Tuesday, September 26, 2006

New Insights Continued

As I mentioned in my last post, I have just returned from the International Conference on Violence, Abuse and Trauma in San Diego, California. I presented the Restorative Approach at this conference as well as attending sessions. This post continues the subject of new insight on familiar concepts.

Dr. John Seasock from Renaissance Psychogical and Counseling Corporation in Kingston, PA spoke also about some of the risks of healing. He mentioned that some emotional difficulties such as ADHD may be in a sense protective against PTSD, because the capacity to think and ruminate is diminished. How can you feel bad about what happened to you if you can’t even concentrate on a thought? Therefore, when we medicate these disorders the child may actually feel much worse- her increased capability to think just makes it clearer to her how awful her life has been or often still is. We should pay attention to this possibility.

Dr. Seasock also cautioned that ritalin can increase biological hyper-vigilance and thus worsen PTSD symptoms. It can also worsen already disturbed sleep patterns, and lack of sleep can lead to other behavioral difficulties.

In Risking Connection we speak of symptoms as being ways to escape intolerable feelings. One further elaboration of this point is that if a person relies on dissociation to manage their distress, she may need anger, chaos and confusion to help produce that dissociation. This may be one part of the apparent “addiction to chaos and drama” we see in some clients.

Some of Dr. John Seasock descriptions of “trauma thinking” give further rationale for the Restorative Approach. He defines “trauma thinking” (he credits this term to Nancy Cole) as concrete, black and white, timeless and irreversible. Language is not effective when someone is in the grip of trauma thinking. It is almost a trance-like state, and logic and reality testing are suspended. Hence, logical statements from adults about the future, consequences, etc. have no meaning what so ever.

One of the main goals of therapy according to Dr. Seasock (crediting here Pat Ogden of Colorado; Trauma and the Body, WW Norton; 1 edition (Sep 19 2006) (http://www.amazon.ca/Trauma-Body-Pat-Ogden/dp/0393704 572) is to increase communication. Our children grow up in families that explicitly forbid communication with the outside world- don’t talk about this family’s business out side the family. The children learn to fear the response of outside helpers if they tell what is going on. But there are even more profound prohibitions on communication. There is no permission or practice in discussing even within the family what is going on. If the child tries to comment, her feelings are often denied and dismissed. In fact, the child does not even communicate with himself about what is happening. Dissociation provides away to even cut off your own knowing and believing. All of this may result in a condition called alexethymia, the condition of being without words- unable to describe your own experience. So any way we can teach and encourage communication is valuable to the child.

Many presenters, including some consumers, spoke about the effect of trauma on parenting. This is an area that needs more concentrated work and specific interventions.

I appreciate the opportunity to join others in thinking through the experiences of trauma and their lasting effects.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

New Insight into Familiar Ideas

I have just returned from the International Conference on Violence, Abuse and Trauma in San Diego, California (http://www.ivatcenters.org/conference.htm). I presented the Restorative Approach at this conference as well as attending sessions. Several speakers I heard gave me a new way of thinking about some very familiar concepts.

Dr. Colin Ross is the author of The Trauma Model (Manitou Communications, Inc. 2000). (http://www.rossinst.com/) In his work he emphasizes two concepts, the attachment to the perpetrator and the shift in the locus of control. This may be obvious to everyone else, but his discussions of these two concepts made me understand what was happening with our kids in a more complete way. Dr. Ross states that attachment is a biological necessity for mammals. Mammals cannot survive to adulthood without attachment. So we are biologically program to form attachments with our care takers. At the same time, organisms are biologically wired to move away from pain. A child does not have to be taught that when his hand touches the hot stove he should move it quickly away. So children in an abusive family have this bind- the attachment that is biologically necessary is causing them pain. What can they do? He defines dissociation as a method of protecting the attachment. If the child does not experience what the adult is doing to them they are still able to maintain he attachment which they need.

Dr. Ross points out that we all face this dilemma to some extent, as no parent is perfect and we all need to attach to a perpetrator. But in situations of “good enough” parenting, the pain is not extreme, and so the child can form an attachment which includes some imperfection. However, the attach/move away dilemma remains unresolved in our abused children and is the essence of their relationship style. Since the extremes are so intense, they are unable to reconcile the attachment and the need to escape. They are forever caught in oscillation between them. Black-or-white thinking- their parents (and everyone else) are either all good or all bad- is the only option they can find.

Dr. Ross also clarifies the shift in the locus of control- the concept we have focused on as shame. We have discussed how children naturally think that the world revolves around them, and that they cause everything. In addition, however, an abused child is in a very scary unpredictable world. If the child can come to the conclusion that they are causing this abuse by being bad, they are giving themselves and illusion of control and mastery that is soothing and protective. In addition, concluding that they are causing the abuse also protects the possibility of attachment to the parent which is so necessary.

