Kids and Nature: Nurturing strong and healthy minds!

Many of you will be familiar with my passion for keeping children safe in their first three years of life through the Healing Our Children project, to improve their chances of growing into strong and healthy adults!  It is one thing to protect babies from violence to prevent trauma to the brain, but it is quite another to add in nurturing and nourishing activities to promote brain growth!

Author of ‘Your Brain on Nature”, Dr Alan Logan says “Your connection to nature established early in life to your experiences can actually influence your life course’s wellbeing”.  He argues that young children who are disconnected from nature experience a variety of health impacts from poor gut health and low immunity to compromised mental health.

Louv and Charles have been looking at a growing body of evidence across the world that suggests children are now spending much less time in nature-based outdoor activity and this is having a detrimental effect on their development.  Louv has gone so far as to use the term ‘nature deficit disorder’ to describe this problem.

While some research findings have limitations, here are some of the trends worth noting.

  • Between the decades, 1980’s to 2000’s, children’s lives have become increasingly structured and media oriented, leaving less time for independent play of any kind, including unstructured play in nature. Free play is going down, screen time is going up.
  • Visits to parks, national forests and other public land is in decline and are a possible indicator of the frequency of children’s exposure to the natural world.
  • There are fewer opportunities for children to engage in the natural world, with parents containing their children to more restrictive spaces, the move towards play indoors with supervision rather than unsupervised in parks, playgrounds or streets, a dramatic decline in children’s independent mobility, parents exerting greater control over children’s play and limitations put on children’s adventurous play.
  • Nature may encourage and support children’s physical activity and help them maintain a healthy weight. The number of obese children is rising, moving into their teens they are much less physically active. Some studies have linked children’s health to green spaces in the neighbourhood.
  • Children have less knowledge about plants, animals and their environment today than their parents. One possibility is that biodiversity has decreased where children live; or children have little or no meaningful direct experience with local biodiversity.

Evidence of decreased mobility, reduced availability to natural areas, and restrictions placed by parents on children’s activities in natural areas, suggests fewer opportunities to engage in the natural world.

So what does the research say about the benefits of contact with nature for children and young people?

There are a number of studies that demonstrate children’s play outdoors reduces the impact of stressful life events and has long-term benefits for physical, social, emotional and cognitive development.  Children who experienced high levels of contact with nature report higher global self-worth and higher cognitive function increasing their ability to learn and concentrate, decreasing anxiety and increasing self-esteem.

In Australia, adolescents have talked about their desire for safe places to break away from everyday life, to restore energy levels and to make meaning from the ups and downs of life.  Between 25 and 31% of young people in Years 9 to 12 said that nature was their favourite place to find peace, quiet and freedom, feel calm, where they can think about things or where they can be themselves.  The study found nature plays an important role in maintaining stable mental health for adolescents, who live in a modern world where societal changes and pressures are rising at a rapid rate.

Primary school children’s access to nature in Melbourne primary schools has shown a number of social and mental health benefits including building resilience, improved attitudes towards school and relationships with peers and adults, greater calmness and less disruptive behaviour, growing sense of freedom and creativity, and enhanced self-confidence.

We know how good it is.  So how can we get our kids off their devices and plugging into nature?  Here are three nature connection invitations, I recently tried with some children aged 10-14 on a Guided Nature and Forest Therapy walk.  They absolutely loved them!

  1. Wish Upon a Rock

Find a rocky creek or waterway.  Invite the children to create a cairn.  For each rock they are able to stack and balance, they can make a wish, a hope or dream.  How many wishes can they balance?  Give the child time to reflect on their experience.

  1. Befriend a Tree.

Invite your child to find a tree they connect with.   Invite them to get up close and use their sense of touch to explore.  “What do you notice when you hold a leaf or two?  What do you hear when you move the leaves or run a stick against the bark?  What part of the tree has a smell?  Do you see different things when you get up close or sit further away?”  After a while, invite them to sit by themselves next to the tree and just spend some quiet time there.  “Perhaps a name for your tree might come to you.  I wonder what stories this tree might tell you while sitting there in quiet still awareness?”

  1. Paint a Rock

Using paint pens and a flat rock, write a message for the forest or for other beings in the forest to discover.  Hide your rocks in the forest.  Take a photo of them and post its location on the #NSWRocks Facebook or Instagram community page (or search your state for your local rock group).  You can join in the hunt for other kids rocks too.

