You Can Never Give a Child Too Much Love
Is it possible to formulate a more fundamentally motherly statement?
I don’t think I would have agreed with that statement a few years ago.
In a finicky I-studied-philosophy-at-uni kind of way, I might have said too much of anything is a bad thing. Children can be spoiled by too much love and attention.
Children need to learn that, in life, you won’t have someone attend to your every whim and whimper.
Children need to be weaned to grow, to become independent, to become adults.
I changed my mind.
Mostly, the issues I see with young people do not stem from too much love and attention.
During a year of full-time full-on youth work, I began to think many of the issues facing young people stem from or are exacerbated by a lack of love and attention, specifically, a lack of love and positive attention.
It took a year and a book for me to fully change my mind and begin to understand the work I am doing, and why it is vital for young people, families and our community at large.
In this article, I will explain why I changed my mind, and what I am doing about it.
Along the way, I will explain the following:
– Love and positive attention aren’t nice but unnecessary aspects of childhood, they are vital for healthy and happy development
– The work I am doing with vulnerable young people to support their development into healthy and happy adults
– Why this is vital not only for individuals and families, but for society at large
The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog and Farming Babies
A year into youth work, I read The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog by Dr Bruce Perry, a book telling the stories of children damaged by a chronic lack of love and positive attention.
Dr Perry is a psychiatrist who forged a different view of the behavioural issues of young people. Rather than always assuming ‘bad’ behaviours are expressions of inborn disorders, like ADHD and Autism, he views these behaviours as possible expressions of development trauma and unmet needs in their development.
Let’s take an extreme example to illustrate the point.
The Soviets, amongst their many unforgivable sins, tried to farm babies in orphanages.
In the same way the Soviets had a dumbed down materialist view of economic development, so they had with human development. Input food and warmth, change and bathe, output human being. Right?
Hundreds of babies were farmed in these warehouses, cots arrayed like squares on graph paper, with just a few nurses going cot to cot to feed them their growth formula and change their nappies.
For some unbeknownst reason, many of these baby humans did not grow, and a shockingly high proportion of them died.
They had their calories calculated and fed them, they were kept clean and free of disease, what could possibly have caused so many babies to perish?
Without love and attention, babies fail to thrive, they wither, and they die.
The life expectancy of a Russian orphan is about 30 years old.
The Importance of Understanding ‘Bad’ Behaviour
Back to Bruce Perry’s book.
Knowing that love and positive attention are as important as physical sustenance when it comes to development, Dr Perry views behaviour through a different lens, breaking from his mentor’s guidance when it came to ‘diagnosing’ young people he was working with.
Rather than viewing disruptive behaviour as part and parcel of permanent ‘disorders’, or simply dismissing them as ‘attention seeking’, Dr Perry suggests we are open to the possibility that they are expressions of trauma and unmet needs in that child’s developmental path.
Increasingly, my youth work has involved supporting vulnerable young people, ‘off the rails’ ‘problem’ teenagers from single parent households.
These young people have grown up in environments where they haven’t received optimal love and positive attention, have witnessed and suffered abuse, gone ‘off the rails’ in adolescence.
For their ‘bad’ behaviour, or, more properly, the behavioural symptoms of their trauma, they are punished, feeling further estranged from the adults in their life.
Dr Perry urges we “acknowledge that punishment, deprivation and force merely re-traumatise these children and exacerbate their problems.”
This is a sentence that gave words to the vague unease I feel when teachers give their students detention and parents declare their children are ‘grounded’. We are literally detaining young people who act out for a lack of love and positive attention.
Barriers to Building Relationships
I must be clear, here.
I do not think that parents do not love their children.
I do not think teachers do not support their students.
Nor do I think support workers do not care for their service users.
As a single parent, without a strong support network and with more than one child to look after, there is only so much you can do.
Throw an abusive partner or addiction or mental health issue into the bargain, the odds of a child receiving optimal love and positive attention are going to be slim. Try looking after a single toddler when you’re firing on all cylinders!
