I have spent a lot of time this year witnessing trauma. In my position as a Children’s Advocate in a domestic violence shelter, I have served children who have survived and witnessed a staggering range of violence, abuse and anger.
Trauma looks different in each child. It can speak through blank stares and distant gazes, or it can lash out as confrontation, defiance and anger. It can trigger refusals to eat, sleep, listen, share, use the toilet, go to school, or respect authority figures.
One 13-year-old boy I worked with closed himself in the closet, screamed at the top of his lungs and threatened to harm himself. A nine-year old girl wet her pants every time she heard her father’s voice. A five-year old boy would scream, “I hate you! I’ll mess you up!” when he disagreed with your suggestions. One four-year old boy stopped talking altogether, opting instead to spend his day rocking back and forth in a ball on the carpet.
It can break your heart to watch kids surviving violence. But it reminds me every day about why showing up to them matters.
What children develop as coping mechanisms to survive and process violence can damage the rest of their lives. The attachment disorders, mental illness and violent behaviors that develop in response to trauma pose life-long obstacles to children – and later, adults – who endure them. Often, the women in our shelter who grapple with complex, multiple diagnoses (on top of the trauma of their current situations) cite the violent homes they grew up in as the root cause of their struggles.
But what can we do about it? We can’t erase memories, nor should we. We can’t “fix” families, nor should we. We can’t heal every wound – we can’t even perceive them all.
But we can keep showing up.
As a children’s advocate, my role is to be a peaceful, safe, fun adult that the kids in shelter can trust to be there for them. I’m the one they can play with, talk to, goof around with, earn stickers from, and accompany on outings. Sometimes I’m the one to cook their meals, tie their shoes, and help them with their homework. We talk about Spongebob and coloring books, boogers and fairies, dinosaurs, pancakes, calm bodies, and feeling angry. We talk about their friends, their pets, their stuffed animals, and their superpowers. We talk about what it’s like to move to a new place, to leave your grandma behind, and how a reservation is different from a city. There are giggles and high fives and temper tantrums, and a lot of messy dishes.
Sometimes it’s hard to understand the impact of service. It can be hard to see families return to abusive situations, or to see kids leave the shelter only to continue being homeless. But the greatest joy in my position is to witness the change – however small – that comes over children during their stay in shelter. Perhaps it’s as subtle as understanding the difference between gentle and violent hands, or it’s as monumental sharing your toys rather than hitting people with them. It can be that kids feel allowed to be kids again – to choose their favorite clothes to wear, belt their favorite tunes, blow bubbles in their milk, smile when they say hello, or shake their tail feathers when you turn on the radio. When a child who’s played a protective role can leave mom’s side, knowing she’s safe, I know that what we do matters.
Earlier this year, I was pushing a four-year-old girl and her brother on the swings in the backyard. The girl started singing and laughing.
“Felicity*, I love to hear you sing!” I exclaimed.
“Oh, I know!” she shouted. “Everybody does!”
When I asked her why I hadn’t heard her sing before, she replied, “We only sing when we’re happy!”
I knew that I wanted to spend the rest of our time together finding reasons for Felicity to sing.
A domestic violence shelter can change a child’s life. Sometimes, it even saves it. And whether or not I ever understand the full impact of my relationships with the children I meet there, I’ll know that it’s a privilege and a joy to keep showing up for them.
Posted by Miranda, Jesuit Volunteer Corps member, YWCA Missoula Pathways Program