“The way you help heal the world is you start with your own family.” ~ Mother Theresa
I’ve worked with families and their children in various settings for over a decade now. Over the years, I’ve noticed a vicious cycle, functioning like an insurmountable curse that plagues families generation after generation. This cycle usually presents itself as at-risk kids who grow up to have their own kids, who are also at-risk, who then grow up to have their own kids, who are at-risk, ad nauseaum — never having really dealt with the underlying issues that are causing the constant family breakdown. This cycle has never been so apparent to me until now as a school counselor.
In my profession, I come across many students who struggle academically, personally, and socially. Nine times out of ten, when I meet their parents, I can almost instantaneously see exactly what’s going on. I often see kids dealing with adult problems — problems that aren’t their kid’s responsibility to begin with. These kids begin to fall through the cracks all too often, while their parents are struggling with their own problems; especially with divorce.
Imagine a family hiking in the wilderness. Both parents begin arguing over who did and said what, while at the same time, their child just fell and is sinking slowly in quicksand. The fall goes almost unnoticed because the parents don’t see their child in the midst of their arguing. The thing about quicksand is, it happens so slowly. There’s enough time to stop and pull their child out.
My aim is not to denigrate parents, although some parents probably deserve some stern criticism. Many parents grew up in this very cycle, perhaps not receiving the love and positive modeled behaviors they needed growing up. My parents were divorced, and looking back, I can understand more clearly as to why and what they were lacking growing up. I want to point out the importance for families to notice and break this vicious cycle, once and for all.
“Everything begins with the family. If the family breaks down, everything breaks down.” ~ Unknown
I had a conference one day with a student and his parent. Both parents were in the middle of an ugly divorce. While meeting with this student and his parent, I realized that I saw myself in that student. I was this student growing up. I saw the same beleaguering story playing out in this student’s life that played out in mine. The student’s parents were consumed with their personal issues as their child was sinking in quicksand. All I could do in that moment was empathize as I became overflowed with compassion. I thought at the very least, I could be a positive figure is this child’s life. I became reminded of how I was dealt cards that were stacked against me growing up. I had the adverse childhood experience of exposure to substance abuse, domestic violence, mental illness, divorce, emotional abuse, physical abuse, and incarceration. Any child only needs four of these experiences to be considered at-risk of falling off the cliff. I had at least seven.
I recently had the pleasure of meeting author and pediatrician Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg during his Fostering Resilience seminar on reaching marginalized youth. One of the biggest takeaways from the seminar was that a positive adult figure must be present in the child’s life if the child is to have any chance of breaking the cycle. That notion may seem simple, but one positive adult figure can make all the difference. There can be one positive adult figure or multiple. These positive figures can be anyone — an uncle, grandma, teacher, counselor, or a friend who can help pull the child from the quicksand while the parents are occupied with their own struggles (most likely from their own childhood), so the cycle doesn’t repeat itself full circle.
It’s all about the relationship. Kids want to be seen, be heard, and be loved. Providing this positive and loving relationship to a child, especially in the midst of adversity and parental divorce, can be a way to finally break the curse of the vicious cycle. I love my parents very much, and understand that they did their best. Growing up through their divorce, if it weren’t for my grandmother, my uncle, and a friend or two, I wouldn’t have had the capacity to be where I am today with my family.
“Be the person you needed growing up” ~ Unknown