Karen Chapman, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker for Family & Children’s Place, fears people view the children we help too narrowly – as a troubled kid, abused kid, loner kid, goth kid, druggie, homeless, a troublemaker, or one who is always sick. She – and we – has a different opinion.
“The fact of the matter is that the kids we work with are superheroes,” she says, offering as proof the story of a teen she has been working with for about nine months.
“She is a lovely 16-year-old girl who has grown up around repeated exposure to domestic violence, multiple, repeated experiences of sexual abuse and family drug use and alcoholism,” she says. When she initially came for treatment she was suffering from severe symptoms related to the trauma she had experienced – vivid nightmares, unable to concentrate at home or school and intense guilt (in relation to disclosure of the abuse) that manifested in stomach aches, mood swings and irritability.
“She often would act out in or skip school entirely,” says Chapman, but since beginning treatment she has done great trauma work and today, many of her symptoms have disappeared, although the trauma she has experienced throughout her life will take more than a short nine months to fully heal.
During a recent session, while revisiting a trauma memory that began with a domestic violence episode in her home, the girl said she remembered feeling sick all day that day, something that often used to happen.
“She said her stomach aches were a warning sign that something was going to go badly in her home that day,” says Chapman, “so, I asked her when the last time was that she felt that sort of pain in her body. She said that it had not happened since the day she disclosed the abuse and was removed from her home.
“She then began talking about how wonderful it was not to have to feel that way anymore and then said something that struck me as so powerful and so sad at the same time – she said about the stomach aches, ‘I feel like I have a superpower, but I don’t have to use it anymore.’
“I think this struck me so hard because most people would look at the clients we serve in the wrong light when in fact, they really are superheroes!”
Just because we don’t understand some of their behaviors at first glance does not mean that whatever the thing is that they’re doing isn’t saving their lives somehow, she says. Or maybe even saving the lives of other kids.
“And we, as service providers, have to remind ourselves that just because you take a kid out of a ‘bad’ situation doesn’t mean they will be instantly healed.” In a bad environment, these kids learn to survive, she says. They develop very real superpowers to help them feel powerful and to navigate issues that would make most adults cringe.
“We need to be flexible enough to see their ‘problems’ as strengths, to help others to see them the same way and to teach them how to redirect that energy for their own development in a healthier environment. What we don’t need to do is try to rid them of their power – they already have had enough people try to do that,” says Chapman.
Since beginning treatment, the girl has made a great turnaround. “She is at a new school and doing extremely well, socially and academically,” says Chapman. “She has developed strong, trusting relationships with her guardians and their family and with me (not to mention everyone else she meets at the agency’s Shively office).”
The teen no longer has nightmares or trauma-related stomach aches. She has faced and conquered the temptation to use drugs and/or alcohol to numb her pain and “is choosing instead to face it,” says Chapman. “She is determined to move forward with her trauma treatment even though it is extremely scary and uncomfortable at times.
“She continues to work through her discomfort and pain and has been inspired to start writing a book she hopes to publish one day for teens, taking parts of her experiences of abuse and sharing them in order to lessen the shame, stigma and fear that she has lived with for so long.”
Superheroes, indeed! And a story that articulates well the power, resiliency and strength of the children we serve.