Gathering Our Medicine
A Warm Welcome and The Journey Ahead
Week 1 is important in terms of setting the tone for the time we will be spending together. The primary objective is to establish a relationship with caregivers in which they feel warmly welcomed and supported. As a facilitator our tone, facial expression and body language speaks volumes and it is important that we convey safety first and foremost. We convey a warm invitation to exist in our presence by showing a twinkle in our eye, warmth in our voice and safety in our body language. Collecting the eyes, the smiles and nods of those we are wanting to invite into relationship with us is the first step in the dance of relationship. Until this step has been honoured, we cannot proceed as to do so will only end up causing frustration. Sitting in a circle, going slowly and mindfully with the intention of developing meaningful relationships within the group is the main purpose of this session.
The Dance of Relationship – Staying In The Lead
Relationship is like a dance. Someone leads and someone follows. The dance is a beautiful and fluid one when our youth is relating to us as their caregiver in a dependent mode. Looking to us to care for them, depending on us and orienting themselves around us. These instincts to care and be cared for must be awakened in us. Trauma can cause these instincts to go dormant as our energy has likely gone into surviving and taking care of ourselves.
As was the case in residential school. As a result, many of our youth are more attached to their peers than adults—making it challenging and frustrating to provide the care they need. Peer culture is tough competition. However, caregivers must be supported to find it in themselves to rise to the challenge of getting their youth back. Collecting and awaking the instincts for togetherness with adults is essential for rendering our youth vulnerable enough to receive care from us.
There are as many ways to Collect as there are caregiver / youth relationships and we must be patient as we find our way. Collecting rituals will depend as much on the culture one is from as it will the disposition of caregiver and youth as well as the nature of their relationship. Collecting is something that must happen at the beginning of a new relationship and after every period of separation. This includes separation that occurs when we allow our youth’s behaviour to alienate us or when our youth goes into a state of defensive detachment, they are in resistance. We know we have successfully Collected when we feel the warmth and receptivity. Our youth gives us their eyes, ears, smiles and nods. They want to be with us, they talk to us and seek us out.
Eating rituals can be incredibly powerful with youth who have experienced wounding. Food is a very basic way of inviting someone into a dependant relationship with us. It is our way of saying “let me take care of you, I am here and I’m not going anywhere, you can trust me”. Appealing to a youth’s senses with creature comforts or finding something simple in common is a good place to start.
Adults today often only approach youth with an agenda or to discipline, correct and teach. Our youth need adults who prioritize togetherness and the relationship. Collecting is happening all the time in our day to day lives. We just are unaware of it. This is simply about making conscious that which we intuitively know to be true.
Giving a language to that which we were never supposed to discuss but now have to with the loss of culture. Culture is made of rituals that are intended to take care of the relationship dance. Rituals built into the day to day lives of our people in the long ago that ensured our relationships and our need for togetherness was taken care of. If we proceed with our youth without honour the dance of collecting they will most likely resist us and we will be following them. This is the dance of frustration and sometimes the dance of disaster. Set the intention to Collect before directing and to incorporate rituals into your daily life is a profound step towards healing the relationship between caregiver and youth.
Stages of Development and Getting Unstuck
A truly relational developmental approach honours our pre-eminent need for togetherness across the life span. As our relationship needs evolve our developmental destiny unfolds. Indigenous peoples since the beginning of time have, in essence, lived relationally and developmentally. This means that we live our lives in synchrony with everything in the universe and trust that nature has a plan for all living things. When relationship needs are met at each stage of life then our development unfolds and we grow spontaneously becoming emotionally mature beings adaptive, reflective, empathetic, and cooperative.
This is in stark contrast to the belief that has been widely adopted in contemporary society that children are a blank slate meant to be shaped, pruned, filled up and taught how to fit into society. Our first and most important role as caregivers of Indigenous youth is to provide for their relationship needs unconditionally so that they are freed up to emerge and become all that they can be, but first we must recognize what stage of development a youth is at and what their particular needs are at any given time. This session is about just that!
So, if togetherness is our pre-eminent need then separation is our biggest threat and Bridging Rituals reduce separation in a world where separation is inevitable thus reducing the stress response that can cause developmental stuck-ness. Healing, growth, maturation, resilience, and our overall well being is a result of our need for togetherness being met which requires separations to be bridged.
Classical attachment theory is based on physical attachment but what about when we are not together? What about when we lose a loved one or a youth cannot have access to their parent, or divorce, addiction and neglect. What does a youth have to hold onto then? Indigenous peoples’ definition of togetherness extends beyond the grave. We are designed to be able to hold on in each other’s absence but certain conditions must be met to do so. How do we help our youth hold on when physical togetherness is impossible or when they are facing the psychological separation that’s an inevitable part of growing up. Bridging Rituals ensure that separation is reduced and our youth are always facing connection regardless of their circumstances.
