Co-discovering hope with children facing hardships
Narrator [00:00:02] Welcome to the Emerging Minds podcast.
Chris Dolman [00:00:08] Hello, my name’s Chris Dolman, and today we’ll be hearing from Angel Yuen, a private therapist and school social worker from Toronto, Canada. Angel has taught narrative ideas in several different countries for over a decade and is the author of various papers, as well as the book ‘Pathways Beyond Despair Re-ordering Lives of Young People through Narrative Therapy’. Earlier, I met with Angel to hear about some of the ideas and practices she draws on in her work with children and young people and adults who’ve been subjected to abuse and violence and oppression. We discussed her particular interest in working with children to co-discover and seek out hopeful and effective ways of responding to trauma and hardship.
Chris Dolman [00:00:49] Hi, Angel, thanks. Thanks for joining us today. It’s great to have you for this podcast.
Angel Yuen [00:00:54] Hi. Thanks for having me.
Chris Dolman [00:00:56] So, Angel, I’ve heard and read that you describe your work with children and families as providing pathways beyond despair and I was wondering if, I’d love to ask you about those pathways, actually. But before we get onto that, I’d love to hear a bit more about the kind of despair you’re referring to. Could you say something about the kind of despair you come across in your work with children and families?
Angel Yuen [00:01:19] Sometimes I think of the same as despair when young people and children have been subjected to abuse, violence, many traumas I guess we could say, that happen to young people and families, but also in communities, illness, depression. There have been many young people who I’ve seen, you know, when I say abuse and violence, have been harmed by sexualized violence, physical harms, put downs, racism, homophobia. Unfortunately, the list is really long. But, you know, in the school grounds, sometimes what we call bullying, where children are really just called sometimes the unimaginable, you know, derogatory kinds of things that really sort of hurt their hearts and their souls and really affect, you know, how they feel in this world or with other people.
Chris Dolman [00:02:22] Yes. How is the despair and the hopelessness and how does that show itself in the lives of children? How is it evident in a way to them and to others?
Angel Yuen [00:02:33] Well, in my work in schools sometimes young people might become very quiet, where before they were really maybe more lively. Sometimes we see young people not attending school or physically they’re having, I know a lot of really young children I’ve seen who would say they have tummy aches, you know. I sometimes try to not always use sometimes the professional language we have like big words like, for example, anxiety. They may say instead they, you know, the tummy worries or the nerves or so things like that.
Chris Dolman [00:03:12] This is how kind of some children speak about this despair in a way through these describing what’s going on in their bodies. You’ve mentioned a whole lot of different ways that kind of speak to them. Are they sort of other descriptions you hear from children that are quite common when they’re talking about what you’re calling despair and hopelessness?
Angel Yuen [00:03:31] Yeah, well, sometimes despair could be statements such as I don’t want to be here anymore. You know, why does this happen? Why is this happening to me? I feel like I don’t belong.
Chris Dolman [00:03:49] You know, when you’re meeting with a child or young person and they’re saying things even like, you know, I don’t want to be here, why is happening to me, I can’t I can’t go on. What are your initial intentions at this point as you’re beginning to hear about this from children?
Angel Yuen [00:04:05] Well, I always want to make sure I really acknowledge that suffering or the affects, because there. When somebody is really going through such a hard time, that’s really it feels really important to richly acknowledge those effects. And at the same time, I’m always thinking that there’s always another story. And that could be about, I’m always believing that young people and children have skills, even though they might not feel it at the time. And if they’re so, I’m always trying to see that if I can help emerge another story or so when I say that it could be story about skills or something that they value. So, I always think that friendship is is such a beautiful storyline that we can try to like to bring out. That could be a value. And sometimes they don’t feel there’s always someone who cares about them and and wants to support them. And so, I’m always thinking that we can, I call it doubly listening, that on the one side, there’s a story of hardship and suffering and not having hope, but that we’re always believing there there’s another story that we can bring out of the shadows.
