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Mental Health — A BioPsychoSocial Perspective
A Praxis Course at Bryn Mawr College Spring 2002
Made available on Serendip

The Power of Family and Communication

Miram L Shiferaw

"Can you turn other things into a family?" Ever since Cynthia Bisman's lecture focusing on family and its importance in the development of not only children but adults as well, I've been thinking about the answer to that question. Whether I believe a family can be or become something other than the biological parents of a child is something that I've thought about since the first day I stepped into my field site. I remember thinking, "Where is the family in all of this? What is their role in these kids' lives?" Then I began to think about my life and what family has meant to me. Can a family be something other than my biological parents for me? It was fairly easy for me to answer this question because I know the answer is yes. I grew up with my twin sister and single mom. I never knew my father and still don't. So then, do I feel some sort of emptiness or missing element from my family? No, I don't, and the reason is because my mother's twelve brothers and sisters raised me along with her. I essentially had nine moms and three dads. I can honestly say that I never thought that my life would be better if I had known my dad, because my aunts and uncles became my family. They transformed from "other things" into a family, my family. As I ponder about the children at my field site with cerebral palsy, I recognize that their parents have brought them there, in essence, to be raised by other people. The staff at St. Edmond's have become to the children, what my aunts and uncles became to me, a family, and "families have become essential partners in the delivery of mental health services for children and adolescents (1)

The importance of family in self-development, not just in the case of the children I work with, but also in my own development, can not be emphasized enough. I have no doubt in my mind that if I did not have my family, I would not feel complete in any way, shape, or form. Thinking about this led me to Marc Schulz's lecture on "Cognitive-Behavioral and Psychodynamic Psychotherapy in Action." In describing the cognitive and behavioral approach to therapy, he said, "my self worth depends on how others look at me." As much as I would like to say that my self worth depends solely on how I look at myself and isn't based on how others look at me, I can't. That is because my self worth truly comes from my family. If I thought my family thought I was a horrible person, I would probably end up thinking that as well. It reminds me of the phrase "If someone tells you something enough times, you start to believe it." The way the children at St. Edmond's are treated by their "family" there is amazing to me. They are constantly encouraged to do things on their own, giving them the sense of self-dependence and the notion that they are capable of doing some things alone. If the staff were to just sit and leave all twenty of them in their wheelchairs all day, they would most likely feel as though their self-worth was not that much. There is one girl, whom I will call "J" for the sake of privacy, who seems tired and unmotivated a lot of the times that I am there. I began to work closely with her because if I could somehow communicate to her that she can participate in the activities we do, that maybe she'll feel as though she can. Surprisingly, "J" began to respond to me. We went on a walk together and she would just stop in her tracks, not driving her wheelchair. I'd look at her and say, "Come on "J"! You can do it, just push it like this," while helping her maneuver her wheel chair. Then she would drive again and smile as I clapped with excitement. I think it is important to realize that a family can and does provide children with a sense of "self worth," but at the same time I think that their not the only ones that can instill this fundamental element of self-development.

Thinking about St. Edmond's and the "family" they have established there makes me happy because it makes me think that if they are anything like my family was for me for them, then they truly can develop somewhat "normally". While thinking about the unity of St. Edmond's, I also think about how sad it is that eventually some children have to leave because they are too old to stay. There is one girl named "A" who left this past Monday to go to another home because she was an "adult" now. I realize it's important for her to go somewhere where she can interact with others her own age, but concurrently it makes me upset because her real age does not equal her mental age, and I wonder what this transition will mean for her development?

In conclusion, I think it is hard for me to talk about my self-reflection and my family without mentioning something that has constantly been on my mind since the day I began working at St. Edmond's Home for Children. Communication. Self worth and support are both important factors in the development of any child, both with disabilities and without. How can one convey these ideas though without speaking? I quickly learned that the rest of the world, including myself, doesn't acknowledge the amazing ability we have to speak with words. Not only that, but also the amazing ability we have to speak without them. That is perhaps the most fundamental thing I have learned and contemplated while working in my field site. The most amazing way in which the staff at St. Edmond's has become an effective family is by acquiring the ability to communicate to these children without them saying two words to them. That shows true dedication and compassion on their part. In the same way that I can just look at my mom, sister, aunt, or uncle and be able to communicate to them how I'm feeling through gestures instead of words, the kids at St. Edmond's are able to communicate to their "family" without words. I think the power of nonverbal communication is the main thing I will take away with me from working at my site. I know that when I noticed that the institutionalized family at St. Edmond's reminded me so much of my own extended family, I felt a sense of comfort, because I knew that the kids were in good hands.

Works Cited

1)Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General (Chapter 1)

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