"Listening with Love," based on pediatrician Ken Ginsburg's daytime and evening talks at the National Summit on Adverse Childhood Experiences held May 2013, brings a message of hope amid the thicket of grim ACEs statistics. Our kids are not broken, Ginsburg emphasizes; on the contrary, they are brimming with strengths that have helped them survive.
Our task, Ginsburg says-as parents, clinicians, educators and advocates-is to listen closely to their stories, affirm their strengths and guide them toward healthier ways of coping.
At the Summit, a similar message of hope came from Christina Bethell, a professor at Oregon Health & Science University School of Medicine and a lifelong advocate of mind-body methods of healing.
Like Ginsburg, Bethell noted that resilience matters: the 2011-12 National Survey of Children's Health showed that, among children aged 6-17 with two or more ACEs, the ones who were usually or always resilient-meaning they were able to stay calm and in control when facing a challenge-were less likely to have repeated a grade or missed many days of school, and more likely to be engaged in the classroom.
Bethell said, "Making sense of yourself is a source of strength and resilience for your child. Making sense means being able to put your story into words and convey it to another person." That is exactly what Ken Ginsburg invites his adolescent patients to do, while he listens with attention and love. He believes that a key to resilience, for children and teens, is having an adult who cares for them unconditionally and who holds them to high standards, sending the simultaneous messages I've got your back and You can do better.
At the Summit, Bethell shared a poem she wrote as part of a life course appreciative inquiry project (see below) While noting the "improbable few" who survive and thrive despite trauma, she urged us to use everything we know about healing to transform the "improbable few" to the "improbable many."
Take care and take time to listen,
Executive Director, Institute for Safe Families
|Listening with Love:
THE POWER OF RESILIENCE
Every day, Ken Ginsburg sees the results of childhood trauma: the young woman who can't recall much of her childhood-except for the time she was thrown down the stairs. The boy who watched a drug addict die on the street, surrounded by onlookers snapping photos on their cell phones. The girl who got pregnant at 14 because she wanted so desperately to love.
In fact, the adolescents he sees at CHOP and as medical director at Covenant House, Pennsylvania, a care system for homeless and marginalized youth, are often brimming with compassion, ambition and a longing to transform the world.
The best way to help them, Ginsburg said at May's National Summit on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), is to face them with openness and love.
"All I do," he said, "is listen for the stories that nobody else hears...My Covenant House kids are the gang members, the ones who have been sexually exploited, the ones who have been in and out of prison. They want to be teachers, social workers, doctors, forensic psychologists. They want to be healers. They come to the world with a different kind of credential. When we pity them and see them as broken, we take away the power they have.
"We need to help youth know how much they matter."
Ginsburg urged the audience-nearly 200 physicians, social workers, child advocates and policy makers-to remember that adolescence is not too late to heal from childhood trauma. In fact, he said, it is the ideal time to help youth cultivate the qualities that will not only repair their own spirits, but contribute to the world: grit, creativity, collaboration, generosity and empathy.
Ginsburg described resilience as a mindset. "When something bad happens to you, do you see it as a catastrophe or an opportunity?" Adolescents need help in learning to distinguish "real tigers"-true threats to life or well-being that demand immediate reaction-from "paper tigers," the daily challenges and stresses that might call for problem-solving, reflection or a request for help.
A key ingredient of resilience, he said, is the presence of a caring adult-a relative, clergy member, coach, teacher or health care provider-who "believes in them unconditionally and who holds them to high expectations." That doesn't mean condoning destructive behavior, but helping youth understand their ways of coping and guiding them toward healthier strategies.
When a girl etches her arm with a razor blade, when a boy uses marijuana to numb his sorrow, when kids seek connection through sex outside of a loving relationship, they are trying to manage stress, Ginsburg said.
"Any one of the marginalized groups I've talked about has an attitude, a defensive posture that says, 'I have been hurt by you.' How do we meet that attitude? With love and with respect."
At Covenant House, when residents present cases to him, Ginsburg requires them to say more than, "This is a 16-year-old girl who presents with alcohol abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder." The resident must add, "And I love her because..."
To be effective in working with youth who have suffered adversity, Ginsburg said, providers must look honestly at themselves. "When we work with trauma, we begin 'othering,'" he said. "We all have mechanisms to make us think, 'This won't happen to me.' In the long term, we lose the capacity to love.
"But there is no 'other.' There is only us."
(2011, Christina Bethell; Written During Life Course Appreciative Inquiry Project)
Always lay low
They take short sips
And never throw fits
There are things
That only they know
Like, love is real
Yet hard to feel
When the screen was so blank
And only God to thank
For that night light hung on the soul
Research would say
They shouldn't be this way
But, Love sprung out
Their improbable out-spout
Until eventually, even they run dry
The real journey begins
Held down with a howl
An in-spout installed
Pain rising up to be skimmed
So they start having fits
And taking long sips
And people smile wide
God beams with pride
Held strong in the love
That THEY grew
From that place
That already knew
These, the improbable few