Our culture has instilled, within all of us, this bone-deep, paralyzing fear of standing out and being different. I am sorry to be the one to break this to you, but you, me, all of us, as unique individuals, are completely, off the wall, bonkers, weird! Not one single one of us is normal! Therefore, the sooner we get over ourselves and accept it, the freer we will all be to live authentically!
After observing teens at the DRC dance Friday evening, I am now convinced that the main thing our society is missing is our ability to ignore our own inhibitions (throw caution to the wind) to be utterly real and celebrate our own innate human-ness. Instead, we have buried our true selves alive in fear of judgment, bias, and criticism of self and others.
The atmosphere was set – a generous DJ playing fantastic upbeat music, cool disco lights, and snacks … but the teens held back – no one, except me, was willing to step onto the dance floor and move their bodies. After a little while, a few brave souls became entranced by the thumping beat, and ventured over. But, it wasn’t until a couple of younger kids arrived and quite literally threw their bodies into action (dancing, spinning, jumping, jiving, and doing cart wheels) that most of the other kids, eventually, joined in. A few continued to hold back, eat snacks, and converse in a small cluster. They never allowed themselves the pleasure of pure abandon.
The struggle to fit in (keeping up with the Joneses) consumes our lives, to the point where our energies are focused on accumulation and the economy of deficit (both inside and materialistically), instead of recognizing and celebrating the abundance we already possess. Our internal compasses are eternally set to “search” mode instead of “happy” mode.
Being content with our real selves – the ability to acknowledge and accept both the positive and negative aspects of our personality is when change can occur and the intentions we set for ourselves begin to manifest.
My main job, as a mentor, is to convince young people that they are completely awesome right now. And, that, I really want to get to know them as real people - their talents and gifts, the pieces of their personality they would like to change, the things that they find hard, their worries and concerns, as well as their hopes, dreams, and aspirations. I especially want them to fully understand that they are welcomed and honored for who they are, in this moment, and, that I fully expect them to pay that respect forward.
Get comfortable in your skin! You are, absolutely, perfect, exactly, as you are! Yet, don’t be afraid of transformation because the next version of you will be just as superb. Celebrate you! Dance! Use your voice to advocate for change! Share your amazing self with others, all while honoring their distinct human-ness. And, please, let your weird light shine, so we can all see the real you!
It all begins with the nervous phone call or email (on average 1 or 2 a week). The script is nearly identical for most. “My child is really smart, but miserably unhappy, anxious, depressed, not eating, etc. They are beginning to act out in ways they never have before. They are rarely attending school, or are going to the nurses (guidance office) and calling me after an hour to come and get them. The principal is calling every day and threatening to call (or already has) CPS to report truancy. They are recommending my child be admitted to the Psych. Center. I just don’t know what to do, but I just want my child back and “X” told me that you could help.” In very few cases, the parent has already decided that Deep Root Center and homeschooling is the answer and just want to get everything set up.
My first job, in every single case, is to simply listen on the other end of the phone, offer reassuring murmurs every once in a while, and schedule an appointment. Currently, within that conversation, I have to let them know that Deep Root Center is full; however, I can still help them as a homeschool consultant.
Then we meet. Frequently, my initial impression is an anxious parent (usually Mom) with a quiet, subdued child (or, teen) in tow. After introductions, I either give them a tour or invite them to sit in our “chill space” (living room area) to talk. Upon making sure they are comfy, my opening question is always, “how can I help you?” The responses vary but generally center around their stories. I won’t begin to try to repeat the heartbreaking tales I hear. However, most focus on a child’s needs not being met, multiple failed attempts (by the parent) to advocate for their child and resolve the situation within the system, and their ultimate frustration in dealing with a coercive, dismissive, inflexible, and intimidating authority figure.
By the time a child and a parent are sitting in the DRC “chill space” telling me their story, they are just plain-old tired from dealing with people who won’t listen, and an establishment that is so very entrenched in decades-old methodology that it can’t see the harm they are inflicting on those they are supposed to serve. They are exhausted, at their wit's end, and utterly frightened of leaving a system that tells them that their child will fail life if they opt-out.
My main task, besides writing the NYS required IHIP with the child dictating (which often involves me lightly prodding and asking tons of questions to determine exactly what they want to do), in each of these encounters is tell both the parent(s) and child (teen) that they are going to be absolutely fine. In fact, they will thrive. Most look at me as if I am completely off my rocker - crazy.
