The hero of this story was born in North, Edinburgh, the 6th most deprived area of Scotland. The community he was raised in continues to face real poverty, homelessness, gang violence and organised crime. He wasn’t given much of a chance growing up— at the age of 4 he was found by social services. He was alone in his household, rummaging around, desperately searching for food. His mum had left him for good.
Christopher had been alone for days when social services found him. He was animalistic and attacked them. He was scared and confused and hurt beyond belief.
Christopher had an abundance of people around him in primary school, a group of caring professionals attended to his needs, from educational psychologists, clinical psychologists, teachers, support staff and more. He was quickly diagnosed with ADHD at a young age. He did take his medicine, and this helped to some extent. The professionals in his life made sure he was given ample support.
His behaviour had improved somewhat since he was found— this was largely due to one primary teacher, who Christopher bonded with and was securely attached to. There was a mutual sense of love between the two— she was pivotal to his recovery. Christopher began to believe in people again. Still, every so often the trauma of his past would resurface and knock him into despair. He didn’t have the tools to understand, ‘why’, ‘what if this happens again’, and ‘if mum hurt me, I must be unlovable’.
When I met Christopher, aged 11, he was in such a state. Running away from school and home, where he now lived with grandparents. He was getting into trouble with the police and smoking on street corners. He was fighting in school and becoming involved with older crowds, people who had faced similar traumas and resorted to relief through destroying the systems around them.
The unconscious mantra was: I am suffering internally, the world has been cruel to me, so I will be cruel to the world.
I entered Christopher’s school as a life coach and training psychotherapist. His teachers had told me his story, and in turn he had been told that he would be seeing another new worker.
When I entered the room, there was tension in the air. A class of 33 other primary year 7s were genuinely still, like someone had pressed pause.
Suddenly, half the class turned towards Christopher with a knowing, suspicious look. Some were giggling. I strolled over casually and sat next to him. His reaction was telling. Instantly his face was flush, his head fell straight into the desk in front of him, head in his hands. It looked like he wanted to be anywhere but here. I guessed he was tired of the amount of people he had to see, and just wanted to be a normal kid.
I didn’t speak to Christopher for 15 minutes of that first session. Instead, I focused on those around him, building rapport, letting them see that I was just a normal guy. After a while of laughing and joking with the others, Christopher’s curiosity piqued, maybe he saw that if the other’s liked me and I wasn’t focusing on him, he wasn’t different after all.
We had a chat about his favourite subjects, interests and football teams. I asked him if he would mind speaking to me outside of class in the future, we would be drawing and playing learning games, I told him. He said that might be okay.
His teacher was almost as surprised as I was, “he is never like this with anyone”— she told me. I was happy that we got off to a good start but knew there would be a lot of work to do.
The next 3—5 sessions would be spent with me, using all the resources at my disposal, just to keep control. Christopher was entirely chaotic. It was nearly impossible to keep his focus, he would hunt around the room for toys, food, games, anything really. It felt like he was deliberately and purposefully testing me, “he’ll leave if I’m naughty enough, no one can control me.” The chaos of his actions represented an internal world of equal tension and uncertainty. At moments I was unsure of how to treat the situation, and what level of authority and understanding I should apply. Fortunately, I was able to lean on a network of other excellent therapists and coaches- who could share their own experiences and advice.
I could tell a thousand short stories of all the ingenuous ways Christopher tested me to the brink of my mental capacities. He was an absolute expert. I would leave those sessions feeling drained. I had to return to the drawing board again and again. It was a steep learning experience. With time, adaptation, research and the help of my manager and supervisor, we were able to make progress.
Christopher began to understand that I believed in him and would not give up on him, the support was unconditional. Eventually, I think he was able to see that. I was able to help Christopher return from the distractions and turbulence within to the present moment through games and anchors. We had a song that we would listen to with each other at the start of every session, “Man’s Not Hot”— by Big Shaq, of course, his favourite song. We would also play “eye—spy” for five minutes, to make sure he was grounded in the present, rather than acting out the uncertainty of the past that he felt within.
Gradually I was able to build rapport with Christopher to the point where he would tell me what was troubling him in his own, idiosyncratic way. Of course, he had suffered an eternity of bad feelings and did not want to dwell on these— so when he told me that he feared leaving primary school and moving up to high school, we focused on building a positive picture of what he wanted the future to look like. This picture was held in his mind’s eye and on paper. We filled it with all his friends and family, a bright sun, interesting lessons and more. Christopher enthusiastically drew and coloured the picture, adding detail. We added music and feeling to the picture, allowing him to really visualise and experience upcoming positivity, whereas before there was only fear.
Christopher learned to process negative emotions through utilising his supports, mindful breathing exercises and learning that he could be angry or sad and it was okay. He could choose what to do with the emotion. We made pin—wheels and blew bubbles while practicing the right belly—breathing techniques. Christopher taught the techniques back to me and one of his best—friends to make sure he knew them unconsciously. We made a “really bad plan” for him so that he had a step—by—step process of what to do if things did get too hard for him. We also went through a lot of ego—strengthening exercises to boost his self—esteem.
With enough positive reinforcement, unconditional support and faith in his potential, Christopher began to trust that he would be okay. He stopped running away from school and home, fighting and smoking and he learned to self—regulate.
He even began to educate me, even if only sarcastically suggesting “practice your breathing Tolga!” This was a totally different boy from 10 months ago.
We broke for the summer holidays and once or twice I would find Christopher sneaking into my mind— I desperately hoped he would be fine during high school and not descend into the more troubled landscapes in his community.
Fast—forward three months and I’m visiting one of the high schools in the local area, delivering 1—1 therapy to other young people. In the middle of the lunch queue there’s a group of what looks like first years, messing around. At the front is a well—presented young lad, a bit taller than the rest, his tie is somewhat ruffled. He looks over at me and quickly turns away— I start to walk off, not wanting to cramp his style, before he turns around, smiles at me, and gets back to his friends. I could rest easy.
Christopher’s teachers tell me that he’s doing much better than anyone anticipated so far, he’s settled in well and is enjoying both his classes and additional supports. He has a great chance. No doubt he will face a lot of ups and downs in the future, but he has a solid foundation to deal with those. I will be popping by to keep in touch with him, and of course, my door is open to him anytime.
Disclaimer: All names have been changed to protect the identity of the young person in question. We will never write about an ongoing case- only those we have completed work with.
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