I remember Bea.
She sat quietly in my office with her head bowed, pretending to read Anne of Green Gables, which she had plucked off of my shelf. The pretense, obvious from the lack of page turning, was just another tool in her arsenal for keeping me at arm’s length. We waited, that evening, for her new foster mother to pick her up, as she had been ejected by her current home.
Only in care for three months, Bea had been doing well in her first home. Until the foster parent confiscated Bea’s phone for not doing her chores. Out of nowhere, the livid teen became aggressive and had even threatened to put Clorox into the families orange juice. A family with three smaller kids, the parents feared for their safety.
I got the call to pick her up.
Responding to the home quickly, I tried to disarm the situation at the home by mediating. After all, Bea had adjusted well prior to the incident, just starting to let down her guard. I reminded the foster mother of the things we had learned about attachments and that as Bea started to feel safe with her, it was normal for the teen to act out. Stony eyed, the foster mother refused to budge. Even after a tearful Bea apologized and admitted she had not and would never put poison in their food, the foster parents adamantly kicked her out.
And she, rejected again, failed to see her own role in the play. Instead, on the way back to the office, she rationalized that the foster parents never wanted her and that they only wanted the money from the state. I listened, letting her vent her anger, which I knew was masking her grief and disappointment.
We sat in my office for several hours while the resource unit tried to locate another home for her. Initially, I attempted to talk with her about the trigger that ignited her anxiety, but she conveniently hid behind the scruffily bound book. It was evident that she needed to process the events of the day, making her own sense of them. She needed some space, not a lecture. Excusing myself, I walked down the hallway to check on the resource unit. I overheard the resource worker describing Bea to the new potential foster parent, as she gave me the thumbs up.
“She is a smart girl, but she has self-esteem issues that cause her to act out.”
I thought about that as I made my way back to the office. To characterize this young lady with self-esteem issues seemed so shallow. Bea’s issues, like most children from abusive and traumatic homes, went deeper than mere self esteem. Bea had no self worth at all.
She felt unwanted…unsubstantial…and unworthy.
Bea came from a chaotic home, where domestic violence and alcohol ruled the family. Her mother’s addiction to meth became the black cloud that darkened her every day. Men, in and out of the house, trading favors for drugs contributed to the fear and anxiety that plague her young soul. When she was finally taken into foster care, her mother never even seemed to notice. There were no family visits, no calls, no letters, no apologies. Bea was truly alone.
Can you imagine not knowing whether or not you mattered to a single living person? How would you view your worth? If you think about it, in the economic world, worth is based on how much someone else is willing to pay for a good or service. A good that no-one wanted would be said to have no worth. Is it the same for people?
Even if human worth is not measured by such means, isn’t perception of worth all that really matters? For Bea, all the talk in the world, by me, would not have changed her self-loathing born of the thought, “if my own mother doesn’t want me, who will?” She had such difficulty accepting kindness and love because, in her heart, she was not deserving of it. Therefore, her acting out came from a place, not of anger, but of fear and protection. She charged at fences to check for weak points and to make sure that should she lower her defenses, she would feel safe.
Bea’s new foster mother was a 10th grade English Teacher. I worked closely with Bea, the foster mother and their therapist to carve out some goals and interventions designed to give Bea more of a voice, and to feel heard. She joined the volleyball team at her new school and started to make friends. And guess what? At about 3 months in her new home, she had a melt-down. Throwing a chair across the kitchen floor as she railed against the foster mother’s direction.
The difference was…
The foster mother had prepared for that day. She knew that the road to healing was long and knew not to be fooled by the honeymoon period. Instead of kicking her out, the foster mother hugged Bea and told her she was not going anywhere and that they would work this out together.
After a tumultuous year, Bea’s outbursts became less and less frequent. After 18 months, Bea found her anchor,. Adopted by her foster mother, the child who felt unsubstantial now felt safe, loved and worthy.
It is so important for us to stop focusing on the behaviors and focus on the lava stream of fear, anxiety, helplessness and pain that gives birth to the volcanic eruptions that occur. When working with kids from hard places, it is so easy to be frustrated and lose patience. Especially when the victims feel that they have no worth.
Once you have established “felt safety” with your clients, there are a few methods you can guide them through to increase their feelings of self-worth.
- Find something they do well, and encourage it. Being good at something and having that acknowledged is a key to resiliency. Whether it is poetry, music, sports, sewing, cooking… you get the point. Spend some time helping them to figure out things they “like” to do. Encourage them to put energy into that one thing. As there skill increases, acknowledge their improvement.
- Encourage them to speak up. When people feel heard, they don’t feel the need to react. Really listen to your client, foster child, friend, and practice active listening skills without trying to solve their problems. The more understanding (which doesnt mean necessarily agreement) they receive, the more they will learn to speak up without acting out. Let them know their opinions and thoughts are valued.
- Encourage them to do for others. There is something about being altruistic that improves our self-worth. Giving of ourselves is the ultimate act of self growth. Encourage volunteering in the community, helping out in church, or even just starting a dialogue of the importance of helping others will go a long way of building self-worth.
These are just a few of many activities and steps towards helping to build self-worth. But remember, that “felt safety” takes time and precedence with kids from hard places. Help them to have some consistency, stability and acceptance so that they can relax, unclench and open up to the opportunities to know their own worth.