Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Where is your family?

I have been visiting a group home for the last three weeks, ostensibly to provide therapy for several of the teenage boys who live there. I came away sad, angry, and amazed. These boys are some of the four thousand children currently in foster care in San Diego County. They are dependents of the court. But unlike seventy-five percent of the rest of those children who will likely be reunited with their parents, these boys spend the rest of their growing up years in the system. Except, they will not because when they turn eighteen they will be turned out on their own with a lot more growing up to do. Like many system children they have lived in many foster homes before the families gave up on them, they gave up on family life, or their own families gave up on them. To be sure, they have mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, siblings and grandparents out there. Sometimes they have contact and know where they are, and sometimes they do not. But no one is really trying to get these boys back home. The court calls it a permanent plan, but for these children reunification, adoption, and guardianship were not permanent. They live in limbo. Sometimes their parents do not want them back. The boys find it easier to live in a "home" with staff instead of parents. They have reason not to trust any adults, including a new therapist, let alone teachers, employers, or partners. And yet, these boys learn to live with one another, some making plans for college while others lose hope and drift. They are all but forgotten except that we will meet them again as the parents of children we will remove and attempt to raise in the future in the village in which you are really on your own.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Ties that Bind

The accepted evidenced-based treatment for most mental health problems is cognitive-behavioral therapy. Focusing on thinking and doing works well for issues like anxiety, depression, stress and trauma. But it misses the mark with most children and even some couples. Now there is growing awareness of the impact of attachment on the functioning of children as well as adult relationships. Attachment is that brain-based connection we make with our parent that forms the template for all future relationships. The parent drives this process by consistently meeting the basic needs of the child particularly in the first three years of life. Commitment to this one-to-one relationship leaves the child with basic trust that transfers to others and forms the basis for healthy self esteem and pro-social behavior. Because children are completely dependent on their parents they cannot be expected to make changes toward healing on their own. This is particularly the case when the relationship is new, strained, or damaged. Then the focus of healing is on the relationship itself. The repair work returns to the building blocks of attachment in nurturing and play. And so it is with adult couples when the roots of distrust are in childhood and partners meet each others needs.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Happy Parent = Happy Child

The flight attendant says, "If the cabin should lose pressure, put the oxygen mask on yourself first and then place one on your child." And, so it is with parenting. Parents need time to themselves, to replenish their energy. This time away makes them better parents, better able to nurture their children and better able to deal with the difficult job of parenting. The families I work with have often adopted traumatized children who have just moved in. And, just like new parents bringing home a baby from the hospital, they often don't think about leaving their new children with anyone else for any length of time. Weeks and months go by and you can see the energy and enthusiasm draining away as exhaustion sets in. Dealing with the difficult behaviors of children who have lived with multiple families can test the most experienced parents. Parents who are focused on building the bonds of attachment with their new children feel guilty leaving their children and often have difficulty finding friends and family members who can handle their kids. That's why it's one of the first things I suggest to my families. "Go on a date. Leave the kids." This kind of grown up time out also teaches children how to take care of themselves and nurtures the relationship that is the model for the relationships we want our children to develop.