Nevertheless, the only thing they really need from me, in that moment, is permission to breathe and to take time to heal. "Yes, everything is going to be OK. Disregard the state mandated curriculum – it is total b*llsh*t anyway. Everything they teach in school can be contained in one small, hackneyed, constraining, dull, and boring box. The world of knowledge is infinite and it is all yours for the taking. First - rest! Then - go! Explore! Open your mind to all the possibilities!”
With those few words, I see (parent and child’s) shoulders dropping, a hint of a smile, and a deep breath. By the time we get to this point, the young person is walking around, exploring the space, asking questions, and engaging comfortably in the conversation. Oftentimes, they both hesitate to end the meeting, because they don’t want to leave the safety of the little cocoon we have spun together. They continue to ask questions, seek reassurance a million times, and then, ever so gently, I remind them (while shepherding them toward the door), “Yes, you are, both, going to be fine. Go out there and be awesome. And, if you need anything, I am only an email away.”
As you have heard, here, several times this Fall, Deep Root Center's Canton facility at 48 Riverside Dr. is at capacity. Hence the above conversations have been extremely hard for me - knowing that I cannot, immediately, offer kids, who need us, a place at DRC. The waiting list now has 13 kids on it.
That will all be changing very soon, when we open a new Center in Lawrenceville (on the eastern- most edge of St. Lawrence County) to be called DRC - East. We will share details as things develop over the next couple months. The plan right now is for it to be open in January when we return from Holiday break - exactly six years after opening our Pilot Program in Canton. Stay tuned for more awesomeness from DRC!
I think we can all agree on a few basic tenets: there are varying levels of traumatic experiences, no two people will respond identically to the same trauma, a young person who has endured it is forever changed, and while the experience(s) can never be erased, emotional healing can be achieved. I would go even farther to say that the layers of catharsis fully depend on how the trauma was originally dealt with. Those who are instructed to hide it, as a secret, will continue to be traumatized throughout their lifetime. This is probably the main reason that incidences of childhood trauma tend to be generational. The only way to fully heal and break the cycle is to bring those horrible experiences into the light of day to be dealt with in a productive manner.
The main reason DRC has built a solid reputation for helping young people is because of our insistence on recognizing, and in fact, honoring each individual’s unique perspective and history, whether they have endured trauma, or not. Most kids perceive that Deep Root Center is a safe place almost immediately upon entering. Not only is the atmosphere relaxed and homey, the vibe naturally projects animated engagement. It is a hive of activity filled with happily, absorbed kids who are freely occupied with independent and group ventures. And, it is, most definitely, not school, which, in many cases, is all they need to know.
When a young person first joins DRC, we don’t always know whether childhood trauma is part of their history. Our first goal is to create a natural, easy rapport with them – a connection of mutual trust. We, quite simply, treat every single child with dignity and respect. We want them to understand on a deep level that even though we are the adults, it doesn’t mean we will ever coerce them to do something they don’t want or feel ready to do.
Within this mentoring relationship, their past experiences are eventually revealed one infinitesimal anecdote at a time until we are able to piece together their story. With that being said, based on their behavior, we are usually able to determine pretty quickly whether they have endured childhood trauma. Those who have often exhibit high levels of anxiety, have a difficult time trusting and developing friendships, have a fear of committing to anything (classes, a project, etc.), are extremely hard on themselves, have a victim mentality, are afraid of making mistakes, have trouble making plans for the future, and are frequently exhausted.
Beyond creating a comfortable environment, sitting with a child who is hurting – merely being there as another human being, is probably the most important thing we do. I want to be very clear in stating that we are not trained therapists, nor is DRC a therapeutic center. Nevertheless, we are mentors who care deeply for each child entrusted to us. We are dedicated to working tirelessly to provide whatever resources each child needs to begin their arduous climb towards emotional well-being. If that means encouraging them to seek out professional counseling, that is what we will do. When it requires patience, affirmation, and pure kindness, along with occasional gentle reminders of our community agreements while they work things out in the best way they know how, that is exactly what we will provide. And, when they make progress, we bring it to their attention and celebrate (loudly) with them.
