Hi everyone, Sarah here, Little Flower’s Marketing and Development Manager and occasional blog-writer! I had the chance today to stop by the Little Flower Early Education Center to drop in on a training there with our teachers and Helen Lenga, a visiting psychologist from Australia who devoted an entire week to conducting trainings and workshops with our group home parents, staff, and teachers in Beijing.
Helen is a qualified psychologist specializing in children and families. She practices in Melbourne, Australia, and is a member of the Australian Psychological Society and the College of Counseling Psychologists. She is also a registered Supervisor and Clinical member of the Australian Association of Family Therapy. She has over thirty years of experience working in the field of trauma as a psychotherapist, trainer, consultant, and supervisor. (Find out more on her website, helenlenga.com).
At her training today, she included both a lecture format as well as some creative group exercises—including time for our teachers to put themselves in the children’s shoes and revisit their own childhood imaginations! Around lunchtime, I sat down with Helen and our Curriculum Director, Maria Meng, to discuss their experiences and this latest round of workshops.
Helen: I actually have two daughters who were adopted from China. My oldest was adopted at fifteen months and is now almost thirteen. My other daughter was adopted at two, and she’s nearly eleven now. So it all came from wanting to give back. I feel like we were adopted by China, too, in a way. We’ve been committed to maintaining a connection with China…we felt it was really important. So that’s where it all started.
We first went to visit my older daughter’s orphanage when we went to meet our other daughter for the first time. Out of that, it became clear that help was needed. You know, you can always give money, but I wanted to do more. My specialty is childhood trauma and attachment. I could see that there was a need and I asked them if they wanted any of that kind of input.
But at the time, I was fairly ignorant of cultural norms. I eventually realized that we needed to build trust first. We got in contact with close Chinese friends in Australia and worked on building that trust and relationship. Eventually, they invited me to organize the training. I was doing a lot of work in Guangxi, making connections. I went around doing trainings at four different orphanages for three months. Through those connections, I was connected to Serena at Little Flower, and I came last year for the first time. Now I’m focusing on doing some work in Beijing, as well as in Nepal.
It’s so easy to work with Little Flower. People are so appreciative and everything gets organized so well. So now my commitment is to come on a yearly basis, and now that Maria’s here, we’re going to try to do some Skype supervision…there are just lots of possibilities.
Maria: I think that one of our primary tasks at Little Flower is to change children’s lives, right? So once they’re okay physically, we really need to think about their emotional needs, development, and all those things that they missed while they were struggling with illness. I feel we sometimes don’t know enough about this field, and because I’m in education here, I get lots of questions about children, play, and their development.
We also have a lot of teenagers now, where we don’t always know what to do in certain situations. So we need to raise awareness, at least among staff. We need to know our kids and know ourselves. We need to equip ourselves with the knowledge to help them deal with these things—especially in the field of childhood trauma. Because many of our kids have gone through unthinkable trauma. It can be heartbreaking to hear their stories, and it’s hard when I’m not sure what to do or what direction to go in.
The last few days have been amazing—what we’ve all learned. Our group home parents are understanding more about their work with their children. There’s been a lot of interaction and taking theory and applying it to practice.
Helen: I think I’ve always been interested in how people think, and why they do the things they do. A lot of it stemmed from my own family. I was trained at an early age in a way, to be observant. I was just fascinated. I would always ask questions and wonder why things were the way they were.
My father always said, “you’re a “why baby.” Always asking why! I didn’t know psychology existed as a child, and when I discovered there was an area where you could work with people and discover what’s going on in the mind…since then I’ve always studied psych, worked in mental health, and worked with children. It never gets boring. And you’re never underworked!
As I’ve become more experienced, I’ve done a lot more training and supervision. It’s time to share that knowledge. And I love teaching. I love that it’s useful—that it can make a difference in people’s lives. When you see what’s going on, you figure that you can’t adopt all these children, but you can work with the staff and have a bigger impact. You can generate more learning and more ideas.
Helen: I remember when I first came here, just how incredibly open everyone was. Because I’ve had other experiences in China where there was this sense of…mistrust. I remember Serena saying, “If you see anything in our organization that could be better, tell us!” So there was this real openness and willingness to learn and listen—to take it on.
That’s pretty unusual, because people can be a bit defensive in these situations. It was a little bit confusing at first, because there’s so much going on and everyone is so busy. But in general, I got this sense of openness and warmth. What do you think Maria? You’re relatively new to Little Flower.
Maria: We laugh a lot and our humor helps us to have a good atmosphere at work, which is good because we are all so busy!
It’s no so different from the training last year—the biggest point is probably just how absolutely crucial the relationships we form with each child are. How the positive experience of a loving relationship is so important to these children.
It’s really more of a continuum. It’s all connected. What I did with the foster families involved reinforcing things about trauma and attachment. Plus very practical information that was in reference to particular children.
