By Emma Decker-Thomas
What happens if you take two teenagers, their parents and put them in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by their therapists and a wonderful team of farmers, cooks and support workers, cows, sheep and chickens?
It sounds like one of those ‘how many elephants in a mini’ jokes doesn’t it? Well we were privileged enough to do just that for one beautifully sunny week in June. Our normal residential camps are with under 12s and there has been a sense in the team that something similar would also be amazing for teenagers, and working with Jamie’s Farm, our teen and family camp became a reality.
Teenagers have very busy lives, as do their parents, and aligning diaries and the stars to arrange availability was our first hurdle, and we learnt some lessons for future camps about timing. But on a Monday afternoon in June, we had two very nervous teens and their apprehensive parents standing in a farmyard with suitcases and shiny wellies wondering what on earth they had agreed to!
Five days later, those same families stood in the same place saying their goodbyes to each other, wellies considerably less shiny and with those nerves a distant memory.
So what happened over those 5 days? I think I could write pages and pages, though of course everyone’s experience was their own. I will try to hold back and just share some reflections of a week of therapy farm camp.
Jamie’s Farm residentials are carefully structured, with the emphasis on good food, routine and teamwork all with a therapeutic ethos. We built therapeutic spaces into the days and there was a very quick cohesion between the staff of both services which provided lots of opportunities to share and learn from each other.
Reflecting on the week it felt as if we had being ‘doing DDP’, everywhere and all the time. Perhaps a better way of phrasing it would be we were living DDP: holding structure and containment with the activities and days, reflecting and repairing in the moment. We were co-creating narratives and making meaning about the activities, the days and the week within the context of the families’ lives and relationships within the days. We often suggest driving in a car as a good moment for difficult conversations with teens. I would now extend this to laying concrete, carving wood, grooming horses, rounding up sheep and milking cows. Being alongside in playful moments, co-regulating in trickier moments and just enjoying each other’s company was a powerful intervention with all attendees individually and in groups.
The trust of parents, and an understanding of the Family Places’s connection style felt key to the success of the week. Firstly in parents trusting that we would be able to manage the challenges that might come with their child, but also because we understood the reasons for those challenges and the realities of their lives.
A kitchen is often described as the heart of the home, and it certainly became the heart of the week, the safe, secure base where everyone adventured from and returned to for nurture, reflection and connection.
Of course food featured heavily… making breakfast (first and second breakfasts, Hobbit-style) was one of the main jobs, and one of our teens quickly became involved with the planning, cooking and serving of five star quality breakfasts which set everyone up for the day most deliciously! Initially under careful direction of the kitchen genius, this young person soon developed confidence and built his skills but also seemed to find peace and regulation in the space and with the staff member in charge of the space.
As the week progressed, both young people became invloved in the cooking, and we watched the nurture and gentle teaching and encouragement they had received flow between them, building their confidence and watching them enjoy this in a relationship with a sibling figure.
At the end of every meal there was a check in and shout out time. Everyone, staff and families, shared a number between 1 and 10, rating their emotional wellbeing- with reasons optional. This was followed by shouting out something positive that they’d seen or noticed by someone else that day. I had some reservations about sharing my own scores with families, wondering about therapeutic boundaries, however this provided moments to model checking in with yourself, and sharing your state with those around you had real power, particularly in a residential setting where practically there are times when energy ebbs and flows. The shout outs were also a wonderful tool – providing many opportunities to encourage and notice our young people and their parents, but also in modelling noticing and offering praise but also accepting praise and encouragement – not to mention experiencing the lovely glow of being seen and appreciated. There were often many misty eyes around the table during these moments. Indeed such was the power of this for one family that they have taken this into everyday life and check in and shout out at every evening meal, even 4 months on.
It would be easy to look back with rose coloured specs at the sunshine filled week, remembering moo-ing games, homemade cheese milked from the Jersey cow and fresh cookies eaten on the top of mountains but the reality was that the week took immense courage, energy and commitment. The skills of both parents who attended is not to be underestimated as they supported their children to attend and stay for the week. I think perhaps for both parents their own emotional journey during the week was a surprise, and the feedback we had from them included the powerful experience of having other people enjoy, care for and attune to their child. Parenting adopted children is often a lonely journey, particularly in a world where children’s survival responses are misinterpreted and parents face endless blame and judgement.
In respective group sessions with the teens and parents the sense of safety created at Jamie’s farm through everything discussed above, allowed each participant to share, express or realise an experience or feeling, and to have this met with understanding and empathy. For one of our teens, this led to a very raw conversation with their parent that has had a fundamental (and positive) impact on their relationships. I think perhaps the whole week is best summed up in the words of one of our wonderful attendees- ‘it was hard, but in a good way.’