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Lucy Stevens - 8th November 2017
There are all sorts of behaviours that foster carers have to deal as they care for children. These range from swearing to bedwetting, smearing to sexualised behaviour, destroying everything in sight to screaming and shouting the house down. A carer dealing with behaviours like these could easily be forgiven for wanting a little peace and quiet.
But silence from a child can be equally draining. Prolonged silence from a child is a bit like hitting the metaphorical wall that runners refer to. It is a barrier that hurts, overwhelms and which at times feels insurmountable.
Silence is golden
Generally, I believe silence is a good thing, a powerful thing – a way of sticking it to this relentlessly unsilent world of ours even. I’m no hater when it comes to silence that’s for sure. Generally I understand that silence can indeed be golden. What I have learned recently, however is that it can also be heavy, oppressive, laden with unfathomable and unexplained emotion. A thing to worry over and read into. As someone who fosters an Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking child who frequently retreats into silence, I have learnt that it speaks volumes.
Firstly silence speaks of a lack of language with which a child can explain the enormity of their emotions. Getting a teenager to talk at the best of times can be tricky but once you strip away the ability to express themselves in words, it becomes nigh on impossible. Many of us, when facing tough times, struggle to find the words to convey how we are feeling. Instead emotions find their own means of making themselves known. We might snap at others, we might cry, we might throw stuff, we might fold in on ourselves. And yet we do have the words when we’re ready to let them do their work. Our child does not have the words. He only has silence. He cannot express the vastness of his loss, he cannot articulate the intensity of his homesickness, he cannot tell us how worried he is about his birth family or friends he’s left behind, he can’t put into words how overwhelming the world we inhabit is to him. And so his silence does the talking. It does so with deafening efficacy.
But I believe this silence our child sinks into is also something precious to him. Something to be respected. It is something over which he does have a degree of control. There is not much else in his life about which he could say the same. His silence makes him unreachable. It is something that cannot be fought against. It has to be accepted. When there is laughter, when there is music, when there is conversation, his silence can remain. In this way, his silence is something at times he can do nothing about and yet it is something that at times he can entirely choose. What a paradox it is that silence can be so many things at once.
Silence as balm
Of course silence is also a powerful means of self-protection. He can’t tell me this himself, but I have come to think that it is a powerful defence mechanism. It screams of a pain too deep to explore. It whispers that even if the words were all there to express how deep and wide his pain is, his mind does not want to go there yet. And how does one meet this silence? What do I do with it? I treat it. With silence. My silence is not an ignoring silence, not a collaborative silence even. It is not an eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth. It is an accepting silence. It is a silence that says it’s ok. It is a silence that speaks of sharing burdens. It is both helpless and powerful. It occurs in the side-by-side-ness of cooking. It is there on a walk through the woods. It is steadfast in the clattering aisle of a supermarket. My silence is a silence that says, “I hear you.” It remains when my hand rests for a moment on his shoulder. Endures when our eyes meet. Is held in the ghost of a smile. It is perhaps, after all, as golden as the first word that breaks it.