"I feel blessed and very fortunate to work with people who, each day and for one reason or another, allow me into their lives, reveal to me their pain and vulnerability, and allow me to join them in their healing journey."
Pam Snelgrove is a registered psychotherapist and owner of York Child and Family Therapy in Georgina, Ontario. Pam has spent over 13 years working (both front line and management) in child welfare, and 6 years in private psychotherapy practice. Pam specializes in both early attachment separations and early life trauma experiences, taking both family-systems and child-centred approaches to her work. She maintains the belief that families have the greatest impact on a child’s capacity for healing, and children are often best healed within the context of their attachment relationships. Pam works primarily with individual children and youth, while working closely with the child’s family to promote safety and security; helping both children and their parents to bring about positive and sustainable change within the entire family system. When she’s not helping families, Pam can be found spending quality time with her husband and two children, jogging, watching Netflix or reading a book on trauma and attachment.
SWY: Can you please describe your experience working in child welfare, and child and family psychotherapy? What inspired you to enter this field?
PS: I have learned so much from both fields. Child welfare and child and family psychotherapy are a good compliment to one another. Child welfare has taught me so much about child and family law, duty to report, children’s rights/privacy and confidentiality laws when working with vulnerable children and youth, especially more recently with the changes to the new CFSA. I know many people working in the field of psychotherapy often express feelings of intimidation or overwhelm by the child welfare system; knowing when and how to report, how to talk to their clients about the child welfare system, how to best collaborate when providing service to clients who are being served by CAS, and testifying in court, etc. I feel my experience in child welfare has equipped me with the knowledge and experience I needed to launch into child and family psychotherapy with confidence and has provided me the tools to engage families with the right information. I find the skills are readily transferrable between fields.
I’ve known since I was a young girl that I wanted to be a therapist and work with children, ‘to help children and people’ is what I wrote in my grade-school books. I was always intrigued by family systems; how families interact and how early life trauma and attachment experiences impact people and their relationships. I was particularly inspired to work in the field after having some tough early life experiences of my own; I grew up in a family that had our share of chaos and crisis. Having some traumatic early life experiences forced me to grow up quickly and as a middle child of 4, I learned to be a peacekeeper, assess a crisis and remain calm in chaotic situations. I’ve spent a lot of time in self-reflection over the years, helping to make sense of my own experiences to bring about my own healing. Sometimes I wonder what led me from where I came from, to where I am today, especially given that some of my siblings were not as fortunate and have continued to really struggle to overcome their past experiences. I feel blessed and very fortunate to work with people who, each day and for one reason or another, allow me into their lives, reveal to me their pain and vulnerability, and allow me to join them in their healing journey.
SWY: What is the biggest thing you’ve taken away from your work with vulnerable children and youth?
PS: Anyone who spends a great deal of time with children and youth, you know it is the most refreshing, humbling and honest place to be. Working with vulnerable children is no different. All children and youth are vulnerable, but the particular youth I have had the pleasure of working with have taught me how to listen; and I mean really listen.
To humble yourself to a place of empathy, introspectiveness and ‘mindsight’ (if I can quote the words of Dan Siegel).
Children and youth who grow up in vulnerable situations are not going to trust easily (if ever), they will push away because they know that’s the only way they can protect themselves from getting hurt, they see where people are vulnerable and will call you on your faults, and they will often deny the need for help as they don’t believe or have any hope that people actually care about them. They often feel unlovable, unlikeable and don’t have a great deal of self worth, so they find very creative ways to get their needs met. You have to be able to see beyond the behaviour. That, I believe, is the key!
When working with vulnerable children and youth, you have to be attuned to see what they are trying to tell you they need. It's always there. It just might be hidden under things like physical aggression, insulting language, verbal outbursts, shutting down and running away. They will often go into a state of fight-flight-freeze many times before they are able to express vulnerability. You have to be persistent and never give up on them. It takes time. You have to follow through with what you promise, be honest and acknowledge when you screw up, and you have to be willing to take push back (have a bit of thick skin) for a while, until they can develop some degree of trust in you.