Of course, it is much easier for children to feel comfortable in nature, if they have been exposed at an early age.  Taking your baby for a daily walk outside is giving them a great start to life.  You will be laying down the foundations of a strong and healthy brain.  Oh, and bringing down some of your own stress levels too, no doubt.  Here’s to happy child’s play in nature!

References:

ABC News (2016) ‘Gut health, mental wellbeing and immunity linked to outdoor play’

Charles C and Louv, R. (2009) Children’s Nature Deficit: What We Know – and Don’t Know.

Selhub E and Logan A. (2012) Your Brain on Nature

Townsend M and Weerasuriya R. (2010). Beyond Blue to Green: The benefits of contact with nature for mental health and well-being. Beyond Blue Limited: Melbourne, Australia.

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‘The Magic of Metaphors:  Engaging women at risk to prevent trauma in young children’

This was the topic of a presentation I gave at the SNAICC Conference in Canberra in September, 2017.  Thanks to some spontaneous video recording and retrieval work from another social worker sitting in the audience that day, I’ve finally been able to edit this together.

This presentation occurred as I came to the end of my contract with Relationships Australia NT, as Co-Ordinator of the Healing Our Children project.  It was the culmination of about six years work; most of which was in the development phase working on an idea raised by concerned Elders on the Tiwi Islands, plus a further two and a half years to roll out a pilot program in remote communities on the Tiwi Islands, Katherine and Palmerston.

As a Co-founder of the project, I am proud of this work and what we have been able to create.  I am incredibly grateful for the time I spent learning together with the women of the Tiwi Islands and NE Arnhemland about ways we can respond to domestic and family violence to protect children and prevent trauma.

This was a fantastic project because it was developed in community with community using the knowledge, wisdom and stories of Aboriginal people’s lived experience.  It did not come from outside or abroad.  Programs like this are not cheap to develop and involve a lot of sweat and tears, time and patience.  We did it all on a shoestring!

I decided not to continue on in the role as Co-Ordinator because as much as I had invested in this project and believed wholeheartedly in what we set out to achieve, it was underfunded.  I was employed for two days per week to support and mentor a team of local people in several communities.  Unfortunately, the extension of funding beyond 2018 then reduced, rather than capitalised on the investment and success we had already made during this trial.  This was disappointing, as the women and communities had invested so much of their energy and time voluntarily, on an issue they were passionate about addressing.  It means that the local people employed in the project (which is one of the biggest aims of the funding) receive only casual wages and service delivery is sporadic at best.

We can do better than this.

My point is that I want to see projects like this properly funded, especially ones that are developed by communities for their own people.  So they are sustainable and have every chance of enacting real change and closing the gap!

Everything that I brought to this project through my social work practice framework is represented in some form in this presentation.  This includes strong values and a commitment to social justice, self determination and empowerment for Aboriginal people.  This video may appeal to social workers interested in anti-oppressive practice, narrative community work or using metaphors in therapeutic work.

This presentation covers:

  • Background to the ‘Healing Our Children’ project
  • The culturally safe project model
  • Shared values that underpinned the project
  • Metaphors and how we came to use them in our training, therapeutic groupwork, resource development and evaluation
  • The healing potential and therapeutic benefit of using metaphors in trauma work
  • How the resource kit “It Takes a Forest to Raise a Tree” was developed
  • How metaphors assisted us in safe dialogue with women who had children living at home with violence
Please note:  Due to our video camera running out of batteries half way through, we have edited together the two parts of this presentation.

 

 

My hope is that ‘Healing Our Children’ moves beyond surviving, to thriving!
Support, follow and learn more here.

‘Healing Our Children’ project at Relationships Australia NT

‘Healing Our Children’ Facebook page

“The gifts of learning and healing – your way and my way” with Elaine Tiparui

When elders speak, we sit up and take notice.  My guest today on Talk the Walk is someone I have listened to throughout my working career on the Tiwi Islands.  In fact, I’m proud to call her my mentor.   Elaine Tiparui is an Elder of Wurrumiyanga on Bathurst Island.  Elaine has a long history of helping her people, beginning with the Alcoholics Anonymous movement in the 1980’s, training and working as an Aboriginal health worker and many years volunteering her time for non-government organisations delivering alcohol and drug programs, child and family counselling and support services.

I set out to explore two things in this conversation; firstly Elaine’s experience of working alongside non-indigenous social workers and counsellors and what advice she might have for new people entering remote communities, and secondly, Elaine’s knowledge in relation to the healing power of the bush.  I am a real advocate for social workers incorporating Indigenous knowledge and skills into social work interventions and therapeutic plans.  While I have been able to incorporate some of this knowledge into healing bush camps and individual client sessions, there is so much more potential with proper funding and support.

