A little girl and her mom who live in the community periodically come to the shelter on group night for a few weeks. "Angie" rarely agrees to join one of my small groups, prefering to draw or sit with kids in another room. She answers anyone (child or babysitter) with one or two words, and never smiles.
The only time she agreed to talk to me was one night when she started crying and couldn't stop. She was nicely dressed, as usual, but she'd combed her hair over her face, completely covering it.
I took her to my space and let her cry for a few minutes. Handed her tissues and rubbed her back. Spoke softly, offered to help and explained confidentiality (and its limits).
Eventually she began to talk. No one was hurting her, she said, but she wanted to stay in America and her mom did not. I soon learned she hadn't told her mom how she felt about leaving or about a common communicable illness that had bothered her for a week. The school nurse, concerned because this illness is easily spread, told her Mom must call the school or Angie wouldn't be allowed to return until she had proof she'd seen a doctor.
Angie told me her family had Medicaid and used a local clinic. So why hadn't she asked her mother for help? I'd heard her answer many times in other social work settings. "She works, Miss Pat and doesn't have a car. She can't take me to the doctor."
When homes are severely dysfunctional for any reason, children begin to take on a parental, protective role. They forget who is in charge, who is supposed to help them, and why. They feel responsible not only for themselves, but often the overburdened and/or abused parent and their younger siblings. They may even protect the abuser or neglectful parent when someone questions them about an injury or obvious emotional stress.
There is no easy fix for this problem. It's almost impossible to completely return childhood to a child who has often been treated as equal to adults and/or has witnessed addictive, abusive, or destructive adult behavior without the protection of an adult. They are often, at least emotionally, on their own.
"Angie" comes back the following week. Tells me her mother is not moving back home. Still no smile, but her hair is neatly contained under a pretty headband and her medical problem resolved. She doesn't come to group but before snack time, shyly asks if she can have a lollipop.
She gets her pick and I get to wonder if she'll let me slide through that little crack in her armor again.