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Meeting them where they are

When we are in conflict with a youth, our whole task is to be with him or her.

And we won’t see any change unless we can show the other people in the child’s life – their teachers, and parents, and youth workers – how to be with them.

The youth needs to grow their brain. This is a structural problem for them. Their needs are primary. The brain has not grown the channel where the youth meets other peoples’ needs, except perhaps when they encounter a safe situation, such as with younger children. In that case they can teach younger children how to meet their needs the same way as the youth would meet that kind of need himself or herself.

When a toddler wants something, they might yell at the top of their lungs, “I want it and I want it now.” That strategy won’t work for a youth who has yet to learn to be reciprocal. When the youth yells, random people don’t meet the youth’s needs.

In order to help a child grow a reciprocal brain, his or her parents, and professionals who work with the youth must see their behaviours, although delayed, as a developmental stage and not be fussed or pay particular attention to the child’s demands. By not fulfilling the demands until the youth becomes more civil, we can actually watch the youth’s brain growing right before our eyes.

Thus, when working with a youth whose brain has not had an opportunity to grow in that way, we must acknowledge that is where the brain is. The youth is not doing this on purpose. In any event, their strategy is ineffective, and they are unable to take part in the balance between their needs and another’s needs.

This youth is without a peer group, doesn’t accommodate other people, and isn’t learning. Their lack of emotional regulation is about the brain, and is merely another brain function. When it has not been built in, it has to be taught.

The brain, as we talk about it, grows as a biological organ. It is a real thing. As it grows it creates processes that allow for thinking.

As we start to understand the relationship between processes and organs, we can deconstruct them a little bit and observe that the child’s brain has suffered insults.

Our first step is to meet the youth ‘where they are’.

Conflict and balancing needs

A youth worker says, “I am in conflict with a fourteen-year-old boy. I want him to talk to me and engage, and he doesn’t want to have anything to do with me.”

Although the youth worker would like to balance their needs with the boy’s needs, in this extreme situation – because they are in conflict, until the youth worker extends and builds trust, there is no balance.

It’s the youth worker’s job to go to where the boy is. First, they must earn the boy’s attention, build some trust, and become mutually engaged. After that, if the boy becomes curious, only then can it be about balancing both of their needs.

Being proximal in conflict

Some families are limited in their capacity for empathy and understanding for the needs of the other, although they are not limited by lack of intelligence or by lack of wanting to be attached to other people. They are limited by their experience of that attachment.

When people have never been able to get their needs met, it isn’t that they are unreasonable when trying to interact with others. They want what everyone else wants underneath, but they don’t know how to do the sharing part. They are so overwhelmed by their own needs that they can’t get outside their own needs to see that other people have needs too.

Each person has a growing brain. Optimally the brain is given emotional material early in its development that supports it to grow in empathy and reciprocal behaviour through practice and repetition.

When we don’t get to kids who haven’t developed reciprocal behaviour by the time they are fourteen and fifteen years old, we’re behind the 8-ball if we try to get them to use something that isn’t there.

All we can do is to let them do what they need to do in order to meet their needs, and give them the experience of being with them while they’re doing it, without demanding that they meet our needs.

Behaviour that shows up as conflict

A child who doesn’t have the capacity to meet his or her own needs may try to resolve their inner struggle through behaviour that shows up as conflict.

When they come into contact with regular society, every interaction is a threat to them. They are given the message that they don’t have a capacity for judgment, or have any worth.

Their behaviour becomes a desperate attempt to hold some sense of self together, where they are not overwhelmed by the external world telling them they don’t have a sense of self.

We are made up of our experiences

The knowledge that we are part of something and at the same time separate is critical to our understanding of attachment.

Our child might not have the same experience of the same event that we have. We can give them permission to tell us they are having a different experience of this moment than we are – and not insist that there is a right way to listen to this experience and a wrong way to listen.

We can assure them that their experience has the same value as our experience, and suggest we try and find a common point that we can tell them what our experience of this event is, and so they can tell us what their experience is. Neither one of us being right or wrong, but being respectful of each other’s experience – and using attachment because we care about them.

“I care about your experience and I care about how you experience the world. And I want you to have an experience that is valid. And I want us to have an experience together that is valid.”

That is how we have to listen to each other.

That, to me, is the basis of therapy. That is the basis of what the family’s experience is.

