From Rebecca Perbix Mallos, MSW, LICSW,CMHS and President of the Alliance For Child Mental
After almost 40 years of clinical mental health work with children and families I have formed opinions about a few things relative to families.
My particular area of expertise is working with children who have joined their families through adoption and have a history of abuse and neglect before adoption. These children have likely come through the foster care system or from an orphanage somewhere in the world. They have experienced multiple placements and have had many losses in their short lives. Their ability to trust adults has eroded. Someone abandoned them and their world view is that they are not lovable, therefore a permanent family is something scary. They could be abandoned again, they believe. It is scary because being in a family means you have to trust other family members and yet these kids are loathe to trust anyone, especially adults.
This has led me to form the opinion that offering praise to a child with this experience is a risky act. It is risky because the adult issuing the Praise does so in the belief that a child with this history will believe the praise to be true despite their life experience. The adult feels the need to issue the praise in the belief that they are lifting the child’s self esteem. But that requires the child to trust the adult. That is long and arduous journey. It doesn’t mean it won’t happen but it is hard and scary, especially for the child.
Hopefully a child with this history will be supported in developing trust that they are loveable because they are competent in their ability to risk the journey toward belonging. That is their journey. They must learn to trust themselves by inching forward in their ability to trust. We, as therapists, parents, teachers or whoever we are in the lives of these children, cannot replace what they have not yet learned about themselves. That they are loveable just because they are alive.
Let’s support these children in learning about themselves which means the adults need to put aside their need to praise because that makes the adult feel important. This journey is not about you. It’s about them.