There is never a good reason for condemning a child for being lazy, irresponsible, stupid, or a troublemaker, who seems hell-bent on making your life miserable. You may never know their personal stories. However, we all know there is a good chance they may be just one of an incredible number of children who are completely overwhelmed from dealing with the symptoms of PTSD, and, are only able to focus on surviving each individual moment in the best way they know how. All children, not only those who have suffered hardship and trauma, require understanding, respect, and compassion, as well as, the time, tools, and space to become healthy, kind, and motivated individuals, who are ready to explore the possibilities, dream big, and tackle whatever challenges come their way.
Childhood Trauma is life-altering. No one can negate that fact. Neural pathways and general brain chemistry are damaged for those who have endured either a one-time traumatic event or long-term, sustained trauma. There is a general recognition that children and teens are at a greater risk than adults who experience similar harm because their brains are developing and growing.
There are entire professional conferences and training that address and teach the “Trauma-Informed Approach.” I am not going to delve too deeply into this latest buzz phrase in the field, except to say, like so many things in the professional educational world that are commoditized and standardized, , in my mind, provide little in a practical or individualized application. I firmly believe that trauma-informed care cannot be accomplished in a coercive, institutional setting. To offer something that requires personal connection and open minds in a facility that does not provide freedom of choice or self-determination for the practitioner or the child is, truthfully, an oxymoron.
The triple threat of poverty, anxiety, and depression exists because of trauma. The resulting apathy, disenfranchisement, hopelessness, and anger are continuously fed by that preexisting damage. We cannot solve society's problems with the band-aid of Trauma-Informed Care. Our response requires a complete cultural shift that places compassion before judgment or blame, people above profit, engagement beyond detachment, and freedom without coercion.
Children who are living with PTSD need personalized, adaptable, compassionate, and loving connections, not an inflexible, “one-size fits most,” “cure-all” that feels cold and clinical. They don’t want a “safe room” (padded solitary cell) where they can “de-escalate” on their own. They do want a comfortable space where they can vent to a safe and trusted person. They do not need confrontation or condemnation – they do need empathy and understanding. They should not have to change themselves to fit into a particular environment – the environment should be accommodating for everyone. They won’t recover in a system designed to change behavior with punishments and rewards. They quite simply need to heal in a place with caring people who will provide flexible tools- to recover on their own schedule and in their own way.
*This is Part One in a two-part series. Next week, I will discuss how the effects of Childhood Trauma present at DRC and how it informs everything we do.
DRC Fundraising Store
Students in the DRC DIY/crafting class have decided to sell some of their creations as a fundraiser for Deep Root Center. They are starting out with up-cycled braided dog toys and will be expanding to other pet related items soon. Check out their on-line store here. All purchases go toward DRC fee reduction program.
We are in the process of developing an After-School Program for children who attend other schools in the area. This program will offer the time and space for kids to dive in and investigate all the interests they have, but don't have time to do during a regular school day. The entire Deep Root Center facility will be open for kids to build and create, play and explore (indoors and outside), as well as chill and relax. The lead staff person will have a background in STEAM education and will be available to provide guidance in a variety of projects based on the specified desires of the attendees. We will be seeking 10-12 participants for the Pilot Program that will run from January - June 2020. Like our regular programs, we anticipate this will fill in quickly. Get in touch to be placed on our enrollment list. Fees will be posted soon. Family discounts will also be available.
Only in a society that is hyped up on fear, will the local police be called because a young man is wearing a trench coat. True story! And, it was not the first time! This post is not about that specific tale, which is truly not mine to tell, but the sense of disconnection we have fostered through our, obsessive, willingness to judge and criticize others based on our personal and cultural biases.
Why did we stop talking to people? Why are we afraid of teenagers? Why do we hone in on the differences instead of the similarities? And, most importantly, why have we, as a society, lost our ability to create connections, instead of dissonance?
Does anyone else recognize how utterly stupid it is that someone actually called the police because they saw a teen walking around wearing a trench coat, or, the multitude of other ridiculous reasons law enforcement have been contacted in recent memory?
The only way we can fix this is to counter the culture of fear and prejudice by developing bridges across the perceived divide of differences to recognize our shared humanness and to create relationships. Go - talk to a stranger! Look at people and smile when they walk past. When you are curious about something, ask the question - get engaged. And, most importantly, open your mind and your heart to the beauty of diversity. Only then can fear of the other be replaced with the sense of community and connection.