It’s a beautiful sight though, to see a child/youth who has come to the other side of their pain. Where they have found a place of healing and are able to acknowledge and name their emotions, talk openly about their experiences and express emotional vulnerability without the fear of being hurt. It’s a wonderful thing to watch a child, after years of experiencing hurt, disappointment and pain, form healthy connections and attachments to people in their life. It’s a beautiful, wonderful thing to see. The reason I do what I do!
"You have to be persistent and never give up on them. It takes time. You have to follow through with what you promise, be honest and acknowledge when you screw up, and you have to be willing to take push back (have a bit of thick skin) for a while, until they can develop some degree of trust in you."
SWY: What do you think we need to do as a community to better support children and youth who experience abuse?
PS: Do a lot of what I mentioned above. Pouring more funding and services (education, training, resources) into families, first! Prevention, prevention, prevention. We often look at ways the community service providers (such as schools or other government funded organizations) can help kids, but it’s time we started to have honest and meaningful conversations about what we need to do for families. Abuse and trauma, 98% of the time starts within the family system; and more often than not, if abuse is happening within the family system, its intergenerational abuse that has occurred for generations past; having never been properly identified or healed.
There is a quote I often refer to from Dr. Bruce Perry:
“Fire can warm or consume, water can quench or drown, wind can caress or cut. And so it is with human relationships; we can both create and destroy, nurture and terrorize, traumatize and heal each other”
For some children who grow up in certain kinds of circumstances and experience certain kids of abuse from their caregivers, having the child live apart from their caregiver needs to happen and they cannot heal within their immediate family system. Some children are adopted or reside with extended family members and their new caregiver can begin that healing process for the child. However, that is not the norm. The trend I see again and again, and is the case for the majority of vulnerable children and youth who have experienced abuse within the family home is this; the same child who was placed and grows up in out-of-home care, often returns back to their family system from which they were removed in the first place. Although now, the child may have even deeper emotional wounds from their many attachment separations while in care, are grieving more losses, struggle in school from all the moves, lack self confidence and self worth, struggle to form healthy connections with peers due to their trust issues and have difficulty managing their own mental health; often engaging in risk taking behaviour to cope.
The research is clear. Children need their attachment figures and they need them to be healthy. I think if we are going to engage anyone it should be implementing more family-centered/home-based services and supports to teach, coach, mentor and guide families in the following areas:
1. Understanding secure vs. insecure attachments
2. For parents to understand their own early life trauma experiences
3. Helping families to understand the outcomes for children when parents have unresolved trauma and insecure attachment experiences from their past
4. Teach parents how to form healthy connections to their children (even if they had insecure attachments as a child)
5. Coach and guide parents toward more harmonious adult interactions such as how to resolve conflict in a healthy manner, so the child isn’t exposed to adult conflict in the home
6. Teach parents about the connection between trauma, attachment and addiction. Many parents I work with struggle with addiction that gets in the way of their parenting which stems from early life trauma
7. Teach connections between trauma/attachment and mental health for the same reasons as addiction; and how this impacts the parents’ ability to keep their child feeling safe, secure, seen and soothed (Dr. Dan Siegel) when the adult is suffering.
8. Teach and mentor parents in adult attachment so that the parents can learn their current attachment patterns and identify what might be triggering for them as a parent with their own children
9. Teach adult self awareness and emotional intelligence to parents so that they can name their emotions, acknowledge how they are feeling and speak openly about their inner emotional experience, in order to model these practices for their child.
It all starts in the home. This, I believe, is where the prevention service dollars need to be focused and where the support needs to go, first.
SWY: From your experience in your practice, what are some common themes you’ve noticed come up in regard to healing from childhood abuse?
