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
Helen, what got you interested
in China in the first place? How did you come to be here?
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, why do you think it’s so
important for us to conduct trainings like this?
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, how did you get into the
field of psychology?
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.
What was your first impression
of Little Flower when you came last year?
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.
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!
If you could pick one major
point from these trainings to really drive home or emphasize, what would it be?
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
Have you taken a different
approach to working with the group home parents vs. the schoolteachers?
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.
What kinds of questions are you
hearing the most throughout the course of these trainings?
There are lots of questions about children’s behavior and how to “fix”
bad behaviors or speed up the development process.
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!
Maria, what do you think is
different about these trainings from the ones we’ve had in the past?
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 should
be challenged. It is always good to have
new input—contrasting ideas to do a better job, learn, and know what’s best for
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.
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
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 model
“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 can’t
care. It can be too much.
I think that’s probably a good discussion point for all of us as an
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.
Has anything surprised you?
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
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.
It’s a very powerful subject.
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.
We all need that. We all need that support.
And of course, we need the knowledge to support us. Basic, essential
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!
Thanks to Helen for sharing her time and expertise with us, and
thank you for taking the time to check out this interview!