I heard Dr. Purvis speak at a conference last month and was very impressed with the work she’s been doing (over the past 5 decades, nonetheless) with at-risk children- specifically children who were adopted internationally or through the foster care system and thus have a hard time attaching to caregivers and regulating their emotions.
Dr. Purvis and her colleagues from TCU have developed trust-based interventional techniques which are backed up through years of scientific research to help empower children who have experienced significant trauma.
I think it’s fascinating to study how the brain develops, and I’ve learned a little bit about how trauma can affect the developing brain thanks to books like this, child development theories, and a few trainings I’ve attended, so the science behind Dr. Purvis’s techniques is fascinating enough in itself. But what impressed me most about Dr. Purvis was her truly Christ-like attitude about the children she works with. In fact, I jotted down a couple of things she said which impressed me:
One word she used speaks volumes about her: “Every child I’ve ever served. . . “ I don’t even remember the rest of the sentence but I was touched that she used the word “serve” rather than “worked with” “observed” or “associated with”. Two scriptural verses, both from the Tenth Chapter of Mark, incidentally, come to mind: Mark 10:14 and Mark 10:44.
The other thing I wrote down as I listened to Dr. Purvis speak is how she described her mission in life and what she is most passionate about: giving children a VOICE.
“I take back violence from children by giving them a voice.” she said. It’s not about her- it’s about the children. Love that attitude! More specifically, the interventional techniques she uses have the objective of making children feel empowered and connected.
In her presentation, Dr. Purvis showed a sobering picture to illustrate the example of what it means to give children their own voice: she showed a picture which a mother took in a hospital in Ekaterinburg, Russia in 2007 of newborn babies (orphans) with duct tape over their mouths so that their crying wouldn’t disturb the nurses at the hospital. This picture was released to the press (Thank Goodness!) and a full-scale investigation was thus launched.
In that stark example, the babies had no voice-literally, not only because of the duct tape and plaster covering their mouths but because (and this was something new to me) if a human infant’s cries are not answered, then within 60-90 days they will literally lose their voice.
Children who come from traumatic backgrounds, such as being raised in an orphanage or spending their formative years bounced around from institution to institution or home to home in the foster care system, do have a voice but they don’t know how to use it. In other words, their voice or the way they’ve learned to be “heard” and ultimately, to survive, is often through aggression, manipulation, or not attaching to others.
As I mentioned earlier, Dr. Purvis spoke briefly about how the human brain develops in children who have undergone trauma. These children’s actions and behaviors are motivated by survival because the part of their brain which is most active is the area which centers on survival. The sad fact is that some children (and adults) may not be able to access the “rational” higher-thinking parts of their brains (i.e. their cerebellum ) because they haven’t had as much a chance to develop so they have to rely on the more “primitive”, animalistic part of their brain to communicate their needs.
So . . . when a foster child (or any child for that matter, but I keep thinking about our last foster placement, in particular, as I’m writing this) is constantly hitting or yelling in response to what seems like EVERYTHING it may not be that they are inherently violent and aggressive as much as they are trying to communicate something (fear, frustration, etc.) and aggression is the quickest and/or only way they know how.
The challenge, then, as caregivers to these children, is two-fold:
1) To get past the child’s anger and outbursts and detect what’s going on inside.
2) To help the children IDENTIFY what it is they’re feeling and VALIDATE and EMPOWER them so that they regulate their emotions, and express it in more appropriate ways.
Those challenges are easier said than done, but Dr. Purvis and her colleagues have developed tools to help the rest of us “lay people” attune to children’s needs and give them a voice.
Speaking of which . . . If anybody knows of any other helpful books or resources in dealing with similar issues, please share in the comments section!