Article by Juliet Lyons, Child Psychotherapist
Our latest article in the Chiswick Herald written by Child Psychotherapist Juliet Lyons on the international aspects of her work can be read here. Or please see below:
International aspects of my work
As an 18-year-old, I worked as a nanny in Italy. It was my first taste of child-care. I learnt how to care for a 1-year-old while being welcomed into this Italian family - Mother, Father, Grandmother and Grandfather. There was a sharing of languages - English and Italian nursery rhymes; nappy changing practice; foods for a one-year-old (variations on tiny pasta cooked in stock or ‘brodo’ with parmesan, of course). I learnt that learning another language can be a gateway into understanding and partaking in a culture, and to be really satisfied in our exchanges, we not only seek to understand, but partake. At the time, I had a very significant dream: I could talk across languages, transitioning in each sentence between several different languages to produce an extraordinary type of poetry. The dream has stayed with me ever since as does my experience as an English nanny in Italy.
In some senses, this dream has come to fruition: over the past 7 years, working in Chiswick as a Child Psychotherapist, I have been struck by the number of international clients and how enriching this is to the work. My clients come from areas as diverse as Argentina, Russia, Bulgaria, the Ivory Coast, South Africa, Brazil, Italy, Sweden, US, China, Rumania, France, Germany, (the list goes on) as well as the UK. Occasionally, I even work with a translator. This cultural mix makes for very interesting and varied exchanges. They are multi-layered and complex in the interchange of attitudes and beliefs around caring for each other, parenting, and the forming of identities.
It is not surprising then that in my consulting room, I have noticed recent political events have had an enormous impact. Following the American elections, I had an influx of young American, female clients who were experiencing enormous amounts of anxiety. Children in my consulting room seem highly aware of politics and environmental issues, particularly those who originate from outside the UK. There is a lot of uncertainty and anxiety in families that come from abroad about their future and where they will live in the near future.
People who come to this country do so for many reasons. Often to do with their work, sometimes for the hope of a better quality of life for themselves and their families. Some have married a UK resident; others have married someone from their own or a different country and culture. They often face enormous losses of friendships, family, and the familiarity of their culture and language. Sometimes they take tremendous risks to move and often feel very vulnerable in such a move. I have been deeply moved by parents that have sacrificed so much to come to the UK, at times to enable their already vulnerable child or children to have opportunities in schooling, therapies and medical care that is just not available in their home countries.
Attitudes to parenting vary. What is accepted as normal parenting in one country, is seen as abusive in the UK. For instance, hitting your child is still accepted in many countries. Parents can find themselves in the hands of Social Services, learning about the dangers of hitting a child, and learning of more humane ways of setting boundaries and having a different type of relationship with their child. In such cases, the child can see the UK as a protective force, a caring and kind country. But equally, it can be hard for them to carry the burden of knowing that their country of origin did not protect them in this way. It is a complex situation to come to terms with. But these children are initiated into the extremes of cultural diversity that few experience in such stark ways, and often become deeply sophisticated in their understanding of difference. Some families, very sadly, have experienced abuse here in the UK. When people put their trust into a system and an individual in the system abuses the trust and vulnerability of a child and family, it is very difficult to come to terms with. The pain can be shared and born, but it is always there.
At this particular point in time, when the UK is reconsidering its relationship with Europe and the rest of the world, it seems more important than ever to consider the psychological aspects of being native and being a foreigner. Above all, what I observe and learn from my international clients is around how they navigate the space between dependence and independence, and how they retain or lose their sense of cultural identity.
How we form our identity is relevant to this discussion. According to theories, based on observations of infants, babies and children, identity is formed in relationship. We take in how others view us and see us, how they understand us, and how they interact with us. It is a complex dance of interactions that are forever being built in our minds and held in our bodies. On each building block, the next identity forming interaction is possible. It is the interactions around the care of ourselves that seem to form our resilience and identities most strongly.
What is significant in this dance is that where we are understood and feel ‘got’, we can accept closeness. Where we are misunderstood, and in particular our vulnerability is misunderstood, trust cannot be built and we therefore tend to break bonds, move away from closeness. Empathy is what allows us to reach each other, to hear each other to feel touched by one another. When one is vulnerable, fragile, unformed, forming, emerging, discovering, awakening, then the softness, safeness and attunement of empathetic responses will find their way into our very being and become part of us. If we are responded to without empathy, with misattunement, with harshness, with a lack of understanding about our vulnerability, then we will shut out the relationship, with long-term and ongoing consequences for us and others. Of course, we will constantly make mistakes as parents, but what is key is that we can repair the ruptures – change our ways, recognize it if we get it very wrong, work with others to find different ways.
This process introduces the individual in a timely and careful way to their capacities to be an individual within a group. To retain a sense of individuality that, when under attack, can find itself again, and therefore is secure enough. This individual will therefore be likely to tolerate difference. This, in part, is what makes us able to have an interest in another without too much fear of losing our identities. When we meet another, a stranger, we are always taking a risk. But it is the capacity to be uncertain, unsure and how we manage this that is key. If we are too frightened, we might wish to either merge (to deny difference) or to project our fears and make the other more frightening than they are. Managing the tension between a child wanting to explore and keeping them safe is a key principle of parenting. Psychotherapist Nicholas Rose advocates ‘the importance for us to equip ourselves with communication tools so we can feel safe and secure in engaging with others whilst also knowing how to deal with abuse and dysfunction.’ This is inevitably complicated if we are communicating across languages and cultures.
At Nicholas Rose and Associates, we have a culturally diverse team. Psychotherapist Adriana Amorim says, ‘I think that working with diversity is at the core of what we do as counsellors and that having a better understanding of the mechanisms of diversity through personal experience of migration helps me to work more efficiently and in tune with clients' predicaments.’ For me, learning from clients from all over the world, I find that children and parents want to retain something of their original identities and yet, they want to be themselves at the end of the day. And who they are and are becoming can hold many cultural identities. For me, to be able to partake in and support this complex process of identity building, is a privilege.