Resilience – Fostering Capacity to Bounce Back
The definition of resilience is the capacity to bounce back after a stressful event. The inability to bounce back is rooted in a loss of resilience which has often been compromised long before the event. If we know what to look for we can see whether our youth is resilient or is lacking resilience. Tears are one of the key indicators of resilience alongside playfulness and feelings. The expression of vulnerable emotions such as sadness and disappointment are essential for emotional health and well being.
Tears are also a symbol of adaptation. The loss of tears is linked to not only a loss of resilience but an escalation of aggression, the inability to adapt to life’s circumstances and a hardening of the heart and loss of emotion in general leading to depression and anxiety. So how can we get a child’s feelings back? Rituals are a beautiful, indirect way if accessing one’s sadness without risking the provocation of defenses. Rituals contain us, our relationship needs are met, we are in a suspended time and space and as a result, defenses are lowered sometimes just long enough for us to feel our sadness. Instead of teaching resilience or working at resilience rituals can have direct access to our sadness and as a result healing can occur.
A youth who is stuck, with a hardened heart or suffering from anxiety will find some rest and relief once tears are restored. Instead of talking about their wounds directly, ritual can provide what is needed indirectly. I only have to think about the ritual of listening to certain songs being sung or participating in certain dances or even going to the water, common in many cultures, when we feel stuck. The water symbolizes movement and cleansing and can help us to move and feel the emotions that need restoration in order for healing and growth to occur. This is the magic of Indigenous ways of knowing and being. Nothing is approached directly. Everything is done in a sacred, indirect manner with wisdom and faith.
Responding to Emotions – In Our Youth and In Ourselves
Week 5 is all about emotions and how to respond to them in such a way that leads to emotional health and well being for both caregiver and child. Caregivers will be supported to make room for and invite emotion in themselves and their youth. Even the big messy, noisy and sometimes scary ones. They have a place too and our ancestors knew this, which is why we have cultural practices for the necessary expression of emotions that would otherwise be socially alienating.
Emotion has work to do and if the conditions are right our emotions take care of us. What are the right conditions? Emotions must be felt…there is a difference between emotion and feeling. We all have emotions, but we don’t all feel our emotions. This is a luxury afforded to those who can find rest from the stressors of life and are safe enough to feel their vulnerable emotions. Emotions are meant to stir us up and there is nothing more stirring than caregiving.
If we didn’t feel frustrated before we sure as heck do once, we become caregivers. It’s a journey of great adaptation of which emotion plays an essential role. Caregiving can be deeply fulfilling and satisfying, and it can also be one full of tears and is sometimes alarming and overwhelming. A big part of what we do as caregivers is help facilitate emotional expression for our youth. Giving youth the safety and space in which to express emotion is essential for healing, development, resilience, maturity, empathy and all the other virtues we want to nurture as a society. Many problems our youth face today are rooted in emotional stuck-ness. We are in a hurry to teach self-regulation and calm down strategies.
What is really needed first and foremost is expression which leads to the development of self-control naturally and spontaneously. When we are under stress our emotion stirs in and moves us immediately, unconsciously and intensely. This is how it is meant to be. Emotion literally means “to move” and they do move us is many different ways in order to resolve a problem in our relationships and environment. When emotions cannot do their job of effecting change because a problem cannot be resolved then that emotion must be discharged. Like an electrical impulse it must find an outlet. Many of our youth have not been afforded the relationships and safety needed for emotion to be expressed fully.
Emotions can be big, noisy and messy. It is our job to facilitate its expression for our youth so that they can have the kind of emotional let-downs that lead to emotional health and well-being. Without the let-down we get stuck kids, hardened kids, frustrated kids, anxious kids, and distracted and restless kids. What emotion cannot fix should transform us. This is the key to adaptation, but our youth cannot do this alone. They need us! In the long ago we had many ways to channel emotion indirectly. Whether it be through stories, songs, ceremonies, rituals and rites of passage, prayer, wailing, the list goes on. There was reason or this. We could say that emotion and spirit are one and the same, and when we cleanse our emotions, we cleanse our spirit.
This session provides caregivers with an understanding of the primary emotions that get stirred up in themselves and in our youth while supporting them to facilitate emotional expression through the use of rituals.
Aggression, Anxiety and Other Challenges with Youth
In session 6 we will be discussing the emotional roots of some of the most prevalent challenges our youth have today. We will be looking at root causes and exploring practical ways that caregivers can look to the relationship as the answer. This runs contrary to the medical and behavioural models that seek to treat and shape behaviour. We will be supporting caregivers to reflect on how their youth’s relationships can be the best medicine available to treat problems of aggression and anxiety.
