Posted by: Beverly Davidson, LMSW | August 25, 2013

We all need a person

We all need a person……We all need a place.

Someone asked me recently, “I just want a person, doesn’t everybody, is that so bad to want that?”

Lately I have been thinking about that question, and what it is that makes some people survive and heal from difficulties in their lives, while others struggle. So much has been written about childhood resilience, and we know that internal and external resources can help a child be more or less resilient. But what is the underlying factor? What is the common denominator?

The last 23 years of clinical social work practice has convinced me that it is relationship. It is the felt sense of being seen and heard by another person that can carry someone through. In a perfect world, every child would have that type of parental relationship with a grown-up who is raising him. Every child would have a parent who is safe, kind, strong, loving and practices unconditional parenting (most of the time). The reality is that too many children do not get that kind of parent. So what helps them get through? It is having a relationship, even if it is brief, with a person who sees you, hears you, and gets you. These brief relationships can be with a teacher, a coach, a friend….and they are stepping stones for children in forming a lasting relationship with another person. When a child can have both a parental relationship and outside relationships that are sustaining and fulfilling, how lucky that child is.

I work with so many people who did not have a loving parent. But yet they survive, and they fight, and hopefully many will eventually thrive. The ones who thrive, they are able to recall those moments in time when they were seen and heard by another. Those moments helped them feel worthy, loved, and gave them a sense of belonging. I routinely ask my clients: “who was your person?” In each developmental stage of life, I try and find out who their person was, the person who saw them, heard them, believed them. Most of the time, they can identify at least one person in each stage. I try and build on that strength of this past experience that can show them they were worthy. It is hard to have not been seen or heard by the people that should have been doing that, and it might take some years to heal from those wounds, but when there is at least one person showing them that, healing is possible. Sadly there are times when I have worked with a person who only has had one or two moments like that, but remarkably, we can call that shared sense of being heard into the present day and I have seen the difference it has made. A moment when a teacher tells a student, “I know you are smart and brave, and I know you can do this.” Or when a grown-up says to a child, “I believe you, and I am going to help you be safe.” I try and provide these moments on a daily basis, hoping to string along enough of them to create a path to wholeness someday.

Along with having a person, we also need a place. It has become more apparent in my life and work how deeply important it is to have a sense of belonging. It is a basic need, just as much as food, water, and shelter. I never realized it so profoundly until the last few years.

This makes me think of all the kids who have experienced foster care. I work with young kids in the foster care system, I have been a foster care social worker, I have provided training to foster care workers, and I now work with adults who experienced being in foster care. I cannot say I know what it is like to be a kid in foster care, but I certainly have seen their eyes and felt their hearts. From how I see it, their biggest struggle is not having a sense of belonging in the world. To feel this, you need a person, and you need a place.

Things that you may not know about a child in non-relative foster care: when they go to foster care, they don’t bring a luxurious suitcase and organized boxes with their possessions. If they are lucky, they have a duffle bag, and most of the time a big garbage bag of some clothes. No toys, no pictures, no favorite foods. All too often they have the clothes on their back and that is about it. If a child has a sibling, they might get to move together, but often times not. They walk into a strange house with new smells, new sounds, new sights, and new grown-ups who are strangers to them. They lose their neighborhood, their friends, their extended family, their place in the world. I used to be the one to take the kids to these unfamiliar places – it is one of the most heartbreaking things I had to do in my career, truth be told. I remember one little girl I had to place into a foster home (her second) who stole my heart. I remember consciously taking the long way to her new foster placement. A part of me wanted to keep driving, just so she could stay a bit longer with someone she knew. Me. I didn’t even know her that long, but I knew what stuffed animal she liked, I knew her nickname, and I knew her favorite foods. No one else in her new world other than me knew that. This may sound trivial, but it is the intimate pieces of knowledge other people know about you that makes you feel connected. These kids do not get enough of that.

I am not saying foster care or foster parents are bad. Sometimes in order to be safe, kids need to go to foster care, and they are blessed with amazing foster parents. But from the child’s perspective, leaving the home they knew for a strange place in and of itself is traumatic. If a child is lucky enough to remain in one foster home, be returned safely home within a reasonable amount of time, or be adopted by that foster family, he will be a success story. Unfortunately that scenario does not happen enough. Too many of our kids move from foster home to foster home to foster home, never being able to find that person, or that place, they can call home. Too many of our kids are treated as if they are disposable, moving from foster home to foster home, then maybe to juvenile detention, to a mental health facility, to the streets and even prison. No one is disposable, but our systems treat kids as if they are. I had one adult who experienced foster care tell me that staying in his abusive home would have been easier, because at least he knew what to expect, and at least he felt like he belonged somewhere. In foster care, he moved to several homes, went to a dozen schools, and could never quite fit in anywhere. Things were always changing, and he always had to start over. The one thing he got very good at by age 17 was saying goodbye. He was constantly losing and reclaiming his possessions, his space, his life, and his heart. If a person says goodbye too many times in his youth, it becomes a way of life, and one never learns how to stay. He is working hard now to make a place for himself, and to find a person, and he is doing it. I just wish it wasn’t so hard for him.

I can think of other childhood experiences that create this sense of loneliness, of not feeling like you belong anywhere. I am sure many of you can think of them, too. There are too many to even capture eloquently with the written word. All I know is that chronic loneliness is a precursor to heartbreak on many levels.

This all makes me think about Antoinette Tuff, the school clerk in Georgia who sat with an armed man who was about to go on a shooting spree in a school. I listened to the 911 tape and was moved beyond words by her compassion, patience, and love. She became his person that day, she listened, she heard him, she got him, she empathized with him. She gave him a place where he could show his pain, without judgement and without fear. She asked him his name, she remembered his name, and she called him by name. She was his person that day. And she became the person for 800 people in that school building. She is a true hero.

We all have to realize that we can all make a difference, moment by moment, in the life of a child or adult who needs it the most, by just being compassionate, present, and empathetic. And, even if you are someone’s person for a minute, a day, a year, you have helped a heart grow stronger.

We all need a person…..and we all need a place. If you have a person or persons, let them know how grateful you are for them.

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Responses

  1. Thank you for such a thoughtful and real piece!

  2. This made me cry…thank you for opening our eyes to this


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