WALKING ALONGSIDE YOUTH - AN ONLINE ANXIETY COURSE
the youth’s identity, experiences and family traditions
A story about honouring: Playing with fire
Tomas is a 10-year-old Indigenous child in care who has moved between foster caregivers several times. Although he had a long period of stability with one caregiver, eventually this arrangement also broke down. Tomas’s alarming behaviours have simply been too much for the adults in his life to handle.
The trouble started when Tomas began taking small items that did not belong to him—silly items that were not worth anything. Tomas would sneak things into his pockets while at school or other places outside the home. When questioned, Tomas could not explain why he was taking things that did not belong to him, and each time he was caught, he would promise to try to stop. However, all the discipline, teaching, consequences and rewards did nothing to change or improve the situation.
Eventually, Tomas’s habit of stealing insignificant items evolved into an obsession with lighting fires. Tomas now steals lighters and lights small items on fire in secret, putting himself and others at risk. Understandably, the adults in Tomas’s life are very concerned about this behaviour—yet Tomas just cannot help himself.
At first glance, Tomas’s stealing and fire-setting look like behavioural problems that need to be controlled. However, if we look more closely, we see can see how the stuck emotion of alarm might be fuelling these obsessions and compulsions. The obsession with taking things, which developed into a compulsion to burn things, is rooted in stuck alarm—Tomas’s nervous system is unable to rest, and he can’t experience the kind of break that supports growth and well-being.
Tomas feels like he is too much for his caregivers to handle, which is extremely alarming for a young person. Tomas has had to work for the approval of the adults around him—shaping himself into who he thinks they want him to be—which leaves him feeling profoundly unsafe and insecure. What Tomas needs is a safe relationship with just one caring adult who can truly and unconditionally accept him just as he is.
One day, Tomas attends a counselling session with a counsellor from his home community who is aware of both his history of being moved several times and the concerns about his obsession with fire. The counsellor invites Tomas to begin their time together by lighting a smudge The counsellor then provides teachings about the spiritual ritual of smudging, and Tomas’s ancestral lineage of fire keepers and the important and sacred role they played in community life.
As Tomas and the counsellor stand together in front of the smudge bowl, watching the embers burn and the smoke twirl above their heads, they share a profound moment of connection in which Tomas feels seen and understood. The counsellor does not try to change Tomas in this moment—only to honour who he is and where he comes from. By providing this positive, relational and culturally specific care, the counsellor offers a moment of rest, bringing down the alarm that fuels the troubling behaviour. After the session, the counsellor encourages Tomas’s caregivers to begin a smudging ritual at home and to connect him with Elders and knowledge keepers from his community who can share teachings and the family history of fire keeping.
Without an understanding of alarm, it is easy to mistake a youth’s anxiety symptoms for behavioural problems and for caregivers and care providers to work at changing the youth’s behaviour. By recognizing the underlying source of alarm, Tomas’s counsellor provides him with what he is missing by both longing to honour and finding ways of honouring who Tomas is and where he comes from.
Here are some specific ways in which Tomas’s caregiver could honour him:
The anxiety a youth is experiencing is likely warranted. The youth’s alarm system is hard at work trying to correct a problem in their relational world. But the anxiety is not a problem to be fixed. It is a signal that the youth has a relationship hunger and needs relational support.