Contributions Dr. Cheryl Arutt
My soul felt cold as we were escorted through the large metal doors that slam shut and lock behind each person who enters. Immediately following the loud clinging doors I heard a strong commanding voice, through what seemed to be a dated 1970’s intercom, providing permission to enter the next set of doors.
Between these two sets of doors was a small cavity that ensures nobody goes in or out without proper clearance. It was reminiscent of being trapped in an elevator with no way out. Our escort popped open the internal doors of this cavity and signaled for us to follow. We casually walked through a short hall to discover a dark room.
Dimly lit by just a few computer screens, this dark room housed just two staff members and remained dark 24/7 so that those on the other side of the observation window could not see in. This is a tactic used to avoid creating the opportunity for intimidation to occur. I couldn’t help but wonder, “is this the jail?”
This juvenile detention facility was located in a rural county in Northern California. I had traveled to this small town to speak for a large group of homeless and foster youth who were convening for the annual Independent Living Retreat, organized by local non-profits in collaboration with the Department of Child Services (DCF). After presenting my keynote I had overheard that there were some young people who were not able to be at the event due to probation violations. I said out loud to a small group of adults that I wish I could spend some time with those were weren’t able to attend. I didn’t realize it in the moment, but I said that at just the right time because the woman sitting next to me was the Director of Juvenile Probation.
She looked at me in disbelief and said, “Really? You would want to talk to them?!” I smiled lightly and said, “Of course!”
Within a matter of minutes she had made a few phone calls and organized a ride for myself and the other keynote speaker, Eric Anderson, to take a trip to the detention center. Next thing I knew, we were staring through the observation window in this dark room while the inmates’ cell doors were unlocked so they could enter the common area of the facility. There were only two young men in the facility at the time we visited. They were 15 and 17.
As they walked through the concrete room in their orange and green jumpsuits I honestly questioned how this might go. “What if they don’t want to talk? What if all they want to do is fight? What in the world could be going on to land them in this type of a facility?” These kids are often times assumed to be the worst of the worst and my subconscious thoughts reflected these assumptions, otherwise known as judgements.
My worries were soon put to ease by reminding myself that the circumstances that got them here is not what matters. What matters is their potential and whether or not the adults in their lives are pulling that potential out or suppressing it through the systems that are all-too-often behind the times when it comes to understanding what truly creates rehabilitation as opposed to enhancing criminal ability.
Going through that thought process reminded me of what I would have wanted when I was younger as I was going through a journey of self-discovery, all the while dealing with unfortunate life circumstances that were out of my control. I too once sat as a delinquent in front of a probation officer who only saw me for my negative actions without consideration of my life circumstances or future potential. It didn’t feel good. I wanted to offer these young people something better than that and so did Eric Anderson, I could sense it in his presence.
We invited the two young men to sit at the cold metal table with us. Neither of them had much to say so Eric pulled out a deck of cards. A few magic tricks later we saw a few grins that led to introducing my hiphop music background and a brief a-cappella performance for the two young men.
Both of these forms of entertainment, performing magic tricks and hiphop, served the same exact purpose in each of our lives as children. That purpose was to provide an emotional outlet which enabled us to cope with difficult situations that we faced in our surroundings. Nowadays they serve audiences in the form of meaningful entertainment, and in this moment it caused these two souls to let down their guard enough to just be real with us. In a rare form of vulnerability seldom observed in this setting, they shared the intimate details of their trials and tribulations. The commonalities between the two were surreal, to say the least.
Both young men had parents who struggled with substance abuse, lacked education, and faced financial and relationship difficulties regularly. Both had been exposed to abuse and illegal activities at a young age. Both had not been successful in traditional school settings and both had an internalized belief that life could never be calm or peaceful. When only looking at the odds that have been stacked against them, otherwise known as their “case file,” it is easy to write them off as a lost cause.
When that hardened shell of an identity was removed through the power of connection and acceptance, it was easy to find all of their amazing strengths that they shared as well. Each of them loved writing rap lyrics to express their pain and were able to have detailed conversations about emotional intelligence. While spending the majority of the past two years in some sort of lock-up, they both had been able to complete education goals such as going back for a GED and taking classes from a community college. They had developed skill sets that prepared them to be capable of establishing a well-paying job and potential careers. One of them even had experience as a sponsored professional dirt bike racer, a career that came to a halt when external influences became too strong. Hidden behind those hardened shells was a tangible pot of golden potential.
Yet they both still felt as if neither of them had even one person who was speaking to them in an encouraging way. They both felt that the adults in their lives have given up on them and that it was easier to simply go about life living the way other people expect them to; as losers, druggies, and societal problems. One of them even stated that he fully accepts the fact that he will likely live out his life in prison one day and that his time in juvenile detention has prepared him for it.
Believe it or not, I once made very similar statements as a teen and young adult. I knew that life didn’t feel right, but I didn’t know how else to live it so it was easier to live life the hard way since that was what I was comfortable with. What I needed back then was someone to connect with me despite my circumstances and see me for who I really was: a lost soul with a treasure of potential that had been buried by lowered expectations. I shared this story with a psychologist who I met recently and she shared these words with me:
“The greatest universal human need is for connection, to be seen and known by another person. Studies show that if there is one person in a child’s life who makes them feel “felt” it can create a lifeline, inoculating them with a hefty dose of resilience against some of the most devastating effects of the instability and trauma that might otherwise overwhelm them.”
~Dr. Cheryl Arutt
There are a lot of adults who care, but might underestimate their ability to have an impact so I asked Dr. Cheryl to share more about how to understand what it takes to connect with young people from such rough backgrounds. She quickly responded with information about attachment styles. The more we understand them, the easier it is to connect with them.
A famous study about patterns of attachment called the “Strange Situation” showed that when caregivers do not recognize and respond to a child’s emotional needs, the child may develop an avoidant attachment pattern as a survival strategy, downplaying the importance of needing anyone else, even burying their own awareness of emotional needs. Kids with an avoidant style protect themselves by not asking for help when the need it, let alone letting themselves actually rely on others. Kids like this may seem like they don’t need or want any help when they do - and the kids themselves may not even realize it. These kids need closeness and need help understanding how to tune into their inner experiences and how to reach out effectively to people in a position to respond positively and appropriately. When a caregiver was sometimes there and sometimes not, an ambivalent attachment style can develop, where they never know whether or not someone has their back, so they become anxious and clingy.
Disorganized attachment is the style we see in 5-15% of the general population, but 80% of the kids in high-risk families with lots of trauma and neglect. This happens when the attachment figure is terrifying - they are someone the child needs protection from. Then the brain sends two opposite signals at once. One survival signal says run away from the danger of the attachment figure, and the other survival signal says go to them for protection. Since you can’t go both to and from the same person, these kids feel fragmented and broken inside, because they are in an impossible situation.
We used to believe that if a person was not fortunate enough to grow up with a relationship that can create secure attachment in early childhood, they would have difficulties with attachment for life. It turns out that we can teach it later, and it begins with exactly the kind of human connection that Travis described. No matter how challenging the past, research clearly shows that if we can make sense of our early life experiences and learn new skills targeted to the deficits we have, we can rewire the brain and (l)earn secure attachment . . . and raise securely attached children ourselves. We now know that secure attachment can be earned; there really are second chances to get it right.
Those second chances start with a change of mindset. We must accept that we as a society have been wrong for several decades about the ability to rewire our brains. Sure, there may be some people who simply never live up to their potential, but you never know who might until you selflessly strive to connect and empower despite negative circumstances.