These concepts have implications for the process of healing. We often try to convince our children that no, in fact the abuse was not their fault. But have we considered what it means for them to give up this belief? If in fact they were and are innocent victims then there is so much to be angry about, grieve and mourn about their childhoods. There are all the awful things that happened, and all the good and normal things that did not. This grief is the overwhelming feeling that our children are avoiding at all costs. And if I am not worthless, bad and deserving of abuse I will have to change many things I do, and I do not know if I have the skills and strength to do so. Far easier to hold onto this protective feeling of badness, with the control and hope it gives me.

This is the first post on this conference, a second will follow. It is interesting to have the opportunity to re-think these familiar concepts.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Dilemmas of Love

Marisol is fifteen years old, and she has one connection outside of Klingberg- her mother. She hears from her mother occasionally, and there is great love between them. Some times her mother is so overwhelmed with her own health issues and survival needs that she is unavailable for Marisol. Marisol worries about her and reacts desperately to the ups and down of their relationship. Marisol has so little ability to manage her feelings, put them into words or ask for help. Things happen, she experiences strong intolerable feelings, and she acts out. However, lately she has shown some improvement and has generally been much safer.

Marisol formed a very close and intense relationship with an older girl on the unit, Jasmine. The girls became a couple and were “going out”. At times this caused difficulty, as Marisol reacted intensely whenever Jasmine was unresponsive or was having trouble herself. But generally Jasmine was kind, a positive leader, mother-like and caring towards Marisol. Jasmine helped her learn to stay relatively calm, and encouraged her to feel more hopeful.

Jasmine was discharged to a supported apartment program. This was hard for Marisol, but she used adult help to get through it. They stayed in close phone contact. The team had to put some limits on the timing and amount of phone calls just so that Marisol would participate in other activities.

Sadly Jasmine is not doing too well. She has been missing from her program, skipping school, and is said to be hanging out with an older man. There was a scare that she was pregnant- luckily this proved not to be true. Marisol calls her, and sometimes Jasmine calls, but not as much. Marisol is often upset by her calls with Jasmine, or by having to end them, and she is worried about her. This relationship is replicating her relationship with her mother. Recently, Marisol was hospitalized after a visit with Jasmine.

To many it seems obvious that we should end Marisol’s contact with Jasmine. When we suggested this, Marisol said please, no, she could not bear it. We have now talked about a period of stability followed by supervised calls. Can we use this situation to help Marisol learn how to survive relationship troubles? Can she possibly plan how to handle the distress she may feel after a call without doing anything unsafe, and can she use adult help to carry out these plans? We believe in the power of relationships-should we take away one of the two people this girl loves? Or are we doing her a disservice by allowing a destructive connection? What would you do?

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Return to School

A mother in the email newsletter Daily Parenting Reflections (Dailyparentingreflections@yahoogroups.com) writes about speaking to her child’s new teacher about his needs. She has given me permission to reprint her post (with a little editing) here. I do so in the hope that we utilize these suggestions in our agency special education schools. Also, it makes me wonder how we could reach out more to teachers in the public education system and educate them about the special needs of children with trauma histories. I am glad that the blog example about attention was helpful to this mother.

“Well, I followed up on the advice from Heather [Forbes] and Bryan [Post]’s teleseminar [www.bryanpost.com] and decided to be proactive this year and meet early with my son's teacher. He just started third grade. I felt a little silly about it and thought about canceling but decided to go ahead. It was Day 2 and the teacher and I agreed that it was the earliest parent-teacher conference either of us ever had.

All in all, I'm glad I did it. I worried that she might think I was making excuses upfront for my child's behavior, but I don't think it came across that way. She was very receptive to some of my suggestions (i.e. if he's doing something disruptive in class, rather than calling him on it publicly, simply go over and place a hand on his shoulder as a private kind of signal). I also asked her not to seat him near any child who gets in trouble a lot. I've found that if a lot of negative attention is focused even in the area in which my son is (even if not directed at him), that it's stressful for him. I also told her that if he was doing something wrong, time in would be better than time out and not correcting in the moment but rather later would be more effective at getting the message across. This teacher seems very calm and nurturing so I think the year will be a good one.

Pat, I used an example I got from your blog to illustrate how he can be hyper-alert and on the lookout for danger. It's the description of how you can walk down a street in New York City at 2:00 p.m. and what the experience is like (you're observant, enjoying it, etc.) and how different the experience is at 2:00 a.m. and that in my son’s world, it's often 2:00 a.m. in NYC. I thank you for that. She "got" it.”