As a teacher, you juggle hundreds of interactions with young people a day, which you have to apportion as equitably as possible, whilst facilitating learning. It’s learning and crowd control in lesson, with precious little time out of it, which is demanded by marking, prep, and all else.
As a support worker, you have a similarly jammed schedule, in which you have to (re)build relationships with families whose view of social services is rarely rosey. There are umpteen other professionals involved, prying and sharing information, all with their angles, and the support workers often orchestrate that involvement.
Building trusting relationships with disaffected teenagers in irregular slices of time, when the focus is on punishment and risk assessment and grades and detention, is fanciful at best. Hopeless at worst.
Time, interest, consistency and patience are necessary to build relationships with such young people.
The future outcomes of young people blessed with loving and supportive relationships – their physical health, their mental health, their relationships, their careers, everything – are far better than those without them, with few exceptions.
The fewer of these relationships a young person has, the smaller their chance of happiness and success in life.
Equally, it should be obvious that we want to build quality relationships with young people who have grown up without optimal love and positive attention.
Writes Dr Perry, “The more healthy relationships a child has, the more likely they are to recover from trauma and thrive. Relationships are the agents of change and the most powerful therapy is human love.”
Some of the young people I work with are running away from home, binging on alcohol, cutting themselves, assaulting their peers, telling Mum and teacher to fuck off, smoking and selling drugs, robbing shops and stealing bikes.
This behaviour is, you might say, not optimally conducive to building positive relationships.
It isn’t easy to build a relationship with someone who swaggers past and tells you to fuck off without deigning to look at you.
But this is exactly what is required to recover and thrive.
This behaviour needs to be understood in the context of their upbringing.
In an eerily karmic truism, Dr Perry says, “We elicit from the world what we project into the world; but what you project is based upon what happened to you as a child.”
These young people project the misery into reality that was done unto them, and they are punished and made to feel all the more miserable for it, and so the cycle continues.
How Am I Helping?
I mentor young people, predominantly with issues such as I described above.
I am joyful and passionate fellow who genuinely cares about the outcomes of young people.
I genuinely enjoy working, playing, learning and chirping.
In my work with young people, I am consistent and I am proactive.
I make things happen, and I try to make them happen today. I don’t offload tasks and ideas for somebody else to dawdle about next working week. I show an interest and make an effort that is otherwise lacking.
Putting consistent time and positive attention into lives made grey by developmental trauma, perpetual punishment at home and school, and zombifying social media, is like appearing in the Sahara Desert to a human dying of thirst and giving them an ice cold glass of water.
It blows their minds.
They cannot comprehend it.
There must be strings attached, a carrot or stick involved.
They do everything to push and test and prove you are like everyone else, that you will shout or cajole or punish their behaviour, that you don’t really care, and will disappear at the first sign of resistance.
I remain calm, consistent, and supportive, and slowly, they begin to thaw, relax their guard, and become different people; a hint of who they might otherwise be.
Writes Dr Perry, “In order for a child to become kind, giving and empathetic, they need to be treated that way.”
Much of my youth ‘work’ is mentoring, which all consistently supportive adults do knowingly or unknowingly.
I think the two most important aspects of mentoring these young people are building trusting relationships and role modelling.
Building a Relationship
I am a consistently supportive and genuinely caring adult who sacrifices nontrivial time to help young people become better versions of themselves.
Just being there matters enormously.
Consistently being there widens young person’s worldview, adding an important missing aspect to their understanding of life: there are adults who care for you unconditionally, not just your grades or attendance or physical health or behaviour – though I try to support them in all of these aspects – and who will be there to listen and support you, no matter what is going on in your life.
I try to remember that I might be the only positively impactful adult this young person has spent appreciable time with in their day, and, too often, their whole week.
(Credit due to my older sister, Annie, an endlessly patient and chirpy breath of fresh air and optimism. She is in the same kind of work as me, supporting young people in education, who sometimes show little interest. This can be demotivating, but she positively reframes it in this way, which has really stuck with me.)
