Bringing Alpha Function to Children in the Storm of Family Violence
by Holly Gordon
“I just remembered I’m not supposed to tell you that.” Nine-year-old Tori interrupted herself, bringing to a halt her description, to her mentor Clara, of last night’s violent incident where police were called to her home. Tori Is enrolled in the non-profit Friends of the Children (FOC), (https://friendssfbayarea.org/
) where I volunteer consult, which works with at-risk children in a disenfranchised neighbourhood in San Francisco.
Psychoanalyst Kimberly Leary enjoins us to reach out to communities we want to join; don’t wait to be asked, “We imagine we should be invited into a system to consult…but being a part of a meaningful movement in a community - going to the local meetings, putting in the time and talking to people - that’s the way to build trust.” (Schubert, 2021). This speaks to my journey.
FOC employs full-time paid mentors to spend 4 hours a week with each child, from kindergarten through 12th grade, building social-emotional capacities, for example, self-regulation, perseverance, finding your spark, and belonging. 83% of FOC youth graduate from high school, 93% avoid the juvenile justice system and 98% avoid early parenting despite 80% being born to teen parents. FOC is nationwide and is funded through philanthropy. Impressed with the effectiveness of the programme, McKenzie Scott donated $44 million to FOC nationwide; $2.4 million went to FOC San Francisco in September 2022.
Since its opening 5 years ago, I’ve volunteered as a psychoanalyst consultant for a twice monthly case conference at FOC, and I consult with mentors who reach out to me (Gordon, 2020). The director is a friend of mine, and I met with the programme director to explore making a place for psychoanalytic consultation with this programme which had no model for consultation. FOC was exactly the setting I was seeking: to advise community-based workers serving children, bringing psychoanalytic concepts of containment, alpha function, and reflection out of the office and onto the streets. In turn, I learn about the worlds of the children and mentors.
Mentors are almost entirely people of colour, some coming from the communities served, which gives them particular insight into neighborhood-school-society interfaces. Clara Yang, whose work is featured here, joined FOC four years ago after working in school settings. Clara said, “I wanted to be a safe landing spot for youth to discover and explore who they are, just as I found similar refuge at school growing up.”
All families enrolled in FOC live under the poverty line. 50% are Black, 40% Latino, and 10% Asian-Pacific Islander. Family situations are in flux with children often living without their fathers, and sometimes mothers. Many of the afflictions accompanying poverty mark this community: community violence, addiction, unemployment and incarceration.
The work can be very painful. I recruited Farris Page PhD, a retired black Child Development Specialist who has devoted her career to helping poor children, and Rebecca Schwartz PhD, a white child psychoanalyst, to be additional consultants as the mentor group grew. We consultants meet following our meeting with mentors, and that meeting has been invaluable. Talking with the other consultants helps me to manage what can be an overwhelming onslaught of suffering, which can block my ability to think clearly about, for example, a child who is afraid to walk to school because her uncle was killed at a cross street along that walk. The feeling of helplessness to change unjust school systems, community violence, and family hardships can be hard to bear. When we consultants share those feelings, I find that my ability to identify with and think about both the children and the mentors is restored to some degree. Some of the racial experiences mentors and children have are not my lived experience, and having a black consultant helps the mentors to speak more freely of their reactions, for example, to the murder of George Floyd.
When faced with children’s distress, mentors often offer reassurance; some have described difficulty facing the pain their children are enduring. I’ve found that my recognition of mentors’ feelings supports mentors to address children’s inner life. I tell the mentors that all troubled behavior is an attempt to address an internal situation that needs containment and representation. In domestic violence situations, pressures from the outside to keep secrets, and pressures from the inside, as children feel overwhelmed, disrupt the development of alpha function, the capacity to know and represent their experience. I discussed with Clara the question of how to enable Tori to express her inner situation safely. Clara was concerned that talking with Tori about violence would upset her, and we discussed ways to attenuate and displace the traumatic events in order to bring them into representation.
Chandra Ghosh PhD, a University of California San Francisco professor specialising in child trauma, shared with FOC a book she wrote, Once I Was Very, Very Scared, (available as a free download: https://piploproductions.com/stories/once/#tve-jump-17af26b9a37, also on Amazon) about how different animal characters cope with traumatic stress. As Clara read the book aloud, she asked Tori how she copes with being scared? Tori told Clara that she likes to hug her dog, but remembering the dog made her sad because she recalled pets that were given away, without warning or a chance to say goodbye. Tori said “I don’t want to read this book anymore.” She reached for a colouring book and Clara said, “That’s OK if you want to colour while I read, will that work for you? I think it would be good if we keep reading but we can stop if you want.” Tori said that would be OK. Tori trusted Clara enough to communicate her distress, and to use a calming activity book as Clara read about scared animals.
Clara read about each animal, and linked the animals to Tori, saying, “Elephant makes me think about you: she doesn’t like to talk about it.” Clara read: “Porcupine said to Elephant, ‘Even though you don’t like to talk about it, I wonder if you think about it.’ Elephant said ‘Um hm’, and when Porcupine asked, ‘Often?’ Elephant responded, ‘Almost all the time.’” Clara asked Tori, “Do you feel like that?” and Tori responded, “Yes”.
Tori flipped to a page with a shy meerkat and said, “That’s the one I relate to,” and Clara read, “I pretend I’m not here but pretty soon I’m not pretending. I really feel like I’m not here and I don’t know where I am.” Clara asked Tori where she goes when she pretends, and she said, “it’s blackness, darkness.” Clara asked her if that makes her feel safer and she answered yes.
Tori dissociates to manage unrepresented bits of experience, beta elements, that flood her with terror. Clara’s mentalising about Tori’s states rescues Tori from the swirl of this bombardment, supporting her to tolerate a dose of fear and helping her to represent and reflect upon her experience.
Clara and Tori both love music, and sing along in the car. Tori’s favorite song is “Silent Scream.” Here are some edited lines: “Can't you see how I cry for help…If you don't save me right away…It's what you really need to understand…My silent scream.”
Tori trusts that Clara can hear and transform her silent scream into something meaningful, that Clara’s mind and understanding help Tori build her capacity for containment and alpha function. This allows Tori to let songs and fictional animals articulate her emotions, bringing her hidden, dissociated self into her fuller humanity.
Gordon, H. (2020) Building a Bridge out of Suffering: Using Attuned Relationships to Promote Affect Regulation with Mentors of At-Risk Childen. Journal of Infant, Child and Adolescent Psychotherapy 19:393-402
Schubert, J, “Kimberly Leary on Psychoanalysis and Social Equity: An Interview”. The American Psychoanalyst, Vol 55, No. 2, Spring/Summer 2021
, DMH is on the Faculty at SFCP and is a Training and Supervising Psychoanalyst. She has a practice in San Francisco where she treats adults, adolescents and couples. She also volunteers as a consultant to the Friends of the Children SF Bay Area, a nonprofit serving the most at-risk children in Bayview-Hunter’s Point.
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