shared care, identity, being accepted, valued, a part of, belonging. Children seem to naturally hold an archetypal view of family inside themselves. They recognise the feelings and the desire, they want to be part of and belong, to the family, the tribe, to something that pre-exists them, roots them, enfolds them. By doing what we do, modelled with positivity and concern, we want to win these girls round and let them feel part of that family too.
As the days pass the disguises wear thin, and the three girls individually seem to appear. No time to put on the war paint with cows, pigs and sheep to be fed. Carisa is naturally gifted with animals and cares for them passionately. In conversation she describes how they need us to protect them. She feels upset and angry at the thought of mistreatment. Then she reveals more. Carissa has watched her family suffer. She has left most of them behind. She feels cut off from Poland and guilty to be here in England. Her grandmother is left alone, unable to cope and her own Farm is deteriorating, and no one is there to support. I see Carissa is awash with her own cocktail of emotions.
Caring and sensitive, easily affected, Carisa covers this up with her blank angry mask. Beneath this she is full of shame. Shame that must not be detected. She is hiding in her friendship group but really waiting to defect. She fears she is a fraud and her membership of this group is only temporary. None of its values in truth fit her needs. She tells me how much she wants to care and look after people. She is protective. Gradually we get to see how vulnerable she is, that she can be kind but beware of her wrath. A lioness lurks inside.
In group discussions, revealing emotions, Carissa seems to stand out to be seen. She defines herself as Polish while still wanting loyalty to her friends to exist. She acknowledges her family and describes how she misses them as well. She is still a teenager, betwixt and between worlds, child and adult, peer group and tribe, but Carisa’s real nature has emerged allowing people around her to change. She is welcomed by the whole group and no longer on the outside. For once Carisa is getting feedback that people like her. She is respected not feared. The kind of family she values exists on the Farm and reconnects her to her own roots. The values that had seemed diminished now seem valuable again. The kind of family she values exists on the Farm but more importantly within herself. Freedom comes with belonging, the freedom to be seen.
Bethany too is changing. A lot of this is do with not having her phone. No need for selfies, Instagram, Facebook, doing her own secretarial image management. She is dispensing with the makeup, has begun mixing with the boys, spoken to people who at school she had previously dismissed and now she feels that she is less alone. She can seem hostile or wooden, inaccessible or even frightening, but beneath the hood, the facial mask, lies a tender terror used to hide, a thin skin, not yet formed, an identity not yet defined. She can cook, loves feeding and nurturing unwittingly disclosing her gentler nature. A fresh start, a new audience and her hard mask is not required.
Katie is emerging with newfound confidence. She no longer scowls, and the disguise has slipped, and she is happy not to hide. Katie is the eldest in a large family and used to being in charge. While we value her competence, her childishness can emerge. She is rolling down hills, gets covered in mud, falls over in puddles and is happy to be absurd. She is no longer ‘cool’ but kinder, lighter, brighter and happier. Without the pressure of family and friends, a new-found spontaneity has emerged. Her authenticity has grown, her confidence in herself. She will remain a big sister, but not necessarily act this out elsewhere. She may not need to be in charge and be so dominant at school. She may be more inclusive, so other girls can emerge. She may be less bossy and in turn feel herself.
We are all hungry for praise, to be seen, acknowledged, valued and liked. With compliments and sharing in daily group work on the Farm these three girls have melted and now I feel less afraid of them, more connected and we have all had some fun. Feeling fraudulent can create a deep loneliness but revealing true feelings can create a bond. Belonging for teenagers comes at a price. Sometimes they have given up their true selves as a sacrifice, but it is only temporary if they can reclaim their instincts for kindness, generosity and then feel worthwhile.
Children seem to be striving to find their place in the world. While they are trying to grow out of their families, to separate, as they face towards adulthood, their instincts are often fed by their neediness, from a much younger place within. Between worlds, teenagers struggle. They can seem hostile or wooden, inaccessible or even frightening, but beneath the hood, the facial mask, lies a tender terror that they must hide, a thin skin, not yet formed, an identity not yet defined. Porous and delicate a teenager may feel they need to hide, or merge. Behind strong fake identities, they merge with their peers. They fear being found out, to be false and unreal. Family is something they feel they must leave, or reject, but without it, they cast adrift.
In the group, each day, we have had our reflections, compliments and sharing. They have all been receiving from adults and peers alike. This has grown new confidence which in turn freed them to be more natural and real. Carisa, Katie and Bethany are still friends, but some individuality has grown, real respect emerged, diversity been tolerated. Their searching for their ‘fit’ usually meant losing their authenticity. Feeling fraudulent created loneliness. With confidence to choose new choices have emerged. Belonging is forming but with a truth at its core.
*All names have been changed to ensure confidentiality.
Written by Tish Feilden
Lead Therapist and Founder