So, if in your family you have a child who is experiencing the world in a different way from your reality, and you experience that child being angry and hostile and feeling misunderstood by you, perhaps you might say to the child, “Can we just back up a little bit and let’s hear again each other’s voice?”

Anxiety trumps cognition

Our feeling state always trumps our cognitive state. That’s partly because developmentally the feeling state arises before the cognitive state comes into play.

 When we excite the feeling state, the feeling state tracks are a more prominent response to automaticity of expression. In other words, the feeling state will be reinforced, and if that state is too intense it is difficult for the cognitive state to have sway and to determine how appropriate the feeling state is.

 There is not time to think about saving yourself from danger when we need to take immediate action. Thus fight, flight, or freeze – our primary responses from the automaticity centre of our organic brain – and stopping to think at that point in time, might not be sensible approaches, especially if the lion is two feet away.

 We can see then, how the feeling state becomes rather fixed. Response to threat is anxiety.

 Depending on how much threat a child perceives in the world from their organic brain will determine their behaviour – rather than the actual experience that is occurring in the now.

For clarity of purpose, at times we have told parents, “So you made a mistake and you yelled at your kid. So what? They know you got mad, but they also know you can be kind.”

 When we parent we will not always be kind, and we don’t want to nurture the expectation that the world will always be kind. Our kids deserve to know they will have to cope sometimes with difficulties, and there are times they will have to cope with not knowing.

Plasticity of brain and thought

In some of us, the track in our brain that says, “This is a dangerous world,” gets balanced with the track that says, “You can cope with it.” We are aware of the danger, but the danger guides our actions rather than determines them.

This balance is evidenced in the plasticity of both the brain and thought.

As an organ, the brain learns to get control of its tracks. It does that in relationship with the people in closest proximity. During the first eight or nine years, the child and the child’s brain are totally dependent on care from others. The child can’t feed itself except in the sense that the child can pick up food and put it in their mouth, but they are unable to source their own food.

Similarly the child can’t house him or herself. It can’t keep itself warm, or provide any basic needs. Everything is dependent on external care and parenting.

Building an internal world in the organic brain occurs during this period. These tracks are laid down in a way that promotes automaticity of thought and of action. That is, they are below the level of consciousness or consideration, for the most part. If we had to think about every action we are about to perform we would be paralyzed and unable to live in the world as we need to.

Parenting then becomes a reactive and proactive process that continues until the child’s brain reaches a stage of maturity where it develops a capacity to examine its own automaticity. The interaction between the thinking brain and the organic brain is an interface that allows for plasticity but is rate-limited. In other words, we can’t change our automaticity just by thought alone – it requires consideration and insight, which underlies critical thinking. Others may call this mindfulness. Thus most of our therapeutic endeavours are based on examination of this interface and rebalancing it towards a more fruitful expression of our needs.

In this way a child learns to balance as they go forward by relationships in their external world, and consideration of his or her past experience.


Children learn from their experiences, which are mediated to them through their senses of hearing, feeling, touching, seeing, smelling; and especially through information that seems important to them at the time. All experiences have potential for being recorded, thus children’s brains record all the good things that have happened and all of the bad things. We refer to balance as the measure of importance the child gives to each experience. This capacity underlies the child’s world view for good and bad. Whether the lessons of life are good or bad is immaterial. The child learns from both possibilities.

As an experience has happened, the brain has recorded that experience. We can add to an experience, but we can’t subtract from it.

If a child is traumatized we may then help them rebalance their experience through introducing new experiences, even though we can’t undo the past. An experience happened, the brain had the experience, and by its very nature, the brain recorded the event as occurring.

As we know, the brain prunes some experiences as they are not repeated, and other experiences are laid down, in what appear to be, permanent tracks. As the brain refines itself developmentally, it values some tracks over others, while some tracks may eventually be lost.

The science of this is expressed in a phenomenon. If you cover a cat’s eyes for the first nine days of its life, the cat is blind even though the seeing mechanism in the cat’s brain is intact. Since the cat has not had an opportunity to use its visual neural tracks, the tracks are unavailable and are not laid down.

Words and Meanings and Our Work

It becomes very difficult indeed to use words to get across an idea to another person, because each of us attributes a meaning to each word that is personal to us. Our meanings don’t quite match since we are all different from each other in some ways, though we are the same in other ways. And so it is with the meanings of words.