Last time, there was lots of stuff about grief or loss—about when children were adopted or if a child passed away. Foster families were expressing some of that. So I wanted to talk about that again. With the teachers, we focused more on play. But it’s all connected. Having the understanding around attachment and trauma…play is the next step. It’s more specific. It’s partly about deciding what’s most relevant to the most staff, and what works logistically for our trainings.
And then we have a couple of days to see how things can be implemented from an organizational level, as well as possibly working with some of the kids and doing some individual consulting on a case by case basis. It’s a powerful way to learn, especially since some of these ideas are fairly new and different culturally. That’s what’s interesting about it—weaving this information in a culturally responsible manner. Some ideas need to be challenged or adapted to the culture of, in this case, China.
Maria: There are lots of questions about children’s behavior and how to “fix” bad behaviors or speed up the development process.
Helen: I think what’s come out of those questions is a framework of thinking. This is what I hoped would happen. Rather than giving a straight answer to a problem, it’s about giving them tools to think about the problem—principles to unpack it. Behavior has meaning. It’s influenced by what’s happened in the past. So we’re helping the teachers and parents to understand the problem and develop their own problem solving skills—expanding the way they think. So that in the future, they can use that as a framework and hopefully eventually they begin to become their own experts.
It’s the principle of watch, wait and wonder. To observe first and think about what it might mean, whether it was influenced by the past, and how to use the relationship to work with that particular child and help them heal. That’s I think the best outcome. That they can start to have confidence in their own abilities. My goal is to become redundant in the long-term!
The foster parents have been asking a lot of questions about the children in their care—so it’s very practical. Helen did talk about a lot of important theories, but she incorporated those theories into practical advice. The parents don’t always have time to rest or focus on a book or a theory. They each have 4-6 kids, with all of their own challenges. By talking about practical steps, it effectively guides the parents and staff toward working better with the kids day to day.
A lot of her ideas are new and can be challenging to our traditional ways of thinking as well. Our instincts of how to do things be challenged. It is always good to have new input—contrasting ideas to do a better job, learn, and know what’s best for the kids.
Her trainings also let us see more clearly the reasons behind the advice. Why we need to prepare them for any transition that will happen in their lives, for example. Her simple, rational explanations make sense to all of us, really.
Helen: You’re summarizing everything so concisely! It’s nice to know it’s hitting the mark. My emphasis in trainings is to make sure they’re applicable to practice. It can be hard, because it’s complicated information. How do you make it accessible and simple without losing the essence of the information? Weaving it in and out of conversations about practical examples allow there to be practical illustrations of the theoretical.
I think the thing I really enjoy a lot is not having a set format. I do have a format, but I like the ability to move away from it. To engage people. Another principle of the way that I train is to think that I have to “safety,” “trust,” or “forming a relationship.” It’s not just talking about it, but doing group exercises with the team, enabling the group to build stronger connections, which will make their work with the children even better. You can’t talk about attachment and strong relationships and not somehow “do” it. We learn by what we do and not just what we see. Also, they get to have some fun.
That’s the thing that’s really striking to me about Little Flower. There’s this level of hard work and commitment.
My concern as an outsider is how people are affected by these cases—trauma—and the question of…how do you build self-care? Here, people give so much of themselves and you have to take care of the carers. Otherwise, they care. It can be too much.
Maria: I think that’s probably a good discussion point for all of us as an organization.
Helen: Yes, I think that at one point, you need to say that we have to care for ourselves! It’s like the example of putting the oxygen mask on yourself before helping others on a plane.
Helen: I know what surprised me…Maria! It seems really minor, but before I got here, Maria emailed me asking if I had any special dietary requirements. I’ve been coming to China for over 10 years, and it’s never been a question I’ve been asked. I nearly fell off my chair! I called my husband over and said, “look at that!” It’s not that China doesn’t have thoughtful and considerate people, but it showed such a level of thoughtfulness. I know it might sound not so significant, but it’s sort of an indication of the level of awareness in Maria and those at Little Flower. I have not been disappointed at all. I speak for long periods, and Maria has been translating amazingly. Usually it takes a while to find a rhythm with other interpreters, but this time has been really easy.
Maria: I think it surprised me that the training actually touched my heart. Because yesterday in particular, it really touched all of the parents and our colleagues. Like when we talked about loss and grief.
Helen: It’s a very powerful subject.
Maria: It just made me think about how much we need a support system for ourselves as well as for the kids. We all work very hard and support each other in our work. But we need to do more emotionally for each other. This is very healthy for us, for the organization, and for the kids. If a brief training can touch people so deeply, I’m thinking about how powerful it would be to just sit together and talk more often.
Helen: We all need that. We all need that support.
Maria: And of course, we need the knowledge to support us. Basic, essential knowledge.
Helen: We were talking yesterday about a process—some kind of uniformity around how to deal with when a child is adopted. How do you develop a process to prepare the child…prepare the foster family? What are some of the rituals that can aid people in terms of grieving? Because grieving is normal.
What I’m grateful for is that I can suggest something and you guys will say, “yeah, let’s do that! That’s a great idea.” That’s the openness that’s very unusual to find. And I work with a lot of organizations!