Chris Dolman [00:05:21] Can I just ask you about skills, I’d like to speak more about, ask you more about that later. But when you’re saying skills like what what are you meaning by children’s skills?
Angel Yuen [00:05:29] Skills. So, I think I have this term called that really believing not just children, but people of all ages have skills and knowledges. That they have actions that maybe they take in getting through despair. So, I think people have skills in getting through tough times. I kind of like that phrase, skills and getting through tough times. And that’s kind of even despair is probably a big word for a little child. Right. But but skills and getting through. So that could be. Maybe they do things to comfort themselves. Maybe they have ways of lessening the effects of these difficult times or if it’s a trauma story. So, for example, it could be. I like to draw and colour because it it helps just to get all the things out of my head, and it calms me down. And it could be a skill in getting through. Could be. I’ve had I just had a young person say, I just count, you know, I’m walking on the street and we have sidewalks in Canada with lines. You know, I count, you know, every 20 and then I start all over again. And I know that might seem really little, but I try to not make that kind of, you know, this little thing that they just did. I try to just stay there and say, oh, tell me about you came here this morning. You were so upset. You were having a hard time after all that fighting that your mum and dad were doing, and you decided to go one, two, three in your head. And I think that’s a skill. It’s a skill in calming themself down. It’s a skill in getting through. It’s a skill in lessening the anxiety or whatever they want to call the anxiety.
Chris Dolman [00:07:19] And so these skills can be, you said quite little. Not grand. But just quite little.
Angel Yuen [00:07:23] Yes, exactly. That’s a great way of saying it. Not grand, just little.
Chris Dolman [00:07:26] Small skills, yeah.
Chris Dolman [00:07:30] Angel’s experience in working with children and young people who’ve face trauma and other hardships was really interesting, especially how she emphasized the importance of finding ways in her work to acknowledge the difficulties children have faced and also being really curious about how the child has responded to their situation. The skills they bhave drawn on. The actions they’ve taken to get through those difficult times. I asked Angel to firstly say a bit more about what she is doing when she’s acknowledging the tough situations that children have been through and how it’s affecting their lives. And then I went on to ask her about hope.
Angel Yuen [00:08:04] I think about that when children and young people and families come to see me as a child and family therapist, that what is in the counselling room is is not separate from what’s happening outside of the counselling world. I think it’s inextricably linked. So when I, what I mean by that. There are always these broader stories, in my context in Toronto I happen to work in inner city schools or I was. So, so stories of poverty, socioeconomics and that there are gender stories and where I, my context where it’s a very diverse community, multicultural in Toronto, that that there are stories of culture and race and families who are coming from different countries. So even say, for example, someone might come in with what we call symptoms or effects of depression or anxiety, trying not to individualise these problems that.
Chris Dolman [00:09:05] What do you mean, not individualise them?
Angel Yuen [00:09:10] That there are broader power relations. So I’ll give you one phrase that might help to just kind of illustrate it. It comes from Vicki Reynolds who’s an activist in British Columbia, Canada. And she says it’s not depression, it’s oppression. Does that help to convey? And so individualizing depression often can be an internal story attached to someone and their individualized symptoms. But when, it’s more, I think, political than that. That, you know, when people are dealing with oppression, that could be, for example, racism, that could be sexism, it could be homophobia, transphobia. And for families where they’re just trying to put food on the table.
Chris Dolman [00:10:03] Sure. You mentioned in your work how part of it is, you regard part of your work as doing hope in your work with their children and families. How do you go about kind of creating a context for hope with families?
