I attended a workshop entitled Parenting with Love and Limits (PLL): A Promising Practice for Sexually Aggressive Youth by Paul Castaldi, MSW. The presenter referred to a meta-analysis of the amount of improvement in treatment (I did not get the citation). He stated that the one variable that consistently correlates with improvement is the creation of hope.
So this made me start thinking: how do we actually create or enhance hope? Many of our clients have good reason to feel hopeless. We serve children who have no adult connections, children who have been hurt and betrayed repeatedly. We serve adults whose own early trauma histories have never been attended to and who feel despair about the ways in which their symptoms have interfered with their parenting. The system we work within is certainly not always responsive or able to give people what they need. Where then do we find the hope?
I think we often assume that we have to give clients concrete facts in order to create hope. We talk about pointing out their strengths, and remarking on instances of improvement. We try to create opportunities for clients to learn and grow, and to experience success. All this is of course extremely important.
But I think we underestimate the hope that is created by forming an attuned, mutually respectful relationship. In such a relationship the client feels seen and heard. They feel a sense of belonging, of being part of something. Early templates about relationships always being associated with hurt and loss are challenged. The client gradually builds a secure base, a place he can return with triumphs or with pain. The client also builds an inner connection: he takes the treater into his mind, creating a caring voice that can soothe him in times of stress.
The very participation in a respectful relationship creates hope that there may be other relationships like this in the future. Maybe there are some people that can be trusted. Maybe love is a possibility after all. The opportunities in life expand.
As the relationship experiences difficulties (the child hits the staff member for example) and these are worked through and the relationship persists, new hopeful possibilities emerge. What if it is not true that whenever you do something wrong the other disappears? What if it is possible to get through hard times and reconnect?
One profound way that enduring relationships increase hope is through their effect on shame. Shame is the sense that deep within me I am no good, that I have a rotten center, and that anyone who gets to know me will turn from me in horror. But what if in fact this doesn’t happen? The antidote to shame is to be known, to share the secret self, and to have the other person not be repulsed. This is so hard to accomplish, because the person who experiences shame is so reluctant to share his true self, which he feels is so horrible. But if we are able to create a relationship that is strong and safe enough, and the client does share with us the parts they hide, we have a precious opportunity. By validating and not turning away, we begin to heal the shame. Consider how much hope flows into a person’s life as shame decreases, and the possibility of being a normal human emerges.
So, here are more reasons why we must emphasize the relationship as the vehicle of healing. This means providing time and space to build relationships, and creating policies and procedures that promote and honor them. It also means taking good care of our staff so that they have the stamina to stay open-hearted in these difficult relationships, and attending to the vicarious traumatization that is created by doing so.
And it also means paying attention to the personal transformation that can occur for us as treaters through increasing hope. Our own personal hope grows when we watch hope blossom in a child or a parent that has been wounded by life through no fault of their own, and who now is open to the possibility of love in their world.