Broken Hearts

"A torn jacket is soon mended, but hard words bruise the heart of a child." ~ Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (American Poet & Educator)

In reading the news about the recent shooting in Norway (, I found myself struggling to understand mankind. I think we are all challenged to understand that at times and, since working with the kids, I have struggled even more. My heart goes out to the children and parents impacted by this atrocity.

When I first started working for the non-profit organization that I am currently employed with, I knew nothing about teenagers other than the fact that I had been a really "bad one." Since then, I have had the liberating realization that I wasn't actually a "bad kid;" rather, I was surviving the best way I knew how in a shitty situation. In comparison, my shitty situation and the kids shitty situations are not on the same (or similar) level at all. But there is something that we share, which directly contributed to our survival response within our shitty situations and, for myself, it took a lot of money and education to figure this very simple concept out.

Although medical and psychiatric professionals tend to pathologize every human experience, pain, loss, mental anguish and symptom we have, there is actually a simple answer to the age-old-question of why children behave the way they do (when those behaviours fall outside of what society considers to be on the "normal" spectrum). For example, a teenage girl I am working with (who is gorgeous, smart, funny and talented) cuts her arms, legs, and belly to smithereens at every opportunity. A teenage boy I am working with (who is athletic, intelligent, and personable) destroys the things he loves to punish himself when he experiences overwhelming feelings of anger. Another girl I am working with, who is Aboriginal (and who is an excellent creative writer, affectionate, beautiful and generous) cries herself to sleep every night, cuts herself, and runs away whenever possible. The psychiatric community has labeled these children as being: oppositional, defiant, conduct disordered, hyper-active, unmotivated (sometimes they have all of these labels at once). In a child's mind these labels translate into one simple statement or self-concept: I am a bad child, I am a bad person. They are defined for the things they do rather than who they are.

When I was a teenager, I was fortunate to know that I wasn't a bad kid - I placed the blame where the blame was rightly due - on my mother. As I grew older, however, the guilt of "what I put my parents through" set in, and I definitely believed I had been a rotten kid who caused my family endless pain and grief. Hearing stories of my wonderful father, crying while standing in the kitchen making his lunch at night due to worry over me, plagued me for a long time. It took me working in the field and spending some valuable hours in therapy to realize that I had simply relied on coping strategies that I believed to be effective and that appeared, at the time, to meet my needs. My coping strategies were varied, self-destructive and consisted of: using a significant amount of drugs (into my early 20's), being promiscuous, dropping out of school, being purely hateful towards my family (primarily my mother) and running away from home for long periods of time (at the time I did not know this was considered running; I understood it as leaving, as my parents typically knew where I was). Partially because we were a middle-class family, and partially because my mother never would have considered shaming herself to this level, no one like the Children's Aid Society was called to help manage my behaviours. Since working in the field, I am so grateful this was not done, as there are much worse things that can happen to a kid than what I was going through and experiencing  - and being 'in care' is one of them.

I cannot imagine what it feels like to live in 49 different "homes" before the age of 13 - most moves requiring changes in schools as well. I cannot imagine what it is like to have adults "caring for me" that are not my parents but complete strangers. My guess is that it would be terrifying. I cannot imagine what it would be like to be removed from these "homes" over and over again because I didn't fit the necessary profile or because I couldn't manage my behaviours well enough for the "caregivers" to take care of me. Can you imagine what that is like? I am truly and deeply sorry if you can.

Although there are some similarities, I was nothing like the kids I work with - they are survivors with the internal and external battle wounds to prove it. To get back to that simple concept I was referring to.....the reason that kids I work with cope the way they do is because they suffer from broken hearts. It is not because they have oppositional defiant disorder or conduct disorder (common psychiatric diagnosis for the kids I work with); rather, it is because their hearts were broken when they were very small and fragile and they have continued to be broken all along the way.

I have a white board in my clinical room that I use to write inspirational quotes by people the kids can relate to. Recently, I had a quote from Bob Marley that said, "don't worry about a thing...because every little gonna be alright." I erased it after one of the kids, the Aboriginal girl I mentioned above, expressed that the quote was a lie...that there was a lot to worry about and that everything was not going to be alright. Her heart has a million cracks.

In general, the kids don't understand why they act the way they do. They know they experience a lot of pain and anger but they often don't realize where it comes from in a meaningful way. They can describe their abuse, neglect and abandonment in a way that is similar to reading a recipe out loud, void of emotion. Flat. Last year I attended a wonderful seminar that focused on attachment theory (which is my theoretical orientation, my foundation and the way I view kids and families) where the speaker taught us about the "broken heart" concept. It is the most basic understanding of the issues that kids experience and, more recently, I have started using this understanding to help the kids develop their own understanding of why their lives are the way they are. Within the last couple of weeks, I had a breakthrough with a very closed off youth by explaining the "broken heart" concept to him.....the results left me speechless.

As it turns out, mothers are generally the "heart breakers;" although, that's not to say that there isn't a lot of fathers out there that are causing significant harm. But that bond with a mother, the bond that develops even before birth occurs, is unfathomably unbreakable. When a mother cannot be a mother, or even worse when she cannot be human, the impact on the child is incomprehensible. Being partially responsible for mending broken hearts is challenging but worthwhile. What the kids need are mothers...."forever-mothers" and that is something that I cannot provide them with. But, I give hugs (even though I'm not supposed to), I look at them adoringly and tell them that they are precious and wonderful, I celebrate their successes and help them through their failures. None of this is enough, however.

For me to actually have a long term impact on these kids, I would need to live at the residence full time and the entire treatment team would have to operate from an attachment perspective. As an agency, we are far from this place and, for myself, I could never take that on. Selfishly so, my heart would likely break too often and I am simply not grown up enough to live with eight traumatized children. I'm not grown up enough to have my own children and I seriously doubt I ever will be. I have considered fostering teenagers when I am older but, for now, it's easier for me to live with the dog laying at my feet who is presently yelping in her sleep, dreaming of chasing something.

Sometimes you need to protect your own heart so that you can be effective in helping mend the broken hearts of others.

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