I hope you enjoy this episode as much as I did, reflecting on a ten year working relationship and the things we’ve learned from each other along the way.   It has been my biggest highlight and great privilege to co-create the Healing Our Children project with Elaine.  Communication with Aboriginal people whose first language is not English is never easy, so I’m grateful to Elaine for sticking with me during this conversation in my native tongue.  Apologies also for the cacophony of community sounds in the background!

In this episode, we explore:

  • Why Elaine chose to work alongside mainstream non-government organisations in her community
  • The history of the Wurrumiyanga community on the Tiwi Islands and Elaine’s experience of growing up in the Catholic Mission
  • What social workers and counsellors need to be mindful of when entering a remote community for the first time
  • the reciprocal benefits of co-working with Indigenous and non-Indigenous knowledge
  • Elaine’s gift of introducing new workers to the culture, healing traditions and a spiritual way of understanding the Tiwi people
  • Elaine’s view of the skills and knowledge of non-Indigenous workers as a gift of healing for the Tiwi people
  • Self determination and what this means for non-Indigenous workers coming into a remote community
  • How non-Indigenous workers can build trust and respect in a new community
  • Why ‘going out bush’ is the best form of intervention for many of the health and wellbeing issues affecting children, adults or families
  • Elaine teaching her grandson to find yams

    Elaine’s stories of healing children and families out bush through teaching, hunting and bush medicine

  • The gift of listening and feeling trees that Elaine inherited from her ancestors, and the messages trees are communicating to us
  • The healing power of the bush in healing, mourning and celebration ceremonies, and recovery from emotional hurt and mental health issues
  • Elaine’s story as a witness to a healing ceremony for a Tiwi girl who had been removed as a baby and reunited with Tiwi family; a collaboration between Child Protection, an NGO and the strong women

To listen to this episode simply click on the Play button below or listen via the Stitcher App for iOS, Android, Nook and iPad.
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Don’t forget, if you or someone you know would make a great interview on ‘Talk the Walk’, send us an email from the Contact Page.

‘Black and White Working Together for Strong Community’ with Patricia Munkara

Patricia Munkara – an advocate for children in her community

My guest on ‘Talk the Walk’ this week is Patricia Munkara.  Patricia is a traditional woman from Bathurst Island in the Northern Territory whose first language is Tiwi.  In our conversation, Patricia takes us into her world – giving us some insight into what it is like for an Aboriginal worker living in their community to work alongside non-Indigenous social workers/counsellors, some of whom have been on fly-in fly-out arrangements. Bringing her passion for children’s safety and protection, Patricia has developed a reputation of being a trusted community member in her role of Aboriginal Support Worker with a mainstream non-government organisation.

This episode explores:

  • how Patricia has been a role model for others in her community
  • how Patricia has worked alongside the counsellor in the delivery of a culturally sensitive model of therapy
  • what a typical ‘two-way’ approach to counselling looks like; and the skills, knowledge and tools used
  • advantages of having an Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal mix of counselling and support in the room with children
  • some of the challenges of the work
  • collaboration between the counsellor and Aboriginal Support Worker
  • the importance of valuing and including cultural practices, knowledge and values in the work
  • how employment and maintaining a status in the community as a carer for children has contributed to Patricia’s own health and wellbeing
  • a success story of reunification with a young Tiwi girl
  • the importance of flexibility in a challenging work environment
  • advice for new social workers in a remote community and what you can expect

As with any remote work, there were challenges with recording this episode.  We apologise for the varying quality of audio.  It’s something we are working on!
We hope you enjoy this episode.  If you or someone you know would make a great interview on ‘Talk the Walk’ send us an email from the Contact Page.

Things to check out after today’s episode:

Healing Our Children project

Healing Our Children on Facebook

Patricia’s 3 part series of child safety messages launched today!
‘Keeping Babies Safe from Harm’
‘Babies and Neglect’
‘Babies and Stress’

More about Patricia’s life and work on our blog

Just one day left to ‘Give Aboriginal Kids a Voice’

Cassie and other Aboriginal Support Workers use various ‘talking tools’ in their work to assist clients accessing the community Safe House.

A month ago I set out with a goal of getting my new book out to as many remote communities as I could, so that Aboriginal children might be better placed to speak up about their experience of domestic and family violence.

This week, as I revisited my hopes and intentions to achieve this goal, I wondered whether Aboriginal Support Workers in Safe Houses across the Northern Territory would also be able to see the benefits of using this simple resource with their clients.

