By Pat Pernicano
I spent March 18-20 in Chicago at the Ben Franklin Summit for Clinical Excellence, entitled Freud Meets Buddha: Mindfulness as a Therapeutic Tool for Healing Trauma. The conference focused on the impact of child abuse, neglect, and evidence-based treatment. It was clear that a wide range of professionals researching and treating trauma, from MDs to PhDs, are on the same page.
The conference presented abundant data about what goes wrong when children are abused and/or neglected: their brains change (memory areas shrink and thinking areas can’t shut off strong emotion); they don’t trust anyone (“attachment deficits”); they think they are the cause of the maltreatment (“insignificant” or “not-good-enough” children); and they end up in relationships and situations that “prove” their skewed beliefs are true.
So what does it take for these kids to heal and become resilient adults? If they are going to stay in their families, the whole family needs to change. The parents (many who were abused or neglected as kids) have their own work to do. And if kids aren’t going to stay in their families, they need to be somewhere they can have long-lasting, safe, trusting, “secure base” relationships: new attachments that undo the old beliefs and experiences. The relationships need to be close and personal, with as much autonomy and control as possible given to the child who formerly had so little control over his or her life.
Believe it or not, nurturing, loving, consistent, dependable relationships have the capacity to heal the damaged brain, the poorly regulated hormone system, and the person’s sense of self. Throw in some good therapy and self-care (relaxation, yoga, meditation) and you may see lasting change.
So what actually happens to kids in “the system” (CPS, courts and treatment)? The parents get classes in parenting and “offender” groups but don’t change their relationships with their kids. It’s pretty sad. The parents who never got cared for don’t have a clue how to put their children’s needs (emotional and physical) before their own. The kids get removed, “protected,” and put in group or foster homes, many too large for close attachments to develop. And when the children show their rage, sadness or defiance, they are once again “not good enough” and get bounced to the next home.
The system doesn’t work. Kids “bounce” from home to home; and the biological parents remain without a clue. How can you give what you did not get? Clearly we need a bigger type of change— systemic, attachment-focused change that is more than “skin-deep” and gives kids a permanent, loving home much earlier in life.
Pat Pernicano, PsyD, is director of clinical services at Providence Self Sufficiency Ministries, and the author of Family-Focused Trauma Intervention: Using Metaphor and Play with Victims of Abuse and Neglect (Jason Aronson) and Metaphorical Stories for Child Therapy: Of Magic and Miracles (Jason Aronson).