Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Giving Troubled Kids a Better Story

"Humanite," Mickael Bethe-Selassie
Irrational archetypal forces of violence in the American psyche are erupting in the forms of "mad" individuals who come from out of nowhere (like Drones) to commit atrocities -- increasingly horrifying, and destroying all forms of innocence and positive potential. The American Dream and the Puritan ethic are being revealed as masks obscuring the violence at the heart of the American soul. This violence has been here from the beginning of this country's founding -- even among the slave-owning Founding Fathers who wrote the inspired words of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution.

The British writer D.H. Lawrence got it right when he wrote during his travels around the U.S.: "The American soul is hard, isolated, stoic and a killer. It has yet to melt." Until we create safe channels for the expression and transformation of these violent cultural energies, these slaughters will continue, and we'll continue to be shocked by massacres in places of innocence and entertainment.

Safe but free and non-judgmental expression through the container of art, whatever the modality, is one way of liberating and harnessing these destructive forces -- as long as there's an accompanying narrative of transformation. I began to learn how this works 20 years ago in a maximum security unit for criminally insane men.
If we begin to identify vulnerable individuals very early in life and give them safe channels for self-expression, we can build on the massive shift that's now taking place in our national (and global) consciousness.

Some time ago an art therapist posted the following message on a creative arts listserv to which I belong:

I am running a group for 6 students in 3rd grade who have behavior problems and aggression. I found that for the first group, the rules were consistently broken, even when reinforced and warnings were given. I spent so much time on just trying to get the students to be quiet when someone else was talking, take turns, ask for materials rather than grab them from another student, sit in their chair, not name call, tease or swear, that there was little time to focus on the artwork. Any advice on things that will work for them?

This was my response:

I co-facilitated a social skills summer camp for special needs kids with many of the problems you described. They ranged in age from 6 to 12 and there were 10 of them.

What I did was to give them a better story than the one they were used to hearing about themselves -- a profoundly negative story that was imprinting itself more deeply every day on their sense of who they were and what life would be like for them. I completely changed the ballgame from a therapeutic or teaching environment into a Native American warrior rite. (Thus going with their aggressive impulses rather than trying to change them.)

To start with, I played non-percussive music -- mostly that of Native American flutist Carlos Nakai -- to create a relaxed and mysterious space totally outside of their ordinary lives. All the chairs were placed in a circle and they drew on the floor. I had each one draw fire (implicitly allowing safe expression of their anger and aggression through the metaphor of flames) and had them arrange their drawings together to create a campfire in the middle. I named my co-facilitator -- a social worker -- the Village Chief and myself the Medicine Chief. (Amazing how we both rose to those roles!)

I defined the kids as braves who were becoming adult warriors of the tribe. Their mission was to protect the people, not go to war because that wasn't necessary. All activities and social skills teachings were presented within this context of a brave band of warriors and their mentors. I told stories and myths about indigenous people and they responded with pictures and stories about themselves (some revealing through metaphor that they were experiencing chaos or trauma at home), and they learned the "warrior code" of behavior rather than "social skills" or "rules of conduct." There were no sticks, but there were plenty of colored rubber balls. To talk, they had to ask for and hold a "talking ball." Only it turned out not to be a ball; the kids declared it a sacred fossil containing the bones of a dinosaur that were the source of the power of the tribe and its warriors.

What happened with most of the children was that they were so spellbound by the imaginative world in which they found themselves and who they were within that world that they forgot to be disruptive. Teaching took place under the radar; they were bewitched into learning and growing.

It wasn't perfect, of course, but we built in an exit point whereby kids who were disruptive could ask for or be "given" a time-out to go out into the hall with one of the co-facilitators to talk or just to sit quietly. No punishment, just calming retreat.

A year or so later, I used basically the same approach in a more subtle, sophisticated way with youths in a diversion from incarceration program and after that, with teens with HIV/AIDS who were living on the streets. Again, it imbued the groups and each member with a dignity and respect from adults and other kids that they rarely if ever had experienced, and they got to perform "up" to that new self-image rather than "down" to the low expectations most adults had for them.

All of us -- especially children and teens (and adults going through difficult times of loss and transition) -- hunger for dignity and self-expression within the structure of respectful community, as well as some kind of "roadmap" or pathway forward to a better sense of self and future. I've found the traditional rite of passage model and myths of all cultures immensely useful in creating these kinds of dynamic and nurturing environments.

The Power of Music

Ivan (not his real name) was one of these children. He had spent the first two years of his life in an Eastern European orphanage, where eating was his only life activity. The rest of the time, awake or asleep, he lay on his back in a crib. To survive psychically, he learned to pull repeatedly at the corner of his eye.

Now adopted by a loving American family, Ivan was diagnosed with institutional autism: attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD); and severe emotional, developmental and sensory deficits. At age 9, he had difficulty focusing on tasks, coordinating his movements, and understanding boun
daries. He acted out his frustrations and fears by blanking out, becoming a victim, and throwing temper tantrums.

At this workshop, the music played (non-percussive and geared to producing meditative states) calmed and centered Ivan. He quieted down and was able to communicate his feelings in a non-harming way.

Why is this? Because the music filled some of Ivan's unmet developmental needs. Researchers have found that lullabies, like rocking, help to establish neurological equilibrium in an infant -- as well as emotional attunement with other people. Be it the music of a mother's voice or a concerto, music makes us feel safe.

Music -- like poetry, visual, and kinetic arts -- elicits a whole-brain response. Rhythm, melody, and the continuous flow of sound simultaneously soothe survival mechanisms deep within the brain and stimulate higher mental processes that enable empathy, attachment, and choice.

In spiritual terms, music holds us, tells us that we belong and that we can relax. It fills the holes in abandoned souls.

For more on the Ethiopian artist Mickael Bethe-Selassie:

by Juliet Bruce. All rights reserved.

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