A Safe Place

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Before I begin this posting, I would like to say a word about confidentiality. In my postings about children in the U.S., I avoid writing about specific children, preferring to create a composite of a number of children I have known that will best illustrate the point I am making. When I write about children in other countries I do the same. I have begun to visit a number of orphanages in El Salvador, and in order to protect the confidentiality of the children in these homes, I will avoid referring to specific homes and also disguise the children in other ways.

This posting is about my recent trip to El Salvador.

By the time I reach the gate of my flight to El Salvador – in Houston or Miami – I begin to feel that I am almost there. Spanish is the language most spoken at the gate. The passengers include many people of modest means preparing to return home or to visit relatives. Sometimes I imagine there is an appreciative attitude of the passengers on the plane, as if they feel lucky to be there, rather than hassled by yet another plane trip. After arrival at the San Salvador Airport, and after passing through immigration, the tropical air surrounds me with warmth and moisture, tropical birds squawk in the trees outside the airport, and I have the full sensory experience of really being there. A large crowd is always waiting to greet relatives. There is more emotional energy in the crowd – more intensity – than in the relatively restrained crowds waiting in U.S. and Western European airports.

This time taking my hotel’s shuttle into the city, I relax and enjoy the familiar images of the drive. Pick-up trucks with dozens of people sitting in the back or standing and hanging onto the sides, buses that light up at night when they stop to discharge or pick up passengers, illuminating a multitude of people wearing bright colors, traffic diversions with orange cones directing you in circuitous routes for no reason I can determine (sometimes they are for the police to check your papers but sometimes there is no one there at all). This time I arrived at night and the dark hills were spotted with the lights of civilization.

 

Whenever I come here, I have an idea that I want to communicate to the caregivers and a plan of how I want to do that. Every time I come, during the course of my visit I completely fracture my original plan and end up with something else. It is an exciting experience.

This time I came with the plan of helping both the staff and the children to tell their life stories. The idea was inspired by a young colleague of mine, Molly, who was going to spend some time at one of the homes and was interested in the theme of life stories and how they are related to learning and the desire to learn. I also had in mind the AAI and the research correlating the “coherence” of the narrative of adults about their early caregiving experiences to the security of their attachment style in adult life and to their behavior as parents (Main, 2000). Since the kind of psychotherapy available in Boston is not possible for the children in the children’s homes of El Salvador, and since I am not sure that it would make sense for them anyway (Perry, 2008) I wondered if helping them tell their stories might be a possible therapeutic alternative.

In all of the homes I visited, my young colleague and I gathered the caregiving staff and asked the caregivers to tell stories about their lives. We did this because we hypothesized that through telling their own stories they could learn the value of telling stories. That might result in their encouraging the children to do the same. We asked them to begin with an event that occurred to them at the age of one of the children in their care. The stories they told included several memories of being bullied or teased, or even beaten, and how that experience served to help them empathize with the children they cared for. They also reported memories of being left alone in childhood or expected to take on excessive responsibility. Many told stories of struggling in school. One story was about a teacher being the only one to notice her sadness, during the time her parents were getting divorced.

We then asked the caregivers to tell a story about their parents. That question elicited stories of abandonment – temporarily or permanently, literally or emotionally – by their mothers. Father figures were either absent or deeply flawed – either harsh and punitive or alcoholic. Many caregivers were brought up by their grandmothers, and their grandmothers were generally described as kind and loving. Some of them told stories about their family members – mothers, fathers, older siblings – leaving them to find jobs in the U.S. I was reminded of the families I see sometimes at the Cambridge Hospital who have emigrated from El Salvador, leaving family behind. They represent the counterpoint of the caregivers in our groups. Some of the families in Cambridge willingly take in the children of debilitated relatives in El Salvador. Others avoid them, attempting to escape the guilt of having left behind the poverty and despair of their home country. The escape, though, is only partial, because their children – whom they are bringing to the child psychiatry clinic – always carry some of the burden of their parents’ painful past.

So, we – Molly and I – were trying to find a way of helping the children tell their stories. The trouble was that every way we thought of seemed artificial and we knew would fall flat. Then in the home I have been visiting the longest, a child asked me if I had videos of him when he was little. I promised to look for them, and the next day I brought the videos I had found to the home. The children were mesmerized by the videos of my first visit to this home, in 2004. Laughing, they called out the names of people they recognized in the film. Occasionally, they would ask about people whom they did not recognize, or they would misidentify a person who had left as someone who was still present. I wondered if the fact of their departure posed a threat that needed to be denied.

Sometimes I would stop the video and ask the children what they thought the child on the video was thinking and feeling. They had a hard time doing that. In one video, a little boy dropped something on the floor and then became preoccupied with his “misdeed”, looking down and up with big expressive eyes, in a sweetly comical manner. The children laughed and responded that he was clowning. They could not recognize that he was anxious and ashamed about having “broken a rule”. In another film a child was refusing to eat when being fed by the caregivers and later clearly demonstrated her intention of feeding herself. The children were able to identify her oppositionalism but not her expression of agency. I thought that showing them videos such as these and pausing the video at moments when emotion was expressed – as I did – could be an excellent tool to help them grow a “theory of mind”. Rather than the more artificial scenarios Molly and I had discarded as potentially stressful to the children, this was spontaneous and initiated by the children themselves.

The single woman director of one of the homes noted ruefully that since the children had gotten older, she had not been able to maintain the same routines that had been so organizing and comforting to them when they were younger. For example, she had previously begun each meal with group prayers led by one child at a time. The patterned rhythmic movement included in the clapping and singing of the prayers – I had always thought – contributed to the children’s ability to sit together at mealtime and talk to each other. This routine, and similar ones, seemed to help in regulating the children and making them feel secure. Now that the children in the home included a group of teenagers, meals were more chaotic and unpleasant, with less conversation and positive engagement among the children and caregivers. Struggling to maintain order and discipline in general, and feeling burdened by having to assume the role of disciplinarian, the director was loath to engage in yet another struggle. Yet mealtimes had been an opportunity to pull the “family”, together in the past, and a chance to reconnect with the spiritual core of the community, in the blessing. There was a powerful meaning to that ritual.

Coincident with my visit to the homes was the arrival of “The Navy”, an exciting event in which the US Navy stationed in the city sent a group of young navy men to do activities with the children. The children loved these experiences and adored the kind, strong, young men who came to play games with them. As I talked to the director in anticipation of the visit of “The Navy”, it occurred to me that the military was expert at discipline and team building. Maybe they could help. The next day when the officer, a personable and clearly intelligent young man in charge of the Navy team, introduced himself to me, I told him about my idea. Would he consider designing an exercise for the children to do at the beginning of the meal to help them organize “body and soul” for the day? He said he thought they could do that. When I expressed regret that I would not be able to see the product of their efforts, he promised to make a video and send it to me. In the absence of the regulating ritual of prayer at the beginning of meals, I had been been searching for another predictable ritual that could introduce movement and rhythm into the lives of the children. I knew that such a ritual could enhance their regulatory capacity. Maybe this was an answer. My hope was that, in addition to mealtime, the Navy could generalize the routine to homework time. But, one step at a time.

In my next posting, I will continue the story of this visit.

Main M (2000). The organized categories of infant, child, and adult attachment: Flexible vs. inflexible attention under attachment related stress. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 48(4):1055-1097.

 

Perry B, Szalavitz M (2008). The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog: And Other Stories from a Child Psychiatrist’s Notebook, Basic Books.

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Read this blog in Spanish.

 

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