Angel Yuen [00:10:19] Well, first and I’ll answer the question, when people are really struggling, you know, I know we have this diagnosis that’s called post-traumatic stress disorder. And, you know, diagnoses are are something that can be really helpful for people. They feel, oh this helps me to give more meaning to what’s going on for me. But the reason I wanted to name that is sometimes, you know, this is we don’t actually officially have an OTSD, but we have a PTSD. And what I refer to the O is ongoing traumatic stress. It’s not an official diagnosis but some people really are not dealing with the post. They’re not dealing with what’s after. They are currently and ongoing living with injustice, suffering, sometimes just really unimaginable circumstances. And so that idea of hope and holding onto hope, some people are just really clinging. Adn that’s just so much of my work. And so I’m always interested in, what keeps you going? What sustains you? For some, it’s what helps to keep you living? What helps you to hold on? So back to your question about hope, it is really significant and you’re asking me about this this interesting notion of doing hope. That phrase doesn’t come from me. It comes from Kaethe Weingarten, who’s from the US. And if you were to look her up, I remember this phrase that she had about, we’re doing hope together with people. So I just found that really it just really stood out that she’d she’d turned hope into a verb versus a noun. That we’re doing hope together, which is really relational. And people are often in isolation when they are not or when they’re feeling it’s hard to hold onto hope. So this notion of that we can do hope together with people and sometimes we are that person, you know, counsellors, family therapists, where, you know, I remember not just one person, but many people saying that if I didn’t have this hope with you, I don’t know what I would what I would do. So just to know that even if one person can help them to hold on to hope.
Chris Dolman [00:12:39] Angel talked about the stance she takes when working with children and families in relation to hope. Hope is a verb, an action, and as relational rather than as existing in isolation. So I asked her for a small example of a practice she draws on when hopelessness may be quite overwhelming for children and families. So it becomes slightly less overwhelming for them. And hope can come more into the picture. And then she continued to talk about the relationship between hope and language.
Angel Yuen [00:13:06] So I have what are called wish questions. And what I mean by that is sometimes it’s hard for people to think about how they are doing hope or what is sustaining them. And they will often, I often hear, I don’t know, I’m not sure it’s too hard. And a question sometimes I’ll ask that I have found does create an opening. I’ll say, you know, I know it might not, you know, right now it’s feeling that’s hard to answer. If you wish you could hold onto hope, what would you be wishing for? Because usually people can wish because it doesn’t mean it necessarily has to happen. But you can hope for a wish. Does that make sense?
Chris Dolman [00:13:46] Sure. Sure. So then people speak, begin to speak to a wish that may help them to imagine something. Is that what you’re sort of inviting them into?
Angel Yuen [00:13:54] Yeah. And if you imagine, if you could imagine that things were better. What would be happening? And I have had people respond, well I could, I just wish I could wake up in the morning and not have this pain, you know, wake up to the pain and it could just be OK. Or, you know, sometimes I imagine a world beyond, and I can just escape or I do fantasise.
Chris Dolman [00:14:20] Could you say something a bit more about for you, the importance of paying attention to the language people use to describe their experience?
Angel Yuen [00:14:30] Yeah. I think language has such power and language can be maybe generative and uplifting and hopeful, and sometimes it can sometimes be really inadvertently diminishing for people and disempowering and that. And I mean that maybe by professionals, professionals in the helping world usually obviously want to be helpful. But sometimes language use can be really unhelpful. So, for example, with diagnoses, sometimes I’ve seen when somebody receives a diagnosis, they feel that that’s it’s been really helpful. And for some people, I’ve seen it really crushing for people and something in between. And so I’m really informed a lot by the practices and ideas of narrative therapy. And just, you know, doing whatever I can to be non pathologizing. And so for me, I say it’s not I’m not anti diagnosis at all. I work with diagnoses all the time, but I would say I’m anti unhelpful diagnosis. And so with that, I try to ask the meaning of what the language of say, what would be a common diagnosis for children and families that you hear. Maybe I’ll work with that.
Chris Dolman [00:15:54] It could be like ADHD, for example.
Angel Yuen [00:15:57] So I may say to that child or that family, when you heard that diagnosis, ADHD, did you find that helpful or not helpful or somewhere in between? Do you find that fits or doesn’t fit at all or somewhere in between? And that’s been so interesting for me to ask that question, because I’ve really had responses here and I’ve had them here or I’ve had a child answer here and I’ve had an a parent answer here. And so.
Chris Dolman [00:16:25] Quite contrasting responses.