Although the meanings we are trying to convey to each other don’t quite match we can get close, or at least make an attempt to get close. Transferring our meanings for words is like trying to catch butterflies. We can run around with a net, but the net has to be bigger than the butterfly. That’s what meaning is. It’s bigger than, so we need a whole net full of words surrounding the meaning, to try and catch the meaning.

We can use mindfulness to get away from our automaticity and be present for another person, but there is a dichotomy in this process: we are dependent on our automaticity. We are dependent on the organ that is our brain, and we have to somehow transform that dependency and get outside the limits of that.

Information transfer is relatively easy, but the capture of knowledge is something else. Humans everywhere have developed cultural ways to transfer knowledge. We started transferring information orally. Through stories and personal narrative people shared their life experience but that information had to be worked upon to become part of a lived experience.

At my age I can talk about the information that has come my way in my life, and at this stage I have a lot more memories and stored information than someone who is twenty. Condensing my lived experience into words, though, and then saying, “Now you know what I know” is at best only an attempt at sharing my knowledge.

Although I encounter many challenges when I attempt to share what I’ve learned with people who want to find another way to raise their kids, sometimes I am able to reach them and they are able to understand what raising kids actually means. Then we both triumph; I get to share the meaning of my work, and their capacity to raise their kids in a mindful way expands.

Alienation and our work

Many of us have been doing the work of helping others for most of our lives. It often goes back to childhood – the whole sense of wanting to have a place, wanting to belong, to make a contribution, and wanting to be a member of a group. Some of us have very early feelings of being an alien, a stranger in a strange world – all of the feelings in childhood of wanting to belong. Perhaps we have come to this work from that place, where we have a sense of alienation, either as children, as adolescents, or even as adults. We may have a sense of not belonging, and a sense of not being successful.

The tenuousness of attachment is always part of it. Trusting other people often comes with the knowledge of betrayal, that someone can tell us one day they care about us and that we matter, and then the next day say, “I’m moving on. I have something else to do”. This message can come from a group of friends, or can be acted upon a child pre-puberty, where some people are picked for a team and others are not. We may be good at one sport and not another, or we might struggle with learning.

The sense of alienation we have, the sense of not belonging, is actually one part of belonging, but because of our alienation we aren’t able to merge with other people.

Each of us has parents who have somehow come to be together. Often we don’t come to understand our parents’ psychological reality until much later in our own life when we have developed a level of maturity. In order to really see our parents and their reality, we must see them as separate from, rather than as part of us. Then we can see that they had a life. Perhaps they had a separation. In that case we arrive at our own alienation without even knowing it.

If our parents are alienated from each other, their alienation affects their parenting style, because their attachment to their children is wrought, and we children might even have held our parents together, especially in the old days.

As children we have no words for the alienation we experience, but we grow into our brain so the alienation becomes part of our brain, and the idea of being connected or belonging somewhere is stressed. We grow up with an ability to be separate that is better than our ability to be attached. Trusting in another human being is always in question.

Many therapists, childcare workers, social workers, and other professional caregivers have a capacity for seeing the alienation in others. When we meet certain kids we may have an instant resonance, even though we have a determination to be separate – to not be dependant – because that’s what separation allows us to be.

While the connection part of attachment is important, the separation part of attachment is just as important. That’s what makes for a full personality. It makes for a person who is capable of taking care of others, because we can be separate. What we offer then is a true offer. We don’t have to act out our lives through the other. That is a gift. But as with every gift, we have to be aware that there is always a hook in the gift.

The lack of ability to be in relationship in a trusting way means that our relationships are always strained in the sense that we are ready to go any day. There is a part of us that says, “Okay, if you don’t want to be part of this relationship, you don’t want to be my friend, you don’t want to be around me, I’ll survive. I’ll go on.”

But whether we see it as a gift, or whether we see it as a flaw comes from our brain. Some of us are decimated by this: our relationships fail or we fail in relationship – it depends which side of the fence we are on and how we perceive it. If we go too far in that, or we don’t come to terms with that separation, then we are going to be alone and we are going to be immensely aware of our own aloneness, and that’s going to make us unhappy.

So, what do we learn about our work? We can come to every relationship with the knowledge that the other person is going to go about their business and at some point they will be ready to leave.

Their life is their own.

This distance is tolerable.

When we first meet the other person, if we are mindful of our own alienation we can consciously make a relationship with them, marked by a kind of intimacy and also distance, knowing that their life belongs to them.

Thus at the core of our work, we are illuminated by the separation in attachment.