A PHSE lesson taps into trauma

A seemingly happy family play cricket on the beach but very quickly things become sinister. The father shouts loudly and menacingly at his son and on the return home takes his son upstairs and beats him with a cricket bat.  The physical abuse takes place off-camera but the screaming is heard as the mother cries ineffectually downstairs.  There is a further abuse scene and a glimpse of the boys bruised and shattered back.

‘It’s what my father taught me’ says the father, ‘the stump for disobedience, the bat for insolence’.

The same boy is attacked in the street by a bully, with bruises on his arms.

‘Did your dad do that?’ the bully is asked.

‘It’s passed on,’ says another child.

‘I’m never having kids then,’ says the boy.

Whenever the boy is in difficulty an imaginary friend appears to support him.  At the end it is revealed that she the ghost of a child who was killed by her parent, one of fifty children murdered by a parent every year in the UK.

By way of some resolution, the mother finally gets the courage to report the abuse to a teacher and social services and the police get involved.  The voice-over tells us that the police will ‘think about prosecuting him’ but he will be offered counselling and this may help him to escape prosecution.

This short film is called ‘Beyond the Boundary’ and was made by the BBC and shown to my son as part of a Year 8 PHSE lesson, which was given by a cover teacher.  He is twelve and before being taken into care was physically abused; abuse which has left him with deep and long-lasting trauma.

When he came home on the day of the lesson I immediately knew that something was wrong.  His eyes flicked around the kitchen, he paced like a caged animal and kept picking up objects and putting them down.  Then he said with dramatic force ‘the bat for insolence’ before picking up a serrated knife ‘no this would be better, because this would cut as well as bruise.’  I managed to calm him enough to cook with me, an activity which usually gives him some peace.  He told me about the film, as it turns out, almost word for word. As he talked, every cooking utensil we used was assessed for the pain it could cause.

The remainder of the evening was very difficult.  His distress turned to anger and we narrowly avoided a complete loss of control.  He talked about never being able to have children because if he did he would hurt them.  The following evening was much the same and even yesterday, three days after seeing it he said ‘I still don’t feel like myself’.  He seems listless and sad.

His reactions will be recognisable to many who work with or parent traumatised children. The film projected him straight back into a place of deep, crippling fear, helplessness and physical pain.  The feelings are real and overwhelming and as they were not experienced in a place that feels safe (school) they were bottled and discharged somewhere he does feel safe (home).

Jamie’s school have mostly been supportive and understanding of his needs and have gone the extra mile.  However this one lesson was a small disaster, for Jamie at least, and who knows for how many other children effected by abuse who may or may not have parents who can speak out for them.  The school have been quick to apologise and have leant me the DVD.  I watched it wondering how much of it Jamie had imagined. As it happened he was pretty much spot on, apart from the subtle message which was delivered at the end.  Apparently the abused don’t necessarily have to go on to abuse, if they decide not to.  Well before the time that simplistic message was cackhandedly delivered Jamie was perceiving the drama, not in the cognitive parts of his brain, but deep down where trauma is stored.

I don’t know what the intention of the film was.  I don’t understand why it had to depict the abuse, why it was so woolly about the criminality of what was clear physical assault, why it didn’t inform children what to do if they are suffering abuse when aside from the abuser all the adults seemed flaky and ineffectual.  It was crass, confused and badly scripted.  In showing it to a class of thirty 12 and 13 year olds, two popular but damaging misconceptions were demonstrated; the first is that children ‘bounce back’ from abuse and can therefore take such material and the second is that abuse happens to those outside of our realm of experience.  Neither are true.

7 thoughts on “A PHSE lesson taps into trauma

  1. claire

    You already know my feelings on this but after reading this detailed description, I’m lost for words, what purose did watching this serve, to any child. Your poor boy :/ x

  2. Firefly Phil

    The school obviously know about your son’s background. It would appear that they failed in that they did not brief the cover teacher, and act with sensitivity. I sincerely hope that your son recovers soon from this extra, very unnecessary, trauma.
    In any case, though, like Claire (previous commenter) I fail to see how this film was helpful to this age-group.

  3. Mumdrah

    First of all – how could that be a helpful or empowering message to *anyone*? Second, how can it be a school’s responsibility to attempt to support children through such delicate issues – they are teachers, not psychologists, therapists or social workers, Third, Crap. Just plain Crap. Crap that they did this, that your boy had to experience it, that your boy has to make more sense of stuff thwarting his attempts to find firm foundations, and crap that you were jet propelled into having to negotiate and navigate yet another maelstrom – as if you don’t have enough to deal with already.
    Thanks school, thanks BBC. Really helpful. How old was this ‘public information broadcast’ i wonder? Mx

  4. Devon Mum

    I read this post with increasing despair and sympathy, for your son and your family. I too know how a phrase wrongly used, a poor choice of film shown at school, an ill informed teacher, can open up wounds that we are working so hard to try and heal. And we’re the ones holding it together and endeavouring to pick up the pieces. I even had a teacher express surprise that something that happened at school might have consequences that reach far into our homes. Big hugs for you all. XX

  5. theonehandman

    This is a shocking story, and my heart goes out to you and your boy. It does demonstrate the fragile nature of the world in which some of us live (myself only by association really). I hope that the school can learn from it.

  6. Ali Redford

    Our poor kids. I so wish I could be with them at school to stop them being hurt further…

  7. Mum of two

    I am so sorry that your son had to go through this. So much of PSHE seems to be intent on opening cans of worms the school are not equipped to deal with. My own adopted children are much younger – years 3 & 4 – so they haven’t been faced with the grittier issues yet, but this term I see from the school planner we have ‘separation & loss’ and ‘people who are special to me’ coming up – topics that must feel like torture to children with a complex background.
    This is seen as one of the less important subjects and, in our school at least, one that can be taken by a TA or cover teacher whilst the usual class teacher does prep elsewhere. I once had a puzzled TA look to me for an explanation as to why my daughter had been distraught in a lesson about ‘where do I belong?’ – no one had told her my daughter was adopted. Even so, you would think they would consider that these topics might be difficult for many children and I wonder what they are supposed to get out of it? I don’t think any of us would like it if we were forced to talk about such personal issues in this way.
    I now ask the teacher for a copy of the course resources in advance so we can prepare a strategy at home, but I don’t really see that I should have to.


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