This week I tracked down one such worker in Cassie Daniels who works at Milikapiti Safe House on the Tiwi Islands. Sharing a digital copy of ‘The Life of Tree’ with her, I was delighted to hear of her excitement that this resource would be heading her way very soon.

Cassie revealed that it had really got her thinking about how this book might be used to assist children and families that stay at the Safe House.  As well as with individual clients, Cassie sees the potential for using the story with weekly women’s groups and at community events that focus on family and domestic violence.  She says

I love the pictures.  It’s easy to see the pictures and talk about them relating to their self experience”.

In considering how Safe House workers might put extra supports in place for children who have been exposed to domestic or family violence, Cassie goes on to say that this book will be a source of reassurance.

Older women in the community who have the wisdom and knowledge of history that’s in line with this book [will] give hope to children who are experiencing storms at home; [knowing] that they do have roots that are strong in their identity [and] through other family to help.”

If you would like to empower other Aboriginal women in their communities to help children talk about their experience of domestic and family violence and get the help they need to stay safe, then head over to our crowdfunding page.

There’s just 24 hours to go to ‘Give Aboriginal Kids a Voice’.

Thanks for your support.

Giving Aboriginal Children a Voice – Part II

Bloopers captured in time on our crowdfunding campaign video

This blog goes out on the cusp of the release of my first children’s therapeutic picture book.  Nerves aside, it’s been an exciting but hectic week as Christine and I prepare for media interviews.  We’ve also been busy creating a crowdfunding campaign to get the community on board with our hopes for the book.  We are new to all this stuff, so of course there have been many laughs along the way (hence the blooper snapshot captured here while filming our campaign video).  If you really want to know what all the fuss is about, then maybe this Q&A might provide some answers.

What is the book about?

There are two characters in the book, a little boy called Jack and his friend Tree, who lives with his family (or other trees) in the bush.   I think the blurb on the back cover is a good summary of what happens in this story.

“Tree is living a peaceful life in the bush until a wild storm comes along and damages his environment.  His friend, Jack is worried that Tree won’t recover and be able to play with him again.  When Jack also lives through a wild storm in his home, he comes to realise just how strong they both really are.  Jack has strong cultural roots, just like Tree that brings hope and healing to his whole family.”

This story is really exploring the ‘storms of life’ that children go through and how this impacts on them.  It’s also a story of healing which comes through connection, culture and the support of family and community.

How did this story come to me?

The story was just slowing coming together in the back of my mind, mulling away there for a long time.  Then one day, I think I was in a day dream state and the idea just popped into my head.  I then went away and wrote it fairly quickly.  Often ideas come to me in my dreams day or night.

Book Cover

What are the aims of the book?  What are my intentions in writing it?

I think the book reflects what I am trying to do in my counselling work with children.  First, it’s about helping them find their voice and give words to the ‘problem story’ of their lives.  It’s also about making visible the ‘strong story’ of their lives – what is it that is keeping them going, stay safe and be happy.

I am hoping that the adults in children’s lives will use this book to give voice to the strong story of children’s lives and perhaps even document this.   This could include the skills, abilities, beliefs, values and knowledge the child has in coping and keeping themselves safe.

‘The Life of Tree’ is another resource that people can add to their tool box in their conversations with children.

Who is the book for?  Who would be interested in reading it?

This book is intended to be read by an adult to Aboriginal children who have been affected by trauma.

This book will appeal to Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people care for, live or work with children who’ve experienced trauma such as domestic and family violence.  So this can include family members and foster carers as well as professionals such as counsellors, social workers, support workers or case workers.

 What inspired me to write the book?

 My biggest motivation is to help children tell their stories.  One of the greatest challenges I’ve faced in my work with Aboriginal children, apart from the obvious cultural and gender barriers is gaining enough trust, for children to feel that it is OK to talk about the really tough stuff.  And that what they are feeling is normal.  Kids do feel sad and angry about violence in their families.  And it’s shame and fear that really hold them back from speaking up and healing from their experience.  So in order to gain trust we need to create a safe space for the conversation.

Another motivation is to provide a culturally safe tool for professionals.  ‘The Life of Tree’ uses images and themes that children can connect to because it reflects their own cultural traditions and beliefs.  Christine has done an amazing job bringing her artistic talents to this story.  I haven’t really found any other resources like this out there.

