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?

It is quite startling 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 sole focus of his mum’s attention. Normally, when a parent meets a new partner, we would expect some there to be be some reaction from the child. Initially interested perhaps, and then jealous 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 of the time: “Yes, Daddy” being Henry’s most frequent scripted comment. Even when now adoptive Daddy Rob spoke nastily to mum, or dropped Henry's teddy in the bin, considering it a childish redundant toy, Henry continued to accept. So perhaps, ,from a  psychological 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 seriously  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” as the adults have explained to him. (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  briefly 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.