Angel Yuen [00:16:25] Yeah and so I don’t want to impose my own meaning because really it’s not me living with what that diagnosis means. So I really want to to see what the relationship is with that diagnosis for families and children and help them to give meaning to it and also hear what it means to each other. Because sometimes you could have a mother and father have different meaning to it and medication. So again, I don’t impose or say this is what you should do. I just want to really help them figure out together and if it feels like a bit contrasting or conflictual, help with that.
Chris Dolman [00:17:03] Yeah, you said that sometimes those kind of descriptions can be quite I think you said crushing or limiting at times for people. If they’re evaluating that description, the diagnostic description as unhelpful, what do you do with that? How do you respond to that or what else is possible?
Angel Yuen [00:17:21] If it’s not, or if it it’s more on the crushing side or someone saying, I don’t believe. I actually just had somebody say I don’t, I don’t agree with that. They just outright it. And I said, well, if you had a naming for what’s going on for you, what would you name?
Chris Dolman [00:17:37] Right. Okay. Yeah. Even children?
Angel Yuen [00:17:40] Yeah. Yeah.
Chris Dolman [00:17:42] Even young children?
Angel Yuen [00:17:42] Yeah, really. And in fact, I love that. I love. So, so I mentioned with narrative therapy, Michael White who is no longer alive. But a lot of his ideas. Him being one of the originators of narrative therapy. I remember just some of his ideas for working with ADHD. If it had a colour, what would it be? And it had a size? Does it have eyes? And children really engaged with this and they make it their own.
Chris Dolman [00:18:08] So drawing on children’s playfulness and creativity even in those conversations. And how do you reckon children from your experience experience those inquiries, those conversations when you’re asking them about that?
Angel Yuen [00:18:22] I think they find it really engaging and they laugh, and they really get into it. And I think that, you used the word curiosity. I think because I always think of being in a stance of curiosity. I really, I really that children have know-how and I really want to learn from you. And as you can imagine with children that, you know, there’s such power relations with adults and children and then particularly professionals with children. So for children to really feel that I really am wanting to learn and be curious from you and so I think not only do they feel engaged and good and it’s playful, that they might feel a bit clever, proud that they can they can let, teach me their knowledge. Yeah.
Chris Dolman [00:19:13] Does that, do those inquiries reflect a particular view or the way you seek to position children in a way in your work in some sense?
Angel Yuen [00:19:22] So, you know, I really position children as having expertise in their own lives. I try to really de-centre myself as a professional, and centre children as being able to tell me about their own lives in their own way, knowing more about their own life than I would know. That’s what I really believe.
Chris Dolman [00:19:44] I think Angel has made a couple of key points here around how practicioners can position ourselves and the children we work with. She’s spoken about paying attention to our use of language with children to ensure it’s not inadvertently diminishing of children, but instead how it can be generative and hopeful. And what supports us in this is to be drawing on children’s creativity and imagination. I asked Angel, what is it that she is hoping for the children she meets with by privileging their creativity, imagination, skills and know-how.
Angel Yuen [00:20:18] My hopes for them as I think about agency and children having agency, meaning, you know, there’s another term, personal agency, and if we took agent as the agency, you know, that people are agents in their own life. I want them to know that, you know, when people, we could kind of go on the contrast, when people don’t have agency, they don’t feel they really don’t feel they can have any effect on their life whatsoever. There’s a sense of helplessness and taht hopelessness we talked about earlier. And so, if children come in to my room just not having a sense of agency, my hope for them is that the agency starts to get more developed and and elevated.
Chris Dolman [00:21:06] So when, so when yeah, like you said, that when that hopelessness or the despair is present, one of your hopes as the agency gets elevated. Gets brought forward in some way.
Angel Yuen [00:21:17] And that they, they, I’m learning from them about the skills and the values and maybe the commitments that they have, their resistance, which are all clues to stories of agency.
Chris Dolman [00:21:31] When you say resistance, their resistance in what sense?
