Wood's Homes Blog

Home is where the heart is

June 26, 2018
By Dr. Angelique Jenney, Wood's Homes Research Chair in Children's Mental Health
Home is where the heart is

And hearts live in bodies, not in buildings. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about homelessness recently; the ways in which people become homeless and, perhaps just as importantly, how they might remain homeless for long periods of time throughout their life span. I recently attended a conference about trauma last week and heard Dr. Gina Samuels reflect on her research with homeless youth. What struck me most was the title of her presentation, When Homelessness Starts at Home, and how she powerfully related through her findings how often young people have long lost a sense of home within their own families before they end up on the streets.  When we consider children who run away, we have to ask ourselves two questions: 1) what are they running away from? and 2) what are they running towards?

What if you have to leave home in order to find a sense of safety and belonging? What if the reason you stay on the streets for so long, is because you have such a hard time finding it?

This makes me think about all of the immigrant families entering the United States. It’s disturbing that the rhetoric about immigration is always about the coming to take (invasion) and not about asking what has been painfully left behind (escape). People generally don’t leave homes in which they are safe and secure, and they don’t take risks like trying to enter a foreign country illegally - unless the risks of staying are so much higher.   

It’s been very hard to think about those separated children and families, and the ways in which, even in this new millennium, governments can (and do) create and actively enforce policies that are nothing short of abusive (not just to children, but to parents). In our modern day society, there should be no such thing as a Tender Age Shelter. We know better, not just morally, but also the science behind early childhood development and the importance of proximity to primary caregivers is unquestionable. Read this. In this heart-wrenching story the distress of the parents is evident and the attack on mental health is almost immediate. 

I’ve watched the online videos and recordings of children crying for their caregivers, and wanted desperately to rewrite not just the history of the moments themselves, but the words that came out of the mouths of the adults who were in charge of these terrified children. Imagine how things might have been different if the adults had chosen kindness and empathy (e.g. “I know you’re scared, your Dad is safe, I’m going to help you see him again”) in their responses, instead of mocking them and telling them to stop crying.

The child trauma literature is clear, chronic states of uncertainty and fear have devastating impacts on development. Imagine the journey these children had already undertaken before arriving at the border, and how it turned into separation and detention. The brain science is clear that humans can only tolerate so much stress before it begins to break us down. I wonder how many of these children’s eventual stories of homelessness will start with this memory.

Recently I read an article that featured an interview with Dr. Bruce Perry about trauma and learning and, in particular, the example he provided about reading.  That if you want to instill good reading skills in children, you read to them when they are young, preferably every night as part of a bedtime ritual. The point is, however, that the reason the child learns to read and develops such good feelings from it, is because story time itself is relational. It’s a moment when children (and their parents, too) feel a deep sense of relaxation, connection and enjoyment. You can get lost in the story, because of how safe you are in this moment. Many children internalize these positive feelings over time, and find a sense of peace and enjoyment in the reading process (which is why they keep doing it on their own). It’s a gift that keeps on giving because it offers up something that feels good every time the child does it (and continues into adulthood). This morning, as I rode my bike along the river path, I came upon a man still in his sleeping bag in the morning light. He was sitting up with his head bowed and, as I approached, I saw that he was deeply engaged in reading a book. The feeling caught me in my throat as I imagined him as a little boy once, held in the lap of a loving caregiver listening to the warm tones of a story being told. That physical home is apparently no longer there, but that place in his heart still remains and the feeling resides in there.

How are we giving our kids an internal sense of home and belonging in this world? Certainly not by placing them in cages. There is a story to tell here, and it can have a different ending as long as we don’t stop telling it.