PS: When I begin working with families, I take the first few sessions to gather family and social history. This helps tell the story of what happened to the parent/caregiver that led them to the place of seeking therapy and helps the parent(s) to talk about their early life experiences. I can tell a lot about someone’s inner emotional experience, self/emotional awareness and attachment style when I ask them to tell me the story of how they grew up. What I often find is that abuse occurred for generations (intergenerational trauma) before someone ever decided to get help or identify that there was a problem.
Often when children are referred to me for therapy, they are referred for their behaviour and/or school performance when it is really an underlying issue of insecure attachment experiences within the family system, early life trauma or exposure to parental conflict that stems from the adults unresolved trauma or attachment experiences. This is the most common theme in my practice, which is the reason I have spent the last 6 years engaging in my own professional training related to complex and developmental trauma, adult attachment and parent-child attachment. These seem to be the most common themes in all the children and families I have worked with. Without the initial intake interview, I would never truly understand the root issues.
Another common theme I have seen is the parents’ ideation that it is the child’s job to participate in therapy, and the parent expects the child to heal on their own or within the context of the therapeutic relationship. I speak candidly with parents from the beginning of my work to help them understand that while I work specifically with the individual child, my work is from a family systems perspective and children can only truly heal within the context of their attachment relationships and find resolve within their family system. That is where sustainable change occurs.
With the experience of abuse comes a great deal of self/inner shame, as well as familial shame from people the client is connected to. This is something that a lot of my clients and their parents have a hard time understanding, especially how shame is carried in the brain and body and how it is expressed in behaviour, day-to-day functioning and emotions. I spend a lot of time on the topic of shame with my families.
"I speak candidly with parents from the beginning of my work to help them understand that while I work specifically with the individual child, my work is from a family systems perspective and children can only truly heal within the context of their attachment relationships and find resolve within their family system. That is where sustainable change occurs."
SWY: Can you speak to the intergenerational aspect of trauma and abuse? Why do you think these cycles of hurt continue for so many generations?
PS: For the reasons I have mentioned above. Lack of public awareness and thus lack of funding dedicated to address intergenerational trauma within the family system, and the prevalence of shame that is correlated with abuse - which is followed by secrecy - carried from one generation into another.
SWY: If you could say one thing to someone who has been victimized by abuse, what would you say?
PS: I cannot say just one thing…You are not alone. It is not your fault. You are allowed to feel angry, hurt and grieve the loss of yourself before the abuse and the loss of pieces of yourself from the abuse experience. Don’t allow the abuser to continue hurting you or having any power over your life by staying angry at them; find help that specializes in abuse/trauma so you can rid yourself of any shame attached to your experience. Talk to a professional so you can better understand the context of the abuse experience and work toward forgiving the person who hurt you. So many people who have been through what you have gone through have ruined their life by keeping the abuse a secret, carrying shame related to the abuse and allowing the abuser to have power over their lives by holding onto a severe amount of anger toward the abuser. It's important that you work toward finding inner peace by forgiving the person who hurt you. Most importantly, make self-care a priority.
SWY: On the contrary, if you could say one thing to a perpetrator of abuse, what would it be?
PS: You are not alone. Something likely happened to you that led you to do what you did to hurt someone else. What happened to you wasn’t your fault, but you have to take responsibility for the hurts you caused others. It's important that you find some help to figure out what it was that first hurt you, and begin healing from and overcoming that past hurt, so you can prevent any harm to you or someone else in the future. Don’t allow self shame to get in the way of your healing, because it's important that you heal too.
SWY: Based on your experience, what do you think is something that is misunderstood about survivors of childhood trauma?
PS: A lot of misunderstandings I hear are:
- Past abuse cannot be *that* impactful
- It's not something that should impact your life as an adult, if its something that happened to you as a child
- Abuse doesn’t really do that much damage to you, and you can just forget it happened and move on with your life
- A survivor of abuse did something to provoke the abuse and they could have (in some way) either prevented it or stopped it from happening