By Natasha Sond, CFF Director and Mental Health & Court of Protection Solicitor
I remember representing an adolescent for the first time as a trainee solicitor. The client was only 14 years old but had a significant history of self-harming behaviours. These were not just superficial self-harming cuts – these were incidents such as throwing herself off a 3 storey car park. She was detained in a secure adolescent ward. I did not know her history or background when I went to see her for the first time – however, I prepared myself for a very traumatic story of significant abuse. My presumption was that this level of suicide attempt meant significant abuse of some kind.
I approached the subject sensitively. I asked her about her family and whether she had any contact with anyone. “Yes, my Mum and Dad.” I asked whether her parents were allowed to visit her unsupervised. “Yes, my mum comes here on a Friday and my Dad comes on a Sunday.” I asked whether theses visits had to be supervised by staff. I asked whether there were any safeguarding investigations pending. I asked whether she has had any contact restricted with anyone. I asked whether there were any police proceedings. The answer to all of my questions was a resounding “no”. It is of course inappropriate to come out and just say “so, why are you doing all of this? What has happened to you? Tell me how you were abused?”
I look back at this client and my misconceptions about what must have happened to her and I cringe. I was so naïve. 12 years on as a mental health and court of protection solicitor I have learned so much about young people’s mental health. Most of all I have learned that a child does not have to be beaten or sexually abused to feel like their future is hopeless. The most damaging thing, in my experience, that has to be felt by a child for them to present the way my 14 year old client did is a feeling of invalidation. A feeling that the child does not matter. That the child has no place, no purpose, and whether they exist or not does overly matter to anyone.
My 14 year old client was the only child of her parents. They separated when she was young and they each went on to remarry and have their own children. They had all moved on. My client spent half the week at one house and half at another, sharing a room with her step siblings and constantly feeling like she was just in the way. I, shamefully, remember thinking…”Is that it?!” Only now do I realise how much an invalidating environment affects our youth. It is, arguably, one of the most damaging forms of childhood. The feeling of not mattering, being a nuisance and an irritation just for being there is significant.
This is why I believe so heavily in services like ours at CFF. No child should feel that throwing themselves off a three story building is the answer. Every child matters and every child deserves to feel like they serve a purpose, and their feelings matter. Our children are not just concerned about their looks and weight and their social media (although sadly, often these things all add to the level of worth our children place upon themselves).
CFF provides more than an ear to listen to you. We are a community. We are friends waiting to be made. We are a regular, structured session focused on you. However small the issues may seem to the outside world, your feelings matter so much because we know it is often the seemingly small everyday struggles that have the greatest impact. So often there has to be an extreme example before your child can be admitted to a psychiatric ward or receive NHS community support. At CFF, we understand that any negative experience can be huge to the child and will require a level of support. You just have to want to help yourself, or your child feel better and that is our starting point.