Jenny is a young mentor health doctor who has come from Scotland to serve for two weeks the Kenedi Foundation. Over the two weeks she has been giving therapy session in small groups and giving the staff Techniques to help them support the children’s emotional development and health.
Here in Albania, there is very little in the same of mental health services for children. I want to teach the children some coping techniques that the staff can then use with them, to help them get through times when they are very anxious, unhappy or angry. Sadly, we can’t do the kind of therapy that treats and heals the trauma they’ve suffered. This kind of therapy makes children worse for a little while before they get better. The situation that these children are in makes it too dangerous to let them go through that period of being worse. They need all the defences they’ve built up. Even therapy programs that are designed for children in war zones rely on them having parents who can hug them and comfort them if they start getting new nightmares or their behaviour becomes more difficult. These children won’t get comforted and are likely to get beaten instead.
Effects of Trauma
Children who have grown up without supportive parents are very different from children who grow up in normal families. When a baby is first born, , everything is either catastrophically wrong or absolutely perfect. If the baby get reliable comfort when they’re upset, then slowly they start to learn that being upset isn’t a catastrophe because mum will come and comfort them. Once they’re toddlers they learn they can get comfort by running to mum. As they get older, they slowly internalise this so that they get less upset and can comfort themselves. The children at the centre haven’t been comforted, so the strength of emotions they have to deal with is even stronger than the newborn baby, because they’ve learned to be scared of this horrible experience. Then, they have to deal with situations that no child could deal with: watching their mother be beaten up by dad, being beaten themselves or being sexually abused.
To survive, the children learn strategies of numbing their emotions. This causes them problems when they’re older, but just now it’s helping them survive an unbearable situation. Normal therapy opens up those emotions, which is why we can’t do it with the children- just now they need to keep those emotions asleep.
Most of the children are constantly on the look-out for danger. If you imagine being in a war zone, never knowing what’s going to happen next, you can probably realise that concentration would be difficult. These children are in the equivalent of a war zone, but when they come to school they’re expected to sit down and concentrate as though they were safe. This is one of the reason school is so hard for these children and many of them drop out. For others, it takes them away from begging. Some of the children at the centre are the main breadwinners for their families.
All children start out with two beliefs, that their parents love them and that their parents are good people. If your parents are abusive you don’t change these beliefs, instead you start to believe that the problem is that you’re bad, so that your good, loving parents have to punish you. Although this is very sad, it is helpful in the short term because it gives the child a sense of power: if only they could change then things would get better.
This sense of being bad and worthless is reinforced in other ways. The children aren’t kept clean by their parents, so don’t get the message that their bodies are important. Because punishment is usually due to an adult’s frustration or drunken-ness they learn that their bodies are there to be used by adults, not something that’s theirs. That means that sexual abuse is also harder to recognise as wrong- it may be horrible, but you’re used to adults doing bad things to your body for no clear reason.
The lack of self-worth the children have shows in lots of ways. It makes it hard to understand why you should look after your body and your clothes, why you should try hard at school, why you should try to behave well. We see it even when the children are asked to draw: they’re scared to do it in case they get it wrong. When the girls grow up and become mothers, it will make it harder to protect their own children- because they can’t see themselves as worthy of protection and their children are part of who they are.
Think about the amount of work it takes to teach children how to share. With your own children, or in Sunday school, you’re dealing with a situation where there’s enough food or snacks or treats to go round and the child is safe. These children often haven’t been taught by their parents: they live in a world where anything can be grabbed by someone bigger than them and where there can be a real shortage. That makes sharing rather than fighting incredibly challenging.
Even if we took these children into loving foster care tomorrow, they would never transform into “normal” children. The damage that is done early in childhood always endures, though to different extents in different children. The biggest risks for the children are alcohol/drugs and bad relationships- ones that draw them into trouble or that are abusive. Using alcohol is an obvious solution to overwhelming bad feelings and a lot of people with troubled childhoods will fall into abusing it.
The problem with relationships is that the children still have a template that love is how their parents behave towards them. No matter how much an adult might know that their parents were abusive, it’s very difficult to change those early templates. It means you don’t have an internal “radar” that warns you that people are bad news- likely to harm you or draw you into trouble.
The centre is the single most protective force in the children’s lives. It is giving them somewhere that they can be safe, somewhere that they can be children and a relationship with adults they can trust. It gives them a model for what love can look like: and so of what God might look like. If all you know of your own father is someone who comes home drunk and beats you and your mum for no reason, it’s pretty hard to imagine a perfect heavenly Father. The staff give the children a template for what a good Father might look like.
When you work with mental health you develop a special sense of optimism. You don’t think about getting people to be being perfectly well, but you focus on getting them a tiny little bit better than they would be without help. Hopefully we can give these children some sense of self-worth and an experience of being valued and cared for.
God can do more
So far we’ve been talking about how humans develop naturally. God can do miracles, and we pray to Him to protect and guide these children. We hope that we’re one of the ways He uses to do this. Please pray for the children and the staff, that the children would understand and grow in the love at the centre and for wisdom and grace for the staff- to continue to hope and to know how best to love and protect the children.