Residential School, Attachment and Family Violence

“There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition, and of unspeakable love.”

I’m touched by the way our elders sometimes respond to the information I provide about the root causes of aggression and violence when I facilitate the Making Sense of Aggression ( workshop. It seems to resonate with them at a very deep level. It’s as if their eyes are open to what should have been provided within the context of their attachments to their parents as children and what was lost. As humans our need for connection, closeness and contact is pre-eminent and drives us from the time we are born until the time we pass in the great unknown. It’s right in front of our faces and yet many of us don’t realize how truly important our relationship needs are. It’s as if we can’t see the forest for the trees. I think it can be easier for us as adults to feel what was missing for us by focusing on what our children are in need of today. At least that’s been true for me and my parenting has provided me with an wonderful and unexpected opportunity to heal and grow. What was needed most was an unconditional invitation to exist, conveyance of warmth, joy and a safe place to feel sad or afraid and in most cases none of this was provided in Residential School. At first, I was surprised by their reaction to the material and now I just take it as a sign and that I’m able to contribute in some small way to the healing of our dear Elders who have survived so much in their lifetime. It’s an honor. My hope is that everyone can learn something about human nature and our needs and that our Elders continue to carry an important message to us about the cost of not having had it.

“It is such a secret place, the land of tears.”

During the period when Residential Schools were in full force children were being ripped away from their attachments. Literally torn away from those they cared most about and felt safest with. Only to be found in an extremely restrictive environment where there was no unconditional invitation to exist. The only way to survive was to conform, conceal one’s feelings, and harden up. Reports suggest that the older children, 12 years of age and up, faired a bit better than the youngers ones. This makes sense to me. The older children were able to hold on to their parents and culture while apart whereas the younger ones could not. By the way, this a function of the brain achieved only through development. Children cannot hold on while apart from their parents until approximately 5 years of age or older. This means that the wounding from facing separation along with the emotional and physical abuse and neglect would have been unbearable. So unbearable that the brain would have simply gone into a defense mode for survival purposes. When this occurs in the brain a number of things happen. First of all we go into what’s called a Perceptual Defense. This means that we no longer see nor hear the things that are wounding. So we could have a cruel person, yelling in our face and calling us names and our brain would not tell us we were in danger. In fact, we would begin to seek out those who treated us this way. The second thing that occurs is an Emotional Defense. This is when we stop feeling vulnerable emotions such as fear, sadness, missing, joy, caring, curiosity, and disappointment to name a just a few. The brain still experiences these vulnerable emotions but we no longer feel them. This, of course, leads to other, deeper and more complex forms of defense that manifest in all sorts of ways…. bullying, violence, depression, suicide, addictions, obsessions, and anxieties. We get in pursuit of objects and people that can never fulfill our need for nurturance and love. This can explain the pursuit we see in people with addictions. It’s never enough because drugs and alcohol can never replace nurturance and intimacy with another. What happens is we get into this flight from vulnerability and it can set us on a path that is highly alarming and unfulfilling. I know, I experienced a flight from vulnerability during the first half of my life before finding the conditions in which I could come to rest and grow. Nobody there to help me feel, name and move the vulnerable emotions out. This is what we need to mature at any stage of the game. Without this it’s highly likely that we will get stuck. However, some of us were saved by our attachment to a loved one passed or even a fantasy attachment. The power of attachment is miraculous. Many elders have gone through this process much later in life. The healing journey has been profound for them and their families and finding their own tears and soft hearts has been integral.

“I will wipe your tears with no questions asked, No more will your feelings be masked.”

As a result of Residential School we ended up with generations of peers raising peers in an environment full of rules, secrecy and shame. Closeness and contact so essential to our development and needed by children was sexualized and we saw the onset of sexual abuse and bullying. Attachment is such a pre-eminent need that if the environment is not one where children can attach to a loving adult then the attachment energy goes elsewhere and in an environment such as Residential School it would have gotten very confused. We had kids raising kids essentially. The travesty is that children keep the secrets of those they are attached to so it’s very easy for an older child or adult to exploit this vulnerability. Another term to define this dynamic is attachment abuse. Sexualization of love is tragic but much worse is the keeping of secrets that divide, especially where children are concerned. It really just breaks my heart when I think about it. I’m constantly encouraging my children to share what’s in their heart and to never be afraid to tell me their secrets.

“When a child can be brought to tears, and not from fear of punishment, but from repentance he needs no chastisement. When the tears begin to flow from the grief of their conduct you can be sure there is an angel nestling in their heart.”

So, when I work in communities and I see some of the suffering, the family violence, youth violence and addictions it makes sense to me. Of course we are still witnessing the fall out from Residential School. This will take generations to heal. I get so irritated when I hear the impatience of some folks in regards to First Nations peoples. I mean come on, the wounding is still fresh for many. Healing is a long journey and requires the right conditions in order to occur. We need understanding, compassion and a larger invitation by the world to exist.The parenting instinct for some as a result of Residential School was lost due to the defenses and was replaced with a rigid, restrictive, obedience, disciplinary focused form of parenting that left little room for a soft heart. Either that or addictions and abuse replaced the need for connection and closeness setting some families into a cycle that became, sadly, normalized. So the cycle just continued. Unless, of course some one was able to break it through their own growth and healing and the thawing out of their own heart. I see this occurring more and more and it makes me hopeful. People are getting healthy and individuating and finding their own way. They have the courage to become their own person.

“The sorrow which has no vent in tears may make other organs weep.”

We are still seeing lots of what’s called Displaced Aggression in our communities and families. We have adults and children with no place to express their frustrations or any vulnerable emotions and what we get are elevated levels of aggression and violence where we see people taking it out on those who are weaker and more vulnerable then themselves. I have to say that all this stuff is happening under the surface. For the most part people are unconscious of what’s driving them and they have not been afforded the luxury of being able to mature and develop the mixed feelings required to temper eruptions of aggression and violence. It’s seems like a huge dilemma but there is much hope. There are so many positive things happening and good-hearted people trying to heal and affect change and care for others. I heard Dr. Neufeld recently say that you can take the most callous person and if you can call forth their instincts to care for another you restore empathy. This is why we can take animals that would normally be at each other’s throats and endear them to one another. It’s why we see cross species attachment. Our drive for closeness is such a strong instinct in us. It’s never totally lost and can be restored. In my work, if I can melt the heart of one parent, one person and give them eyes to see the relationship needs of the child, person or elder in their care I feel like I’ve succeeded. The how to of melting the heart? Perhaps presenting your self as the answer to another, an unconditional invitation for another to exist, conveying being able to handle another no matter what, warmth in the voice, delight in one’s presence, provision of a safe place to find ones tears, or letting someone know they matter just for being themselves….Well, you get the picture. I leave it up to you to find the right way for you. Trust your heart…. it will guide you in the right direction.


Like this article?

Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Share on Linkdin

Leave a comment