Tuesday, October 20, 2015


The best way out of a problem is often to talk about it. That's official; psychiatry has been called 'The Talking Cure' from day one.

But not everybody is able to, especially young children.

I remember my eldest, when he was barely three, I took him to a park where there was a climbing frame. Only a little one, but it was huge to him. He started cautiously and it took him a while, but he made it to the top. When he got there he found another boy sitting up there who immediately threw him off. It was shocking for me, but utterly traumatising for my son.

He screamed and sobbed; he'd been injured, he'd been terrified, he'd been dealt a massive injustice, he'd been humiliated. 

The problem was he was too young to articulate his feelings, too young to find the words which would have helped him share the horror, which in turn would have helped heal it.

I shall never forget holding him and watching his furious frustration as he tried to find a way to express his pain.

The child who pushed him off the frame, it turned out, had learning difficulties. My son was oblivious to that concept too, not that it would have helped any. The only thing that would have helped him was being able to talk about it.

I was reminded of how important talking is to the curing process when I happened to switch on "Desert Island Discs" on my way back from the school run. It was so rivetting I sat in my car outside the house and listened until the end.

The castaway was a man called Lemn Sissay. He had been a foster child. His story was so upsetting I heard the presenter, Kirsty Young, too shocked for words at one point. 

His mother came to this country on some kind of education scheme and got pregnant. She was pursuaded to hand over her baby. Lemn was taken in by a 'deeply religious' couple who then had 3 children of their own. When he was 12 they decided to get rid of him to concentrate on their own children. Plus, Lemn was starting to do terrible things, they thought. For example taking a biscuit from the jar without asking. They thought he had the soul of the devil, and told him he was Satan's child. Literally. They didn't even say goodbye to him, just that they wanted never to see him again.

So he ended up in Care homes, branded as unGodlike.

Anyway, here's the thing. I have never heard a more articulate person. His way with words was breathtaking; he could take you into himself so you knew what he was feeling so easily it was fantastic and unsettling.

For example, he said this about tracing his mother and meeting her for the first time:

'It wasn't good, for either of us. I realise now why it was so hard for her, because she remembers the man who was my father, of course, and those memories are mixed and painful. And then suddenly a young man stands in front of her who is her child, and normally a parent watches their child grow from next to nothing into some form of representation of the union between mother and father. If the child is a male he has characteristics of the father, and suddenly, for her, standing there in front of her is the man who made happen the biggest thing in her life, in many ways the worst thing.'

I've written that up from memory, not very well to be honest; you can podcast the episode or try;


The thing is, Lemn Sissay's eloquence, I think, also gave him great powers of perception. You'd need to be a forensic psychologist to get to the heart of why his mother found it so hard meeting him, and he did.

He's fortunate to have such a way with words; his chosen profession is writing. I think his ability to communicate saved his bacon.

You'd need great powers of self-control to deal with yet another rejection by yet another someone who is supposed to love and care for you. And to excuse and forgive her.

One of my current foster children is just beginning to talk. I don't mean just learning to speak, I mean learning how comforting it can be to talk about feelings and past events. You can almost watch the child grow stronger and more self-reliant as they yak about how it is to be them.

Can you encourage it? I think you have to learn to listen and not jump in with advice or recollections of your own. I remember years ago I was on a counselling course and the tutor said that the best response when someone says something significant is to nod silently and look interested. If you have to say anything at all, say "And then what did you do?"

Thanks for listening.


  1. A brilliant post - I'll be sure to check that podcast. I especially agree with the end bit on letting other people talk and not jumping in or offering solutions.

    I work in HR and you learn the power of silence early on. Be quiet for long enough and the other person will soon start to speak, often revealing more than they planned just to fill the silence.

    I use it all the time with my foster children, works better when out for a walk, doing a bit of gardening together or some crafting - when the hands or feet are busy the voice can get going. Little bits of support and open questions to keep the talking going, then if possible push it a bit more to get them thinking, reflecting and empathising: how do you feel about that, why do you think X reacted that way, what woud you do differently next time. And my favourite one, used so often the kids now ask it of each other when I'm not around, and great when there wasn't a better outcome and it can't be undone: "Well what did you learn from that?"

  2. Thanks Mooglet, there are some gem-like crossovers from your HR career into fostering. I've never thought about it before but I suppose we foster carers are in HR too.
    I particularly love 'What did you learn from that?', I'm going to have that one in my back pocket all day long from now on.
    You're right about not trying to strong-arm them into opening up. I find the car very useful; a longish journey (but not to and from Contact).
    Thanks again.

  3. ps Mooglet; is your bright one still going well?

  4. Thanks, I really love that we have this platform to share our ideas - I always take alot away from your posts. Our Bright One is doing well, but there hasn't been much contact recently and no visits from social workers so we have a nice calm home right now... :-D