Good luck to this mother and her son in the new year!

Sunday, September 10, 2006


The girls on our adolescent Girls’ Unit are having trouble with boundaries. This means they are always hugging and lying all over each other, that they are creating elaborate relationship structures of family relationships that often lead to anguish and conflict, and that some are in love and/or going out, breaking up, and over involved in each other’s issues. It means the girls “interfere” when one is having a crisis, often triggering more crises. In general, it means lots of touching and lots of drama.

Before we start talking about “you are here for your own issues, pay attention to yourself” and before we start making more rules, let’s think about boundaries.

Some part of what we are considering here is really just about love. These teen-aged girls are alone in the world or have very tenuous connections to families. Most adults have disappointed them. They do not know where they are going next. And they are shame-based, unsure of whether they are worthy of life. They have a desperate need for love- as we all do. And here is where they can most easily find it, among the other girls with whom they live.

Of course, trauma histories affect boundaries. These girls’ whole lives have been boundary violations. They have experienced the more blatant violations such as sexual abuse, and the more subtle such as being parentified and sharing mothers’ struggles with her boyfriend. They have no idea what boundaries should be, how to set or keep them, why one would want to do so, what would be the advantages of doing so. They also do not know how to stand up for themselves, and are quite sure that if they were assertive no one would ever be their friend again.

Then let’s take a moment to realize how hard boundaries are for us. They must be, or why are we always having discussions among ourselves about boundary issues? In both our personal and our professional lives, limits on love and friendships are hard to establish and maintain.

So, where does that leave us in our leadership of our girls?

1. We can model loving boundaries with each other, trying to make sure our relationships are straightforward, honest, affectionate and respectful.

2. We can offer the girls many legitimate ways to connect and care for each other. We can find positive ways they can help each other when one is in distress.

3. We can talk openly about the difficulties of love and friendship and limits, without sharing intimate personal information.

4. We can teach the DBT (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, http://www.behavioraltech,com/) interpersonal skills

5. We can use every method we have to increase the girls’ competence and sense of their own worth.

6. And we can advocate hard for anything that increases their connections outside of the setting- out reach to families, getting them mentors, enabling participation in community activities, etc.

Negotiating connections with others will be a key issue for our girls throughout their lives. It is for all of us, and their histories leave them especially vulnerable. We cannot focus on separating the girls, and asking them to turn away from their only sources of love. It is essential that we use this laboratory of intense relationships that residential treatment provides as an opportunity to help them grow towards better connection skills.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

What if They Won’t Do the Restorative Tasks?

A question that always comes up at every Restorative Approach training is: “What if the child refuses to do the restorative task?” You cannot make a child do a poster, make cookies for someone, talk over a problem, do a peer’s chores. You have less control than in the past systems- you could make a child stay in a room, and many of the privileges we previously withheld were staff driven.

There are some structural supports that can be put in place to encourage the kids to do the tasks. Some programs institute Restorative Task time blocks, i.e. from 3-4. If you have an outstanding task, you are either doing it during this time, or staying inside not doing it. If you have no outstanding tasks, you are playing or doing something fun and extra. Also, if you have an outstanding task you may have to go to bed early to get more energy for the task. You cannot go on extra off-grounds trips because you are not re-connected with the community yet.

It is essential not to engage in power struggles around the tasks. The staff attitude should be: it’s fine if you are not ready. Some times it takes time to become ready to work through a problem. We have confidence that you will get there, and we will be here ready to work it through with you when you are. In the mean time, we need to keep a closer eye on you and keep you near us, because we have not rebuilt the trust between us.

And it is important to remember the reason for the task. The task is not punishment by another name. It is not designed to be difficult, to be a deterrent, to be arduous and unpleasant. The task is genuinely designed to be a vehicle of reconciliation and reconnection. People who have done something wrong or made a mistake want to put it right. We feel that way when we make a mistake. Sometimes, especially in children who have experienced repeated trauma and attachment disruption, this impulse is blocked by a feeling that it is impossible to fix mistakes, that I am so worthless, and now I have blown these relationships too. I just don’t care any more. Our job is to gently challenge that assumption, provide a step-by-step method for fixing mistakes, and to patiently and eagerly await the child’s readiness to engage in the process with us.

©2006 The Restorative Approach is a servicemark of the Klingberg Family Centers, Inc.

New blog discovery

I just discovered that Marcia Brubeck, a therapist I have met in Hartford has a blog: http://marciabrubeck.typepad.com/. Her most recent post lists some light hearted ways to deal with problem behaviors. These strike me as very applicable to the Restorative Approach. They could be incorporated into treatment settings with some modifications. What are your reactions?