The news is flooded with coverage of the spate of teenage murders, often committed by other young people, all involving knives. Commentators and politicians share their thoughts on the causes and solutions of this unfolding tragedy. At Jamie’s Farm we’ve worked with thousands of young people from the communities affected. Over the coming weeks, we want to share their stories, which are often unheard or oversimplified, through a series of blogs and podcasts. We begin by setting the context in the podcast above with Dom, Tish and Jake, and then via Tish’s blog below. Here we take a look at the complicated lives of the teenagers most at risk.
Every day we are hearing more about the tragic loss of young lives through knife crime. This is the tip of an iceberg. Below this lie the huge numbers of children who do not become the statistics or headlines, but who are maimed physically or emotionally through their involvement with gangs, either as members or victims. Further down the iceberg the numbers multiply, the generation of inner-city children across Britain who live with fear and, in their words, “have to watch their backs”.
Jamie’s Farm has now lived and worked with over 6,000 children. While staying with us, they speak of their own personal, social and cumulative experiences that are the context of these horrific events. Our experience of these children is that they want change and they respond to change. This is a huge sign of hope, which motivates us every day. We need to join together our understanding of how these tragedies begin and develop in order to bring about positive change. Fear, a sense of failure, poor self-esteem, and inability to imagine the future are all powerful contributors, but most of this can be turned around and these young people can flourish and not ‘fail’.
Children are not born destined for knife crime, whether as victim or perpetrator. Neither are they stupid, but they learn as experience teaches them. A small child does not regard a knife as a weapon. A knife becomes a weapon for protection or injury only when a person learns about threat or their fear is triggered. Threats produce fear and aggression, and survival instincts are based on fight or flight or freeze.
Many of the youngsters we see have developed a hard and threatening exterior for themselves, as a form of self-protection. On getting to know them, we discover they are often flooded with anxieties and feel threatened beneath their mask. Once feeling safe and away from the threats of their environments, they reveal their worries about their families. They may live with continual financial pressures and all its attendant threats. They may have only one parent who is clearly struggling, the child feeling they have to become the protective adult in a hope to help.
Generally, they are living in parts of our cities where they don’t feel safe. Walking to school, crossing a postcode district, meeting friends can all feel threatening. Going out to ‘play’ seems a thing of the past. Safety and trust are key. Ironically, when a youth says someone is ‘safe’, they mean they are OK, trustworthy, likable, acceptable. In youth culture ‘safe’ has migrated to a commendation.
Growing up in an insecure environment, feeling the bottom of the social pile, often leads to young people yearning to rescue their families, their reputation, their self-respect. Safety comes in numbers and many children describe how they are joining gangs for protection and belonging, to aspire to powerful membership to replace a feeling of powerlessness. This powerlessness can develop from a feeling of failure and not being wanted by mainstream society. Failure to produce the exam results and academic performance desired by schools; failure to protect their families; failure to own the material accoutrements that signal success.
Successive failure can lead to there being nothing left to lose. Life becomes meaningless, society’s rules are of no consequence. A sub–culture of motivating factors evolves. A gang may offer a meaningful explicit structure of progression, of kudos, of status. It may also seduce and groom children to feel valued. It may offer excitement and adrenalin opportunities in a real life, not just in cyber space. Real risk is seductive and compelling to many teenage boys. If you can’t beat them join them. Joining forces is human nature, searching for a group identity, finding a language of power and influence.
For many of the children in the hinterland there is a risk of single events escalating a slide into violence. Children who do not belong to gangs may still feel they need to carry knives to protect themselves. Many describe carrying a knife so they feel they can walk down the street and ward off potential aggressors. There is no excuse for carrying a knife, but some children feel this is what they have to do. The police who are there to act for their safety become a perceived threat in themselves. Stop and search can lead to criminalisation for carrying a weapon, being found with a knife at school will often lead to exclusion, exclusion from school hugely increases the likelihood of children joining gangs. This cycle can trap children, police and schools alike, each agonising about the best way to address the problem.
Our experience is that schools are doing their best to help children flourish and try to identify and support those children they see as at risk. Within their structure, with huge numbers of young people who need additional pastoral support, they are bound to struggle to meet the need with reducing resources at their disposal. More and more children are being excluded as their behaviour escalates in proportion to their sense of failure.
Where we have been privileged to work with groups from inner city schools, we have been able to offer a fresh start, safety, space for reflection, opportunities to grow self-worth, to build positive relationships with their teachers who accompany them, to develop their natural instincts to be responsible, caring people. The desire for change towards the positive is huge and lasting, ignited where there is a sense of belonging and purpose, of being loved and lovable, to feel confident and empowered.
Many schools share our ethos. However, they need resources to meet the scale of the need. There needs to be a focus on both academic achievement and building character and self-worth in our youth. Tragically our young people have the worst mental health and well-being in Europe. It’s time to work in partnership, to respond to the whole child, to reassess, to reignite the change for good that is so close to the surface in all young people.
In the coming few weeks Jamie’s Farm is going to share some of the good news stories of young people inquiring about the ingredients of change. We know from our experience children learn fast, they are malleable, both for good and bad, and our task is to change the points on the train tracks towards positive futures to avoid the train crash of lives with them ending up dead, maimed or in prison.
Written by Tish Feilden
Co-Founder and Lead Therapist