The closest I came to getting into trouble at school was when I was six years old and I remember it vividly. We were colouring-in large pictures of sunflowers and my best friend, Anna, wanted to borrow my crayons. I didn’t object to sharing in principle but the difficulty I had was that Anna always put them back in the wrong order and I had a very particular way of keeping all my belongings. You see, I had a long-held belief that every little action I took had the power to impact my entire day. If I was to keep my pencil case on the left side of my desk rather than the right, my day would unfold in an entirely different way than it would otherwise. And vice versa. I was meticulous about doing things the same way each day- from putting my clothes on in the same order to keeping my crayons lined up in the same way. As much as Anna was my best friend, I really believed that by letting her mix up my crayons, it could have serious consequences. I was very upset and we were having quite a heated discussion about this. My teacher came over and told me I needed to share and as I tried to explain, she peered over her glasses and said, “You are a strange little thing!”
I wasn’t sure if I was strange. But I was quite certain that I wasn’t a ‘thing.’ As far as I was concerned, I was a paediatric oncologist in waiting and an aspiring princess. Not just a ‘thing’.
Those words stuck with me though. I was very self-conscious about the little habits that I felt kept me safe and kept my world predictable and under my control. As I grew older, the number of routines and rituals I had grew and the self-consciousness worsened. The combination of anxiety around all of it fed back into an unsustainable vicious cycle.
As I grew into a teenager, I was labelled all kinds of things: neurotic, obsessive, psychotic, depressed.
When I was fifteen, I found myself being taken into care and most of the labels I’d picked up were dropped. I was told that I was just a “bad kid.” All the young people in the unit I was in were told that we were just “bad kids” and treated accordingly.
This was the first time that the rules and routines that I’d developed to protect myself really clashed with the outside world. It seemed to me that whatever I did in this unit had an opposite effect, and the thoughts and beliefs I held were shattered as I was trapped in a no-win situation. If I made eye-contact with someone, I’d be greeted with a hostile, “What are you looking at?” reaction. If I didn’t make eye contact, I’d be met with equally angry, “Look at me when I’m talking to you!” hostility.
I found myself getting into trouble constantly and I began picking up new labels very quickly without really understanding why. Seemingly out of nowhere. I’d be labelled “aggressive” if I made eye contact with the wrong person, as if I’d purposely picked a fight. I requested a female member of staff to do the mandatory strip-searches and was called “a troublemaker” for interrupting tea breaks.
These labels stuck. And they hurt.
Suddenly I had gone from having this system of being able to predict and control everything around me to feeling like no matter what I did, I was getting it wrong. The rules kept changing and I didn’t understand this world I found myself thrown into. I felt like I was being turned into something that I wasn’t, and I felt constantly disorientated and terrified.
The more I think about that time in my life, the more confused I get.
I have always felt like a fraud speaking about my experiences in the care system because I haven’t ever thought of myself as having been “in care.” I certainly never felt “cared for,” and when I sat at the Children’s Hearing and was told that I was going to a secure unit, nothing was explained about what this meant except that this was necessary to protect me from myself. It became clear to me very quickly that this secure unit was walls around what had been identified as “a problem” and to me, that didn’t feel very caring. Now I find myself with the label of “care experienced” and I look back and think, “That was ‘care’? Does that count?”
To me, the problem with labels is it becomes difficult to see the person underneath, to see them as anything BUT “troubled” or “bad” or “damaged.” I felt like I wasn’t seen as me, but as something else, someone else. A label, a problem, something that needs to be changed or fixed or cured.
Of course, not all labels are negative: role model, a hero, an activist… The list is endless. But they’re all laden with expectations and assumptions about the person underneath, a person whose identity is far more complex than that. It’s so easy to take shortcuts and judge, label, stereotype. Instead of taking the time to really get to know someone. Labels don’t tell us very much at all.
The language we use is important because moulds our thoughts and become the filter through which we see the world. Questioning the labels we use to describe people and thinking about what those labels mean matters because it changes how we look at people and in turn, how we treat them.
When we’re not attentive to the needs of those around us, the needs of those who are vulnerable or suffering, we create a legacy of indifference. We risk creating a legacy of trauma.
When we start going down the road of “othering” by telling ourselves that these children are bad, damaged, troubled; “That they’re not like our children,” Their values are not like our values,” These children are not really children,” — it’s easy to see how quickly the cycle of indifference and dehumanization is perpetuated. Only by paying attention to those needs can we address the problem that the system itself has created. Only by paying attention can we ever begin to heal.
Whether we see someone as a trouble-maker or as an activist makes a difference in how we respond to them. Whether we see them as bossy or assertive, damaged or hurting, loud-mouthed or passionate. It matters.
Words can build walls between people or they can create a connection. Our words can break someone or they can empower them. Conversations can change people — for better or for worse. The way we connect with people, the way we connect with each other, matters. Where the power lies and who is doing the labelling, matters. Because labels have a funny way of sticking. Particularly with young people, especially when they hurt.
And so, back to language.
Back to calling children “children.”
Not “damaged,” not “troubled,” not “broken beyond repair.” Just “children.”
Needing what we all need: safety, warmth, empathy, compassion, connection, love. Genuine care.