We need to talk about Henry ( The Archers, Radio 4)

Why has the Archers (BBC Radio 4) domestic conflict storyline left out the children?

Henry Titchener is five years old. He was adopted by his single mum’s new partner,  who might have been a good daddy, but was not. In the Archers much debated storyline of coercive control within a relationship, all the focus and sympathy has been on the suffering wife, and how she was driven to extreme violence.  So what about the children?

 I am quite startled that there has been almost no discussion at all of what the effects might be on this little boy. And  how this unfolding saga might throw some much needed light on the plight of the children caught up in domestic violence.

Let’s go back a little.  Henry was the longed-for child of Helen Archer, conceived by sperm donor and grew up from baby to 5 year old as  a child used to being the focus of his mum’s sole attention. Normally, when a parent meets a new partner, we would expect some  there would be some reaction from the child. Initially interested perhaps, and then jealousy about the loss of attention, which would be seen in words and behavior – but no,  in this case, the new man Rob was accepted and obeyed pretty much all the time; “Yes, Daddy” being Henry’s most frequent scripted comment. Even when now adopted Daddy spoke nastily to mum, or dropped his  teddy in the bin, considering it a childish redundant toy, Henry continued to accept. So perhaps, ,from a  psychologically viewpoint we could say we are looking at a highly compliant child? But it just doesn’t ring true.

At four or  five years old, Henry would be going through a very natural rivalry with a competitor for Mum's affection, firstly challenging him, and then later, identifying. This wasn't represented at all in the story's description.

Later, when the conflict between parents comes to a head, and mummy hurts adopted dad – this is witnessed by  a very small Henry, who miraculously suffers no after effects, no bedwetting, no nightmares, no withdrawal, no tummy aches or outbursts of temper – simply accepting that he now has to live with “daddy” because his mummy is “ill”. (She is actually in custody awaiting trial) Unfortunately, the writers made Henry continue his compliance, not questioning the dramatic change in his living circumstances.

 None of this makes any sense at all. On the contrary, it irresponsibly implies that a child is not affected by such major life events.

The story continues with a dramatic release of the mother, who has, in the meantime given birth to a baby boy, the result of an intra-marital rape.

The listeners are relieved, Mummy is reunited with her Five year old, and so Henry comes back to live with her. His home life situation is reversed,but again Henry shows no sign of any trauma – having witnessed a bloody and violent act, having lost his mum, having then lost the only dad he knows, and in addition , has a new baby brother to cope with, toppling him from his position of being the only child. (Indeed, all this stress on the pregnancy and the birth in prison would suggest the new baby Jack is also affected.) When Henry does show some anger at school, another Archers character suggests it is simply children “being boisterous” or “children’s moods”. In the most recent episode, when he has seen and lost sight again of the person he calls "daddy', Henry is told, by a well-meaning, but misguided relative "You mustn't feel sad.You have us now..."

His needs have been forgotten.

And of course, this is only a radio soap script. But a very important opportunity has been missed, to speak out about the children who are forgotten in reality, who live with domestic violence including the bullying, isolating and constant belittling and humiliation of coercive control relationships.

Henry needs thinking about by all of us.

So that we acknowledge the bystander children of domestic violence or control. So that parents in this kind of relationship can be given help and support to know what to say, to explain the difficult adult dynamics. So that they can learn how to listen and carefully respond to all the inevitable questions and worries.

If a child is given a chance to talk and play things through, as in child psychotherapy, or just with an interested adult carer, they just might be able to make some sense of it in their own way, and move on.

 

College Student Kids: the new relationship

 

We've taken them to their residence, dropped off their stuff and now we're back at home...it's the first time they have really been away. It feels weird. Are they still our kids?

Remember no matter how far they go, you are always a parent. So here we are at that time of year when we have to let them go..Let's take a look at what issues come up for us as parents and how our parenting changes. So you are still dad or mum but what’s required of you is a bit different.

Obviously it’s strange  just not having children in the house , but why is this “parenting from afar” particularly hard?

There are two parts to this. One is how you feel with a quieter house and less to do – particularly if you have been a full time parent (and I am thinking especially of those of us with an only child gone or youngest just left…) and that is to do with your feelings about yourself and your role, and who you are… the "empty nest" feelings.

The second part is your child away from home, kind of excited to get away and yet possibly still very vulnerable about what is demanded of them.  We as parents have to do the two tasks of sorting ourselves out (so we might be feeling very needy and a bit lost), and also guessing what our child needs from a distance. or it’s very hard when they tell you what they need or make requests and you aren’t near to “fix it” for them.

Of course, most teenagers will have spent the recent years quite close by and yet pretty independently BEFORE they actually move out? So we've all had some practice, surely?(and by now, they will have had time away from home..)

That really depends on your adolescent. Some will have been hardly seen at all by their parents – “they’re never in” scenario. and others may have appeared to be independent but actually need the physical closeness to reassure them.  If you have managed to balance the helping and the fostering independence thing early – they should feel ready to try their wings. However much they seem NOT to need you, you can’t assume this.  There's a good deal of mixed feeling that they are trying not to show! And the first few weeks or semester can be particularly hard – they may only just be coming to terms with it all..For some teenagers it really is a massive shock.

 I know some parents could be on the phone or emailing constantly, to check that their son or daughter is ok?

This is where the balance comes in. We need to figure out- whose need is being fulfilled by this. Am I feeling anxious? a bit of a spare part? Or do I realise they need more contact than they are saying. I think you have to know your child. Or at least tell them openly – "sorry I am going to be a pest and check how you are every other day/ every Friday" It's important that  there are some aspects to your relationship that continue – doing things reliably and consistently for example. Maybe saying (gently) some of the things you have always said..

Rachel, what are some practical examples of this reliability we were talking about?

  • Agreeing how money is to go through – not just as and when, but at a set time.
  •  Talking about your expectations of them – re behaviour and choices.  This is a certain amount of boundary setting – as you always have done. Part of this could involve discussing what are the risks and safety aspects of being on your own. where you walk, what you drink or smoke, your health
  • Don’t wait until there is a crisis – but talk it over in calmness. 
  • Ask for several phone numbers – not just their own cellphone or mobile. Who are the adults they would go to if really stuck?
  • Ask do they really need to be driving a car – or can they manage without?

Mostly this will help you with your parental worries. But can make them think too. 

This is a question about how we see them: are they adults now or just big kids?

This is very important – we have to realise (from about 18 years on) – that our young people are really adolescents until they are about 24/5 yrs old. The part of the brain saying "Go!" is till the dominant one, and the frontal lobes – saying "Let’s have a think about this.." is not fully in charge. So the weighing up risks, thinking-things-through abilities are neurologically not entirely connected.

It’s not far off those moments when you said to your three year old – "Well done, you are so grown up going to kindergarten all by yourself!" In other words you TREAT them as adults – with respect and intelligence, but you KNOW that in many respects, they aren’t quite there yet.

So what should we parents be doing for them?

Be available. Number One. So let them talk whenever they need to. Listen Listen Listen. And remember – you don’t have to fix things for them – that is their job now. Back to the old theme of

Listen,

Sympathise..

and wait….

You don’t have to get on a train or in the car to go and talk to the course tutor, or get their accommodation changed, or agree to pay that overdue rent necessarily. See what they can come up with first.

Next – accept that your relationship is changing. It is an evolving role. One friend of mine said: “You are going to get to know them as a friend,” She told me that she asks “what kind of an adult are they going to turn out to be?”  and wonders about it. You will be a parent forever, but the ground levels out.  You too are moving on, to the next phase, where there is more thinking to be done, not just about our children, but about us and plans for our own future.