In spite of the vile language and behaviour – or because of it? – I remain by their side, supportive, unfazed, always trying to remember how important it is to be that single supportive person, and how crucial building this relationship might be for their life down the line.
I try to remember they are simply projecting the poison they have ingested.
I try to remember I am here to positively offer an alternative future, rather than negatively punish their past as it manifests in the present – which leads me neatly onto the next aspect of mentoring.
I model better ways of being and behaving for these young people, providing them a template which they then have the option to emulate.
Again, just being there, just showing up, matters. Whether they emulate or even engage is a secondary ‘big win’, the primary thing is often widening young peoples’ worldview to admit adults who care and are consistently there without any agenda. This, initially, is dumbfounding to many young people.
In a line of work where men are few and far between, being a consistent positive male role model is all the more important. The young people most at risk of suffering and inflicting harm are male, and they are far more likely to connect with and emulate a male role model.
(I attended a child protection conference where there were 10 women in the room, and I the only man. We men are generally more interested in trades and finance.)
So many of the young people I work with, boys and girls, are crying out for a stable male role model in their lives.
Boys especially, being brutish teenagers, look up to me because I am tall and have a beard and tattoos and I box and trounce them all in press-up competitions. They like me because I joke and laugh and play and give them a longer leash than most.
But teenage boys are always going to want to be the funny guy with muscles and tattoos – that is not what I want to impress on them as a role model, though that is what they might be initially impressed by.
There are far more important aspects of character and personality I try to model, like honesty, patience, positivity, enthusiasm, empathy, resilience.
Sure, I want them to be funny and compete, but also to learn they can lay off the ‘joker’ and ‘competitor’ personae, and be open and honest and vulnerable.
It doesn’t mean they have to tearfully divulge all of their emotional workings to a roomful of people, just to learn they can have meaningful conversations with trusted individuals about personal issues, and that it helps more than hurts them to talk to someone.
I’ve had the privilege of being that first adult successfully inviting them to do so, and truly, it’s a watershed moment for many to know it’s okay to ‘open up’.
When it comes to taking care of oneself and hard work and respect and positivity, I practice what I preach. I work several jobs, I swim in the sea and exercise daily, I cook, I read, I write – I do the things that they want for themselves.
I go above and beyond in helping young people, with their essay, with their job search, with their relationship problems, with returning to school, with as much as I can reasonably do.
When I say I’m going to do something for a young person, I do it.
If I didn’t, no young person would take me seriously.
Why Is This ‘Vital’?
I believe this kind of work is vital.
Vital means, in its root form, to be lively, and it means necessary for life – and human relationships, on an individual level, are indeed necessary life, to feel alive and lively.
No human grows into a happy and healthy adult without love and positive attention.
Often, just the opposite.
No man is an island.
Vital also means generally necessary, something we cannot do without – and this is true on a social level.
The kids I work with find themselves at a critical juncture. Many are self-aware enough to know this is the case, but they don’t know what to do and can hardly help themselves.
I try to ‘catch’ them at this critical juncture and offer them an alternative.
The amount of time and effort invested is dwarfed by the potential return: steering a young person from their default path, ending up uneducated, jobless, with a criminal record and with physical and mental health issues, costing and causing harm to society, towards a path where they feel supported in society, and wish to contribute and share their worth with it.
And that’s what gets me out of bed at in the morning.
3 thoughts on “Teenage Tearaways and Farming Babies”
I feel the exact same way I have been a single mum to my 3 eldest children yet instead of dwelling on the situation I through myself into the children Al their friends woth similar backgrounds had patience faith love & have always been consistent in their life’s and still till this day their friends who like mine are parents themselves now and say how much I mean to then and still reminise of all our memories made it turns full circle Liam as you know! Love your mum she must be so proud!
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As someone with two children under 3 this is just what I needed to read. Especially after experiencing some childhood trauma myself. Thank you
Makes my heart sing to read. You are and will be an amazing mother.