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123 MAY 2009
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ON THE BRAIN

Hope Springs Eternal

Bruce Perry

Hope springs eternal in the human breast;
Man never Is, but always To be blest:
The soul, uneasy and confin'd from home,
Rests and expatiates in a life to come.

Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man, Epistle I, 1733

It is spring in the Northern Hemisphere. For centuries during this time of year, we hopeful humans have celebrated the return of life – the greening of the trees, the return of migrating birds. The long dark nights pass and cold winds calm. It is during these bitter cold months that hope sustains us. We tolerate and survive the winter because we know spring is coming; hard times will pass. How discouraged, demoralized and defeated we would be in winter if we did not know spring was coming. Hope is the powerful protective force that gets us through distressing, even traumatic experiences. And hope is the most wonderful gift we give the maltreated children we live and work with.

So what exactly is hope? Where does it come from? And what can give a child hope – or take it away? As you might expect, I believe that hope is a brain-mediated capability. Hope is the internal representation of a better world; essentially a belief that things can be better. It is, in essence, a memory. We have a memory of spring, and we use this memory to warm us during the cold; to give us the strength to keep on going because it always isn’t going to be like this; things will get better. The internal representation of a better world – the spring – is memory created within our brain based upon an earlier experience with spring. Even transient exposure to the perfect crisp air, the warming sun, the symphony of birds and the pallet of wildflowers in the mountain meadows can create a strong sustaining memory of spring. Ahh, just wait until we can sit in that sun again – its soon now. Not much more of this – hard times will pass.

The most powerful source of hope, then, comes from our own personal experience; we have seen better times and feel confident that they will come again. A maltreated child living in the pain and chaos of a displaced life with disengaged, overwhelmed or abusive caregivers passed from person to person, home to home, community to community is living in the deepest of winters. And all too often, despite opportunities to engage, to learn, to grow and to heal, these children quit. They are hopeless; they have had too few experiences with reliable, honest, fully present and nurturing adults in their short lives.

Yet all too often the systems intended to help these children merely replicate the chaos, unpredictability and disengaged caregiving that characterized their dysfunctional homes. This merely reinforces a sense of powerlessness – hopelessness. An important factor is how distressed the people in these systems feel. First, a little neurobiology – in our brain we have a very powerful and important network of neurons involved in forming and maintaining relationships. A central aspect of that network is the capacity to read and respond to the emotional and social cues that are being projected by the people you interact with. If they are distracted and distressed, you will feel dismissed; you essentially will feel the way they feel – distressed. An angry adult will make a child feel threatened; a bored adult will make the child feel insignificant; a happy adult can cheer a child up. And on and on. We have the neurobiological capacity to absorb and be influenced by the emotions of those around us.

So if we create systems that overwork, disrespect and generally do not care for the carers, they will have a difficult time healing these children. This can push a foster parent, Child and Youth Care worker, and teacher to be more focused on the work than on the child. Fill out the forms, get them to their appointments, take the tests. These resource-depleted, overworked adults find little time to be quiet, present, positive and caring. And yet, when we can look past these inevitable elements of the work place and remember what is important, when we do focus on the child amazing things can happen. When we take care of ourselves; keep ourselves healthy, manage our own distress, find ways to be present, calm, patient and nurturing we change this children. We make a difference. Hope springs eternal.

So where does hope for these children come from? It comes from you. In the moment to moment experiences you have each day you can show the child that adults can be trusted, that people can be honest, caring and safe. It is not the sophistication of your psychological interpretations of their behavior but the consistency of your kindness that changes the child. It is not the completed form but the smile and gentle pat on the back that creates hope. Each day in the smallest of interactions, with your attention, your calm and your patience you are creating memories for this child. Memories of spring.

This month is the Child and Youth care workers month. It is appropriate that this comes in the spring. You, my colleagues, are, in your caring interactions with these children, Spring. And in the depth of the bitter cold of this child's winter, you create hope; you build an internal representation of a better world “a world where people are decent and kind and good. And this child's hope will whisper to him in the long, dark night of winter: these hard times will pass.

The International Child and Youth Care Network
THE INTERNATIONAL CHILD AND YOUTH CARE NETWORK (CYC-Net)

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