Youth today who are highly sensitive or who have not had their need for togetherness met are more likely to develop emotional problems including trouble with learning and behaviour. Often these emotional and development problems are rooted in a lack of maturity or developmental stuck-ness. There is no pill for immaturity and there is no pill for providing for a youth’s essential need for relationship and togetherness. This is challenging for caregivers of youth who have been wounded as they are not easily led into caring relationships with the adults responsible for them and often peer attached. Yet, this is the only way to truly lead our youth to reach their fullest potential.
Caregivers must be confident and strong of heart. Full of faith and willing to be a mid-wife to the grieving, healing and adaptive processes which often sees things getting worse before they get better. Recovery of a youth’s ability to feel and express their vulnerable emotions is the only way they can develop the capacities for self-control, courage, and empathy. Problems rooted in emotional defense are complex and can be perplexing. However, if we can see the emotional roots caregivers can find a way through in relationship led intuitively by their heart.
Our Natural Village of Relationships
In session 7 we explore the importance of creating a village of attachment for our youth. Family members, community, teachers, and others who are already a part of a child’s village of attachment are most naturally and best equipped to provide for their needs. For too long we have conditioned Indigenous people to prioritize the opinions of experts where our youth are concerned, and this has been to the detriment of the relationships that our youth need most.
Regardless of what challenges a youth has or how difficult their journey, caregivers who are part of our youth’s community are their best bet. Having said that, relationships don’t just happen automatically. They need to be developed and facilitated by the adults in a child’s life. Relationships develop organically and a youth will be most receptive to other adults who have an existing relationship with the youth’s closest attachments. Attachment begets attachment. We too often make the mistake of assuming that our “role” with a youth should render them automatically receptive to our care, however, this is not true. We are creatures of relationship and togetherness.
Our youth do not care about our role or credentials. The most natural way to build a village of attachment around a youth is to introduce and matchmake them with other caring responsible adults. If it is a teacher or another caregiver or a coach, then the adult that the youth is already attached to is in the best position to pass the relationship baton to other adults that child needs to have a connection to. WE do this intuitively with each other all the time. We have cultural rituals in which we introduce each other and help build connections and relationship. Our potlatch system on the coast is a wonderful example.
The same is true for our youth. When we matchmake we are saying to our youth “we like this person, they are good, you can trust them, they are my friend,” then a youth will be more receptive to them. Children need to have a relationship with many adults in their life. These are lifelines and it is our role to ensure these relationships develop. A child who is not attached will not be receptive to care regardless of how much love the adult has for them. It will not sink in until the youth’s brain deems it safe to connect.
Matchmaking can make this process of connecting our youth to adults in their life more natural and render them more likely to be open to receiving the care those other adults are able to provide for them. Without matchmaking a youth will often polarize in their attachments. They will push new people away due to protective instincts to resist coercion by a stranger or to protect their existing relationships to peers or an absent parent/caregiver. This is a simple but essential practice that caregivers are best suited to enact. Matchmaking rituals can support this process in a way that is gentle, natural, and indirect which ensure defenses don’t get evoked and the youth does not get spooked.
Honouring Our Youth – Celebration Ceremony
Session 8 is a celebration our togetherness and an opportunity for caregivers to honour their youth and to live out all that they have learned. The intention of this session is for caregivers to collect their youth in the context of a ceremony and/or ritual of the facilitators choosing.
Whatever it is that you plan, simply ensure that caregivers receive an acknowledgement for the care they provide to our youth and that youth are acknowledged for who they are. The idea is that youth would be given a touch of being with, being like, belonging, mattering, love and being known and understood. The ceremony should include matchmaking youth to their caregivers in a safe contained way. The beauty of ceremony is that it is usually witnessed and all who participate enjoy the healing benefits. It is important that whomever is invited to help facilitate or lead the ceremony is able to ensure the 7 healing properties are present….safe, contained, allows for expression, not work, set apart from the day to day, engaging, and entered freely. There are so many lovely traditions that comfort and invite emotion. Anything that melts the heart, generates warmth between caregiver and youth and assists in deepening the attachment and lowering the defenses will be a powerful experience for both participants and witnesses.
This may be the last session but it is far from the end. It is the beginning and you are acknowledging not only the journey leading up to this but the journey ahead.
Facilitators will be supported during supervision to discuss and explore options for session 8.
” When ceremonies take place, everyone who is participating needs to be ready to step beyond the everyday and to accept a raised state of consciousness. You could say that the specific rituals that make up the ceremony are designed to get the participants into a state of mind that will allow for the extraordinary to take place.”
— Shawn Wilson
” Indigenous teaching focusses as much on learning with the heart as on learning with the mind.”
— Gregory Cajete