My mother stated, “You know, I did a bit of an intervention, earlier this week. With some of your stuff in it.” I immediately understood that, by saying ‘stuff’, my mother meant Non Violent Resistance. She knows what it is about. In fact, the only training we ever both attended was a training day on NVR, now a decade ago. Back then, she was almost at the end of her career in special education in a large service for children with special needs and a great variety of other difficulties. I was a young professional, still finding his way. It was a bit comical and strange that we were both there, very focused on our work, but still in the same room as mother and son.
I remember that she really liked the ideas of NVR. Of course, I liked them as well, though for me you could say that this interest got a bit out of hand in the years that followed. That’s why she said ‘your stuff’, as she still keeps track of my work. But back to my story.
I asked my mom what happened? She told me that she was sitting on the back porch a couple of days a go, when she suddenly heard some awful screaming. She went to take a look around the corner and saw her neighbour, a man who had only lived there for about a year, going back and forth between his front door and his car. My parents had got acquainted with this family, based on the general idea that it is important to welcome new neighbours in our street, but they didn’t know each other well.
In this situation, the young father was very distressed: swearing, screaming out loud, wildly gesturing towards his children, who were standing in the doorway. His little daughter, maybe 4 or 5 years old, was crying and screaming incessantly. The older one, a girl of about 7 years old, looked a bit perplexed and teary. The father dragged his youngest daughter around, for reasons unclear at this point. What was evident, is that as this continued, they were both in a very bad space in a situation that looked highly escalatory.
My mother thought about what she could or could not do for a minute, talking to my father about whether to ‘stay out of this situation’ or to engage in some way. After some hesitation, she decided that she was too worried to let it be, and that she had to try something, even though she wasn’t at all sure about the outcome. As she crossed the street, the father noticed her and immediately took his children inside. The door slammed shut, and my mother could hear a lot of screaming inside.
She was very worried about the outcome, even thinking about the possibility that she herself could get hurt; but, as she told me, at this point her thoughts were that if he would hit her in any way, at least it would take some attention away from his children for a while.
Imagining this, my stomach twisted, feeling concern for my mother, but also appreciating her great strength.
She went up the front stairs and repeatedly rang the doorbell. At first that went unanswered, but then the father opened the door. My mother opened her hands and calmly asked him: “Marnix(*), is there anything I can do for you?” The father looked at her for a second. Then his shoulders went down. “I can’t handle it anymore”, he said.
My mother and Marnix got into a conversation and she understood that, during an already heavy dispute between the father and the daughter, she got her fingers caught behind the kitchen door. Subsequently, chaos ensued. The father told my mother how stressed and helpless he felt, struggling with several difficulties, including the temper tantrums of his youngest girl.
He calmed down a bit, talking with my mother about what he could do at this point and what she could do to help him. They also talked about his daughter’s ‘panic attacks’, how challenging they were for the father, and the importance of trying to stay calm as a parent when that happens.
Following from this conversation, the father decided to take his children to see his wife, who was working in a retirement home nearby. He thought that this would help him assess the situation and discuss the next steps. My mother offered to take care of the children for a couple of hours, but the father said this wasn’t necessary.
My mother went back to her house, kept an eye on any particular activity around the house, but only saw the father coming back with his children after a few hours. The atmosphere seemed to have calmed down. My mother was quite shaken by all of this.
I asked my mother if she got a chance to follow up on this situation in any way. She told me that two days later, as she was getting ready to drive off to visit some family, the father was outside and came up to her. He told her how thankful he was for her ringing the doorbell and offering some support. After bringing the children to see his wife, he went to the hospital with his daughter to be sure she didn’t have a broken finger. Luckily, it was just a bruise.
The father told my mother he wanted to apologise for his behaviour, that he wanted to find a different way to deal with his tension and stress. He said he wanted to do more sports and spend more quality time with his children. He also mentioned that, growing up, his own dad never had been very involved with him, and that he feels he is still learning what it means to be a good dad. My mother answered him that she understands his concerns and recognises the challenges he sees for himself. She told him she often notices him caring for them in a warm and encouraging way. The father nodded, thanked her again, and then they both went their ways.
Writing this story down, I feel it resonates with questions professionals often struggle with. What does it mean to respect a family’s privacy? When we are very worried about escalatory family dynamics and family violence, how and when do we decide to take on a responsibility to intervene?
And even more importantly, if we feel that we have to do something, how can we do this in a way that maximizes our chances that the parents and families we approach experience this presence not only in a framework of safety , but rather as a part of the right to be supported? And how do we find out what feels like support for a particular family?
I really loved my mother’s first question.
(*) Marnix is a pseudonym.
Willem Beckers works as a systemic psychotherapist and trainer at the Interactie-Academie (Belgium) and is an associated trainer for PartnershipProjects.