Trauma and Youth Identity
Five years ago, Act For Change was invited to set up a psychotherapeutic programme for young people from London’s inner city. This programme reached out to a small but significant minority of teenagers, who get into trouble with the serious laws of our society and commit repeated crimes. Crimes of robbery, violent assault, drug pushing and forced imprisonments.
Almost all of them were young males, (95%). 90% were from black ethnic groups (African, Asian and Afro Caribbean). A very significant proportion of them had previously been permanently excluded from any form of educational or vocational training. It seemed that they had already become so marginalised that they were on the verge of joining an “alienated” gang sub culture.
As the work with our young people continued, we found ourselves listening to individual life stories, whose collective narratives overlapped in a number of disturbing ways. This included emotional neglect, early exposure to trauma, attachment disturbance, social communication difficulties, witnessing of domestic violence and the absence of fathers.
Adolescents need to seek out and find answers to the ontological questions. Who am I? What is my life for? How do I find meaning in it? What is the purpose of Life? Our young people had become very lost in this search for an authentic Identity. Excluded from school, beyond the control of a single parent (typically a mother), thrown off the ladder of achievement, they were being continuously confronted by failure rather than success. They felt despairing about the prospect of earning money legitimately, within a society that offers so much for those that achieve well.
Becoming a member of the anti social proto-criminal gang offers a form of Identity, albeit a negative one. With a Negative Identity the young offender “finds himself” psychologically, but moves outside the home, school and the law. It is an unknown forbidden territory, which we discovered, most of them wished quickly to escape from, having experienced its dangers for only a short period.
Our psychotherapeutic work offers some essential aids to young offenders, as they seek to make their journey back from exclusion and a Negative to a Positive Identity. We offer a dialogue over time, in a safe space, where gradually they can grow to connect with their feelings and explore traumatic memories that have frightened and disturbed them.
Ten years into our work with these young people, and it seems that we are part of a society which has created three cultures. Those who are
“ doing OK thank you ” and wish for more of the same. A counter culture
who are saying “ actually we can do lots of things differently and for the better”; and a small alienated multi ethnic sub culture who are excluded, ignored, misunderstood, marginalised, scapegoated and imprisoned. This is a shocking and disturbing truth for The Big Society seeking to be inclusive, and which purports to integrate social solidarity with the free market.
1. “Rewriting Family Scripts: Improvisation And Systems Change.” by John Byng-Hall (The Guilford Family Therapy) Paperback – 1996
2. “ A Secure Base.” by John Bowlby (Routledge Classics) Sep 2005 3. “ Identity and the Life Cycle.” by Erik H Erikson Aug 1994
4. “ The Hero with A Thousand Faces (Collected Works of Joseph Campbell) by Joseph Campbell 2012
5. “ The Trials of the Initiate: Transforming the Warrior Spirit.” (Paperback) by Robert Mitchell
6. “ The Big Society ”Paperback – by Jesse Norman.