Angel Yuen [00:21:34] Yeah, I guess I haven’t talked about that that, you know, just say when bad things, that’s how young children may talk or not talk about what happens to them when you know, whether it being harms that have happened to them, that they often feel like well I couldn’t do anything when people were hurting me or harming me, that sometimes there are these stories of resistance. So like in some writing I did, this boy’s coming to mind, I called him Billy and he knew that the more he was harmed by physical and emotional abuse, that if he showed, he was upset. So if he cried or he showed any anger or upset that he would, that the abuse would get escalated towards him. So what he would do was he would hold his hands in his pockets and clench them so they couldn’t be seen. And he said, I wouldn’t show them that was, I was upset. Like I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t give them the satisfaction that they were hurting me and that that’s an act of resistance. So not showing anything on someone’s face or not reacting could be an act of resistance. And so many more acts of resistance.
Chris Dolman [00:22:45] So these acts of resistance that, these skills and values and things that children are kind of committed to. These are all a part of what you regard as a child’s agency in responding to the bad things. Are there things that are kind of that have convinced you that these are hopeful inquiries to be making with children?
Angel Yuen [00:23:07] Certainly what I hear as far as feedback from children and young people. And so I always in every conversation I might be saying, how is this conversation going? Is this okay? And, you know, of course, when I hear something like, yeah, this is this has been really helpful. And then I can ask, you know, what’s been helpful? And it’s this kind of a bit of a sad thing and hopeful thing for me. But when I hear someone say, you know, this has been one of the most helpful conversations I’ve had. Then I think well, what have your other conversations been like. But I get to though, then ask, you know, well, what’s been helpful? Well, I just feel like, I well, I didn’t know that I did all these things. I didn’t know that, of course, they’re not using the word agency, but they’re really saying to me things like, I didn’t actually think that that was, you know, a big thing. You know, they can name those skills and they can name those things that you do. And I always have. I’m always writing down exactly what children and young people and parents say, so that instead of my professional language or me imposing bigger, professionalized words, I can use the dark worry monster that that young girl decided she would leave overnight in the washing machine. You know, that’s.
Chris Dolman [00:24:27] What’s how do children kind of respond to that when they see these words, their own words being recorded, I guess, in that way?
Angel Yuen [00:24:35] Well, I think they think it’s fun and they laugh. And I and I even on a post-it note, I’ll put that. And I’ll say, can you draw a picture of that? What if we showed that to your parents or the parents might be in the room and I think they feel proud. And I’m also trying to link them to other young children. You know, what if your idea of leaving the worry monster in the washing machine overnight with the lid down could help another 8-year-old boy I’m seeing, would you like that? Oh, yeah. That that they know that they’re the ones helping someone else.
Chris Dolman [00:25:08] Are they surprised by that? Are they kind of.
Angel Yuen [00:25:09] Yeah, surprised. That would be a good way.
Chris Dolman [00:25:14] Yeah. Like as though they can do that or someone else, yeah
Angel Yuen [00:25:17] Or they come back the next session and and they come back with three or four more ideas of how they’ve helped themself and how they can help someone else. And yeah.
Chris Dolman [00:25:29] You know, this conversation has me being even more interested in some of these themes of honouring children’s resistance and positioning children as making a contribution to the lives of other children and families facing similar circumstances.
Chris Dolman [00:25:44] Angel thanks so much for joining us today.
Angel Yuen [00:25:47] Oh you’re welcome.
Chris Dolman [00:25:47] On this podcast, really appreciated hearing about some of your ideas and some practices that use in working with children who have been through some tough times and their families. So thanks for sharing.
Angel Yuen [00:25:58] Yeah. Pleasure. Yeah. Thanks for having me.
Narrator [00:26:02] Visit our website at www.emergingminds.com.au to access a range of resources to assist your practice. Brought to you by the National Workforce Centre for Child Mental Health, led by Emerging Minds and delivered in partnership with the Australian Institute of Family Studies, the Australian National University, the Parenting Research Centre, and the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners. The National Workforce Centre for Child Mental Health is funded by the Australian Government Department of Health under the National Support for Child and Youth Mental Health Program.