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Relationship Before Help

In a debriefing time after our parent and infant group, we were revisiting the seemingly eternal question of how to offer young people in distress the opportunity to discharge without using our adult authority to require it. We focused this time on a baby whose mother had left and who was clearly unhappy but trying to distract herself rather than crying. The ally had been tentative-knowing the feelings were there but not wanting to coerce. I encouraged her to make the invitation to discharge be warmer, while not setting up a session that focused on whether the child was noticing her or not. Another leader encouraged her not to be shy in being on the child's side in her need to discharge.

The interchange pushed me to think harder about what we adults bring to such an interaction. What if we came to that relationship with no tentativeness, confident that we were completely attractive, that we were completely welcome, that of course our presence-as another caring, attentive human being-would add to the child's well-being? I have a hunch that if we could remember it was a real two-way relationship, and tend fully to our half of it, much of the confusion about whether or not to 'make' children do what's good for them would melt away.

This seems part of a larger issue around the nature of relationships across lines of societal domination and oppression. The people who are in the role of greater societal status often find it easy to identify the 'problems' that the other group is having, and find it appropriate to use their 'greater' resources to 'help' those people. While there can certainly be a human impulse of caring present, this approach has some basic flaws. The 'problems' that we see are often so intertwined with the dynamics of the oppression that, without looking at the larger picture and claiming our half of the relationship, our 'help' is of limited use at best, and harmful at worst.

One way out of this dilemma, on a personal level at least, is to remember that people naturally want to have each other. Though our 'greater resources' and 'help' might not be of much use, our love and our determination to show ourselves and move toward the other human being will always make a difference. It's a simple concept, but one that can be difficult to implement in daily interactions between adults (especially parents) and children. Young people need our help. They need our help even when it's severely flawed. We're the ones who are responsible for them. We want them to get good help. How can we help outside of the domination dynamic (and outside of the worry and desperation that often propel that help forward)?

We can remember to think about the relationship in the larger context. We can also offer information that young people can use to be more powerful in relation to us. Particularly when they are young, children are dependent on and trusting of us to show and interpret reality. This makes it particularly important that we not lie, distort, or pretend. Yet to the extent that we live inside patterns, we are doing that all the time. We may try to compensate by saying the things we know are true, but this can be very confusing if our body language, tone of voice, or way of being tells a different story. What is a child to do when she hears one thing and sees or feels another? Does she stop trusting her parent or herself?

It's tempting to use our dominant position to try to hide the parts of reality we'd rather not show. I think we have to give children more truth, to talk about our patterns as part of the reality they have to interact with. Truth: 'You are safe.' More truth: 'Sometimes I forget and get scared, and you'll see me looking scared, but that doesn't change the fact that you're safe.' Truth: 'I'm right here loving you.' More truth: 'You might notice that I look a little worried and anxious that you'll use my love well-and I hope that doesn't get in the way too much-but I'm still here and I still love you.' Truth: 'I want you.' More truth: 'I often have a hard time showing it, and I'm not surprised that you should wonder sometimes. I'll keep trying to show it more, but the reality is that I want you.' Truth: 'Things will go better for you if you have a chance to discharge.' More truth: 'I'm not sure if this is the best way or time, but I think so, and I'd like to encourage you to go for it.'

Armed with the additional information, young people can make better sense out of what they see and hear, be less at the mercy of our patterns, and have more space to choose a powerful point of view. We can do this without being tentative or ambivalent, without requiring them to take responsibility for our emotional well-being, without abandoning the role of a reassuring, safety-providing adult. I think we get confused and think that reaching for a tone of supreme, unshakeable confidence will offer the most reassurance, when in reality they're looking for real contact with a dependably loving, thinking, perceptive, flexible human being.

This brings us full circle to the challenge from the parent-infant group-to focus not on the 'problem' we want to 'help' a child with, but on bringing ourselves more fully to the relationship, on remembering and showing how attractive we are and how much we want him or her. It seems like a win-win proposition. The child gets more of us. We get more of him or her. More resource is available in the relationship, and more can happen for everyone.

Pamela Haines
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania,

Last modified: 2020-07-17 20:50:52+00