Recently I have had an experience that validated my purpose in this blog of supporting child caregivers with my psychoanalytic understanding and experience. A gifted child caregiver, R, from an orphanage of about 80 children wrote me that she had been searching for a way of “helping me to know my kids more”. She began by inviting some of the older children to write a journal in which they could tell her about their personal thoughts and feelings, and which she would keep confidential. She and I discussed whether sharing these writings with me would conform to the promise she made to the children and after careful thought, we decided that since I did not know the children, it would.
The first child R discussed with me was E, 12-yo. R wrote, E “always writes that she is very happy and content. She has no worries. She mostly will not write how she spent the day. She rather writes how she felt the whole day and finishes off her daily notes in four lines or five! Most times it will be the same words repeating that she is very happy and content and has no worries. Her day was good and she was happy. The same notes repeat almost each day. Only one day I do remember her mentioning about feeling sad.”
I responded, “E seems to have created a self-protective strategy (against painful feelings) of avoidance and denial, pushing her distress away and even out of her conscious mind. That strategy has its advantages – it allows her to go on with her life and enter into activities, but it is very rigid and therefore fragile, because flexibility is necessary to move and flow with the currents of life and personal relationships. In this kind of situation, I usually do not advise challenging the child’s defenses. For example, I would not say, “Surely you must not be happy all the time! What about that recent disappointment?!” Instead, I might say something like, “Well, I had a bad day yesterday. I was very frustrated, because nothing seemed to be going right. But then I fixed one problem, and I started to feel better.” In other words, you are taking the responsibility for managing sad and angry feelings onto your own shoulders and not expecting her to acknowledge them. At the same time, you are quietly offering her an example, an alternative, to her rigid way of dealing with life. Somewhere in her mind she may think about what you have told her. It is what I call a “magic moment”, because those magic moments can add up, and sometimes if they happen enough and at the right times, they can help change take place.”
If I were to be responding now, I would add that perhaps even more important than what P says to E is the relationship she is offering her. Although it is very limited, it becomes the crucial context in which the helpful words gain meaning. The fact that P has such little time for each child has one advantage. It necessarily places boundaries around a relationship that if did not have clear boundaries could invite unrealistic wishes and provoke painful disappointments.
Here is R’s description of a second entry: “B, during initial days used to write about her family and one day had mentioned she was sad that day as she remembered her parents (until this point as far as I know, B had insisted that she did not remember anything about her family!) I inquired as to what she remembers of her parents. She replied back saying that she remembers them bringing cake on her birthday. I had then asked her about her siblings. She said she had none and also wrote that after her parents died no one loved her and cared for her. None of her relatives or anyone showed love. After that day she kept writing about her daily routines. Later one day she mentioned that another girl at home called her ‘parent-less’. I consoled her saying that all children at (the orphanage) matter a lot to me and it doesn’t really matter whether they have a parent or not.”
I responded: “It is impressive that B is able to remember her parents and talk about them. I wonder whether her parents really died, or if they abandoned her (sold her?) and therefore died emotionally to her. Perhaps she has created a fantasy of her parents dying because she cannot bear the fact that they gave her away for money. Or maybe they did die, but it would be interesting to know when and how, and which one died first, and how old she was when that happened. It is possible that if her parents died. her relatives did not want to take care of her. That is another abandonment. When she told you about that hurtful remark that she was ‘parent-less’, I expect that she was not only telling you about a concrete event (the other girl telling her that) but also trying to communicate to you her deep feelings of being a ‘have-not’, someone who is lacking. Your kind answer is a natural one to give, but it will most likely not reassure her. Sheis talking about something deeper and more private, a deep feeling of being unlovable for example – “no one loves me” – cannot easily be healed. One way of responding the next time is to acknowledge her feelings, “That must have been so painful when X called you ‘parent-less’. I know you suffer from that feeling.” (We also know that she stole some things at the time when other children were going home to their parents for a visit.) When you acknowledge her feelings and empathize with her, you are doing something more important than reassuring her of your caring. You are actually being with her in her sadness, not trying to take it away, but letting her know that you want to be with her even though she is sad and feels unlovable and defective. That is another magic moment. They accumulate. I don’t know if you could do this, but since she is such a talented dancer, I wonder if there are any traditional dances that have sad themes that she could learn. Then she could have the chance to transform her sadness through art.”