How to Support Our Young People to Process Collective Trauma
What am I on about you may well ask. Before you invest 4 minutes of your precious time, it's worth mentioning that I do not have the answers. For a myriad of reasons the news isn't much fun. Our young people are processing and coping with a year of covid. In the UK, young people have lost their routines, their social activities, their hobbies and for many they have lost loved ones to covid.
Last week was a particularly confusing week for our young people - it certainly was for me! We began the week with International Women's Day. Hurrah, yes, let's celebrate women! Immediately followed by don't expect to be believed if you share your experiences of racism or mental health difficulties. A sixteen year old girl in South Wales was murdered. The police were quick to reassure the public that her alleged attacker was known to her. Phew, that's alright then. Then a 33 year old woman 'disappeared' walking home in London. There followed the usual flurry of questions: What was she wearing? Why was she alone? What time was it? Blah, blah. Turns out she was abducted and murdered. Her alleged attacker was a serving police officer. The police were quick to reassure the public that it is rare to be murdered by a stranger. Phew, so that's alright too.
In the UK 1 woman is murdered every 3 days. By a man. Who she already knows. It's not possible to put a bow on this. 1 in 3 women in the UK experiences a violent relationship within their lifetime. The data on rape and sexual assault is similarly grim.
There was an outpouring of grief, shock and anger. How was a man tasked with upholding public safety able to murder a woman (allegedly). Women held a vigil. Police responded by arresting women. Only days earlier policing of highly exuberant football fans had been very different, dare I say, lenient. The messages have certainly been confusing.
A number of individuals derailed the conversation by suggesting that focussing on men's harmful behaviours towards women is unfair and men experience violent crime too.
And here is the tricky bit. It seems that the UK media and, by extension, UK society really struggles to hold onto more than one idea or concept at the same time. The issue of the violence, including sexual violence, women experience is not a binary issue. Saying that women and girls are harmed by men and boys means precisely that. It does not mean that men and boys do not experience harm and violence. It is unacceptable for men and boys to be harmed and killed. There is readily available data on the many different risks to men and women.
The reality is that life is not binary. None of us exists in isolation. How do we support our young people to process these complex and emotive conversations? More importantly, our young people need to be included and need to contribute to these conversations. Boys and men have mums, sisters, daughters, partners, friends. Boys and men are allies. If they are not, we need to have a conversation about why not. There is no quick fix to the issues we face. The issues are societal. We need a joined up approach. It absolutely is not the responsibility of survivors, victims or potential victims of abuse to ensure their own safety. It is the responsibility of abusers to not abuse. This is incredibly simplistic but bear with me because in sweepingly general terms, damaged people damage people.
Many years ago, I worked with a very vulnerable and complex family. There was domestic violence. I hate the phrase 'domestic' violence, it makes it sound cosy and respectable. I hate the phrase 'date' rape too. Rape but with flowers. Anyhow, there were young children in the household. The family engaged with the support that was available and the dad was able to recognise that his behaviours were unsafe and unacceptable. He wanted support to make changes. This family hovered perpetually around the threshold for social care and child protection intervention but never quite crossed the threshold. I observed a very experienced colleague spend an entire morning calling agencies and organisations trying to access support for this dad to address his abusive behaviour. He didn't meet the threshold despite extremely high risk violent behaviour. At that time, in order to meet the criteria abusers must first have served a custodial sentence. Opportunities for early intervention are scarce. Meanwhile, the children in the household I've described are witnessing violence. This is their normal. What might this mean for their future relationships with others? We are not talking about 'bad' people here. We're talking about complex and vulnerable people.
In the UK, the criminal justice system is all about punishment with very little public or political appetite for rehabilitation. The data on the prison population is a damning indictment on how a society cares for its vulnerable. The vast majority of the prison population has mental health needs, is care experienced, has a learning disability, some will belong to all three groups. I am not suggesting for a single second that we should not be appalled when women are harmed by men but that the picture is complex and it will not serve society to take a binary view. There are only obvious 'goodies' and 'badies' in Disney films. In real life the situation is more complex. We need to support our young people to fine tune their bullshit radar. Women walking with their keys in their hands and the government suggesting more street lights is very much missing the point. Men and boys are our allies. They need to be calling out bullshit too. Do not allow this vital conversation to be derailed by those who would have us believe that calling out the shit that women experience day in and day out is somehow anti men.
I'm sorry I don't have the answers but do have these conversations with your young people. Don't be scared to hear what they have to say. They hear the news, they see stuff on social media. Don't be scared to tell them that you don't have the answers either. Unless of course you do, in which case, please share.
I've included several links below as points of reference.
*18/03/21 Edit* I've woken up with some thoughts. One of them is that I really should crack on with a pile of uni work that's due in any minute. My other thoughts are the dangers of alienating our young people, boys, from the conversation about the experiences of women in the UK.
I'm going to compare the current possible feelings of boys and men in relation to the conversation about women's experiences to my own feelings about conversations about racism. I have very little personal experience of racism, therefore, I feel it isn't my place to have an opinion. It is, however, very much my place to educate myself and to ensure that I am a robust and effective ally.
Informing ourselves about the history of a situation is always a useful place to start. There is a proviso. History is recorded by the victors, by those in power. History is 'his' story. It's not 'herstory'. This unfortunate fact notwithstanding, history shows us that less than a hundred years ago in the UK women's legal status was that of property. Women were the property of male members of their family. Ownership was passed from fathers to husbands. Women had to fight to be allowed to vote, to be heard, to own property, to have a bank account, to go to work. All of the things we take for granted have been fought for. These are patriarchal systems. Patriarchal systems benefit men, in very general terms - however, when I look at the data on male suicide I would argue that patriarchal systems are not working out well for men either. Patriarchal systems disadvantage women.
The legal status of children in the UK is that of property. They are the property of their parents or they are the property of the state. Women were infantilised. Arguably, when men in power make decisions about women's access to health care they still are... We continue to live within patriarchal systems.
How then do we equip our young men to be effective and robust allies. We give them a history lesson. Little boys are no more responsible for the patriarchal systems in which we live than we personally are responsible for the horrors and abuses of the empire, colonialism and all that has followed. If we are ignorant of history we are powerless to shape our future.
I anticipate more edits...to be continued.