As I write this month’s Letter, I am struck by the mini-series: ‘When they see us.’ This mini-series leads me to examine the role of parents within the area of complex trauma and dissociation. What is really circling around in my mind is how much children need their parents and the consequences which occur when parents are removed. Conversely, what also happens when parents are around.
The Netflix movie “When they See US” is a docudrama about the “Central Park Five”, a group of boys ages 14-16, who were accused of raping a woman, and the subsequent trial and jail time they all faced. A story of a group of people or a person who is falsely accused of a crime is not all that novel. What was novel to me was how the film-makers portrayed the parents and caregivers of these boys. In each case the show highlighted how the parents were affected by these events. What really struck me was how most of the parents stayed on their children’s side. In between scene after scene of the horror, racism, ageism, injustice and violence were messages of strong, unwavering support of these adolescents from those who loved and cared for them. Within each story line the creators of this story filled in the spaces with language of human pride and dignity coming from the caregivers.
Instead of making the injustice, the racism or the violence the main focus of the story, I feel they made the unwavering care, and the positive outcomes of that care, the primary focus. I was able to see depictions of mothers who gave speeches of unconditional love and passionate care towards their sons. I saw incidents where a prison guard went out of his way to help. This series showed fathers taking the time to talk to their sons and not leave them. It showed, albeit, subtly, the connection between how these boys endured these traumatic experiences and the support they received from their families. It also showed that those who had the least amount of support did not have the best outcomes.
This show provided a level of dignity and humanity over sensationalism and it was an excellent change. Research shows that the number one need of our young is to have sustained and attuned parental (or adult) care. But what does this mean? What does ‘care’ mean? I suspect that many are confusing love with care. Love can be quite an easy thing, but the everyday care that children require is not all that easy. Care, to me, means presence, patience, dignity, compassion and awareness. What I refer to when I use the word presence is the need to be there, to witness, to endure, to know, to feel, to attune, to engage in all that the child is doing. It is to be present with the child’s pain, joy, boredom, suffering, fears, aloneness, boundaries, growth, etc., so that adults can, with a great deal of accuracy, know what the child is experiencing.
The goal of this is that the child’s only form of communication, emotions and feelings, are received clearly and accurately, so that the child’s needs are met. This requires a great deal of attention to that child. In colloquial terms, this is what the child seems to be expecting from us. In all honesty, presence is what we expect from others, even if we have never felt it, experienced it or we are unable to provide it to others, ourselves. We, as an organization, and as individual researchers and clinicians have learned that when care is not there it is deeply wounding for the child. When care, presence, patience and dignity is there, it is the stuff that makes us thrive.
Presence seems to be what we crave from others. But it is also a rare commodity for the traumatized. Dissociation is the polar opposite to presence. Dissociation is the attempted anesthetic to our more difficult feelings and experiences. As therapists in this area, we have learned that some of the most powerful healing comes from sitting with others and providing presence to their pain and suffering. Dignity is a much spoken-about word, but what this entails is the ability to be kind and make the general assumption that people are doing what they are doing for good reasons and that most people, when given the chance or opportunity, will do what they can to care for their children. I wish the powers-that-be understood that children are mirrors. They are not bad or good, they are human and as a humans they do what is shown to them. If you provide your child, or all the children that you are in contact with, with dignity, the child will become dignified. If you show them how to care, they will then know how to care. If we show children respect for sadness, anger, rage, fear, insecurity, failure, disappointment, attachment fear, vulnerability, pain, and suffering, then they will learn how to care for these things within themselves and for others.
Dignity is not a given when your world is full of fear, sadness, attachment attacks, threat or abandonment. The need for our inner world to be cared for is being missed and the human will seek this their whole lives if these needs are not met. The need to be treated in a dignified way seems to be an unconditional standard of human care. If we do not get dignity, or dignity is not provided, we will crave it, and get very symptomatic when we don’t get it. Then there is compassion. The ability to be kind and understanding of others, especially to their pain and suffering. We seem to be missing this in almost every area of our world.
Many of our clients have never been shown compassion, and when they first receive compassion they are very wary. (Many of our clients know through experience that seduction of children can be done under the guise of false compassion.) But we also have difficulty with self compassion, and if this is the case, then you, yourself, are missing the experience of others being compassionate to you. I have learned that most people have an interest in others being okay, but we seem to have lost the art of care, with presence, patience, dignity and compassion. I am thankful that within in this organization these notions are known well. We are a collection of professionals who see the problem and are attempting to help heal and to provide care. As a motivation for this month see if you can detect when you have your presence, patience, dignity and compassion turned on. See what happens when you exaggerate these qualities and take note of what happens when they are not available. As we know, these qualities make life very livable and very difficult when they are lacking.