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Finding Your Compass

I don't like to be Lost. Come on, I mean, does anyone?

However, when I move to a new town or new area of town, I do something that people find strange. Ironically, I purposely take different (unknown) detours throughout the city in order to get myself lost.

Nonsensical maybe. But it works for me.

I have learned, that by getting "lost" I can take my time to navigate, using my sense of direction, and find my way back home, or work, or wherever it is that I am heading.

You are saying, "what about GPS?" I am 60 years old and have been doing this long before GPS was even a thing.

So, why do I get myself lost?

Two reasons. The first is to get to know my new town. You will be so surprised how many people don't know the backroads that can lead them to where they want to go. Often these backroads are serene, calming and without heavy traffic. Although I am a city girl in my heart, I do love to experience nature (from the comfort of my air conditioned car).

The second reason is probably due to my own antipathy for traffic jams or of being late. And it pays off. Multiple times, I have learned of a wreck on the Interstate, which would have hindered me from getting to work on time. However, with my understanding of the alternate routes, I have been able to circumvent the traffic and get to my destination.

See, always the pragmatist!

But I hear your shrewd assessments. Angela, that's not really the whole story is it? The real question you might ask is: Why do I have this need to know where I am at all times? Good question. A good answer is: because of my nomadic childhood experience.

I have mentioned previously that my father was an alcoholic. But he was also a very intelligent and capable functional alcoholic that did well in almost everything he put his hand to. He demonstrated his abilities in EVERY Job he had. And he had lots of "new jobs". Because of those new opportunities, our family moved approximately every two years. To be fair, sometimes we moved within the same town, but we uprooted our life routinely. I remember going to two different middle schools in the same year. Always the new kid...always starting over. Always trying to fit in.

What most people never think about is that moving can generate feelings of grief. Grief is the result of any change in familiar behavior patterns. Whenever you move, the change is not only in the actual home, but there is a loss of familiarity in friends, schools, work, and favorite stores, restaurants. In other words, you feel a Loss.

And sometimes you just feel Lost.

I attribute some of my current personality traits to the coping skills created during those periods of childhood when I felt lost.

  1. My wanderlust: Despite being an adult and making my own choices, I get an itch to move about every two years. I start to find better houses, cooler neighborhoods and crave that change. Which makes no sense because I hated every time I had to start over. Luckily, I am aware of the etiology of such wanderlust and am able to apply reason. I have been in the same home for almost 10 years and my previous home for longer. But it is fascinating to get that feeling and understand what is happening.

  2. Keeping most people at arm's length: I have a very tight inner circle of friends. Those who are in that circle, I trust with my life, but more importantly with my vulnerability. However, the next circle (my friend group) is very large. I love people and I love to be with them, socialize with them and be there for them when they need me. And I do allow myself some vulnerability, but i tend to hold back on my innermost thoughts and feelings. Because of the multiple moves, there have been hundreds or more people in and out of my life over the past 60 years. Most of them lost touch not long after my family moved on. The lesson I learned is that absence does NOT make the heart grow fonder.

  3. Being very comfortable with changes of environment: I used to envy those people who lived in the same place their entire lives. They had such permanency and stability. Everyone knew them and accepted them at face value. Whereas I had to prove myself worthy with every new environment. I learned to believe in myself, to be confident, competent and to be flexible. I noticed that people who had such deep roots, tended to hold on to that "place" "their things" with a steel grip. In other words, changes made them very uncomfortable. I learned that change is an opportunity to adapt.

  4. Understanding the grief and loss of foster children: While moving often with my family did contribute to feelings of being lost, I had one huge thing going for me. My family didn't change. I had the one anchor of stability, being with a "tribe" that didn't leave me. With children who are in the foster care system, most do not have that anchor, which causes them to emotionally drift, leading to much of their trauma behaviors. My own experiences gave rise to a sliver of insight into the loss experienced by children who have been removed from their families.

Social workers hear all of the time about how detrimental multiple moves can be for a child, especially one who was removed from their family. Like me, they experience those significant losses: friends, teachers, church group, foster family. However, those losses pale in comparison to the overwhelming loss of family. Think of your family (warts and all) and your place in family. You are such an integral part of a tribe. For these kids, the tribe has moved on without them. They are tribeless. They are scared. They are lost. And they develop coping mechanisms to compensate for that feeling of being lost.

  1. They build walls: Keeping people at arms length is one thing, but these children don't let anyone in. Their pain serves as brick masons, walling up their heart. No matter how hard the foster family tries to reach them, these fortresses built to protect them from hurt, are powerful structures. (But not impenetrable...stay tuned)

  2. They are always angry: And why not? The world and the system has let them down over and over again. We promise to protect them. We use our words to assure them that they will be OK. Then we move them and move them and move them from one foster home to another. The message we send resounds much more loudly than our words. "There is something wrong with you! No one wants you! You have no value worth fighting for!"

  3. They are caught in a perpetual spiral and don't know how to stop it! When they build walls and act out in anger, they are self-protecting. They are pushing away everyone that is trying to help them. And those who understand that they want and NEED to feel a part of a tribe will help them to stop the cycle.

  4. Otherwise, the spiral continues: Child is placed in home. Child is scared, lonely and doesn't want to take a chance on emotional hurt. Child builds the wall, shuts down, or lashes out in anger. (Not because he is mad at the foster family, but because he is scared to be vulnerable and get hurt AGAIN) Foster family, (fed up, scared, lost themselves over how to reach them) asks them to leave. And the cycle repeats.

Would it surprise you to know that the average foster child is moved 7 (SEVEN) times while in foster care. Seven times they are rejected. Seven times they suffer losses. Seven times they are made to feel...


Ok, I guess I have preached enough. This is a subject I am deeply passionate about, as you may can tell. And it occurs all over the country and in the world. So, as a social worker, just knowing the facts is never enough. What can you do to make a difference? You can't change the lives of over 200,000 foster children in the US alone. Why even bother?

You can change the life of one-at-a-time.

As a social worker, you will see these lost children and teens every day. They can't find their way and they are trying to tell you with their behavior. Believe it or not, you can make a huge difference.

  1. Don't just listen to them, Hear them. Research their case. Be familiar with their history and their losses.

  2. See their behavior as a cry for help, not a reason to be punitive or reactionary!

  3. Foster parents need more support when children are displaying trauma behavior or shutting them out. Be creative in offering the support that home needs to take care of that child.

  4. Help the foster child to find their resilience. Research shows that the key to resilience even with abused/neglected kids is for one person to really demonstrate their investment and commitment to them. Help them find one thing they are good at and encourage them to try. Praise them when they succeed and comfort them when they fail.

These children are lost and have no compass.


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