Of course, my favourite part is the use of metaphors because this has worked in other areas of my practice.  I’ve been practicing narrative therapy in my work with children for 8 years, with groups of children in remote communities as well as in individual counselling.  I have witnessed how the use of metaphors is effective in connecting with people and creating a safe space for conversation about difficulties in their lives.   Asking direct questions isn’t always going to work, but people seem to spontaneously want to share their own story, if they hear a story that is similar to theirs.

What initially got me interested in this topic?

10 years ago I arrived in the Northern Territory virtually green from university. The first 6 months working out bush as a drug and alcohol counsellor, I drank lots of tea and did a lot of listening.  I later moved into children’s counselling and I was hearing lots of stories from women Elders about their concerns for their children and grandchildren.  I guess, I’ve always been listening for ways I might be able to meet an expressed need – that’s what community development is all about.  If there is some way I can walk alongside communities to find solutions to the problems in their communities, then there is a place for me there.  Along the journey I’ve found myself more and more in the healing space, finding ways of bring healing to people’s lives.

When is the book being released?  How can people buy it?

The book was released on Wednesday 1st March 2017.  You can access further information and a Sneak Peak of pages from the book from my online Shop.  There you’ll also find a downloadable Order Form.

 What about people who can’t afford to buy the book?

We are officially launching a crowd-funding campaign on Tuesday to raise money to send free books to communities.  Christine and I would like to put donated books into all the women’s refuges in remote communities of the NT, WA and Queensland.  We are both aware that the support for children coming into remote safe houses is pretty limited.  ‘The Life of Tree’ is one way, that Aboriginal workers in those services could engage children and directly support them.

So if there is anyone out there who would like to sponsor a book, they can look up our campaign ‘Giving Aboriginal Kids a Voice’

Christine with ‘The Life Of Tree’

The Greatest Tragedy of All Happens in my Street

The easy access of my local 'bottlo' contributes to the tragedy unfolding in my neighbourhood.

The easy access of my local ‘bottlo’ contributes to the greatest tragedy of all unfolding in my neighbourhood.

Over the past few weeks as the wet season has taken hold in the Top End, an increasing number of homeless Aboriginal people (called long grassers) are on the move.  The bus shelter across the road from our house has become a shelter, a mere stumble from our local handy-store which freely sells alcohol.  This is the site where arguments break out just after 10am daily about who is paying for the grog or the taxi, women yell profanities at their men at the tops of their voices and beer bottles are smashed on the road.  Since the Country Liberal party decided to scrap the ‘Banned Drinking Register’ 3 years ago these scenes have become all too common again.  On the weekend, my husband had to stand at the end of our driveway to motion for cars to slow down, as a man lay on the middle of the road after going biffo with another intoxicated family member.

The greatest tragedy is not that the police showed up half an hour after I called, enough time for someone to lose their life.  Nor is it that there are people passed out on the footpath day after day and how sad it all seems to be living a life like that.  The greatest tragedy is that there is most often a small child in a pusher or clutching on to their mother watching all this.

Don’t get me wrong.  All of it is extremely disturbing and very upsetting to hear and see on a daily basis.  But I can’t help imagining that this child’s future is being laid down right this very minute in front of my very eyes.

Unfortunately I don’t see an end to the drinking and antisocial behaviour in the near future.  Despite the introduction of mandatory treatment of people who break the law while drinking, the trauma, the hurt, the pain remains and the drinking continues.  I despair thinking it is too late for this generation who have most likely grown up in violence or abuse themselves.

We can change the future for the children.

But the children.  That is a different matter.  Here we have an opportunity to make a real difference.  To change things for them.  To put a stop to the cycle.

This is where I have great faith in the work of the Healing Our Children project.  The power of the project lies in working with Aboriginal women who are caring for young children to understand the impact that witnessing violence has on the developing brain in pregnancy and infancy.  It is my hope that women will be in a more empowered position to make good choices on behalf of their children.  A conscious and fully-informed decision between staying and putting up with the abuse or leaving to find a safe place, could make all the difference to the life of an accompanying child.

As I sit and stare outside my window to that babe in arms, I feel paralysed knowing there’s nothing I can do at this very moment.  I am also full of determination and hope that we can prevent this tragedy affecting the next generation.

For more information about my work with the Healing Our Children project visit Relationships Australia.

It’s about healing too, not just therapy

Tiwi women and the traditional healing smoking ceremony

Tiwi women and the traditional healing smoking ceremony

The past month has been a very exciting one as the Healing Our Children (HOC) program starts to finally spread its message across the Tiwi Islands.  For me, the program represents best culturally-safe, social work practice by combining scientific knowledge from the Western World with Aboriginal worldviews, cultural traditions and healing knowledge.  Neither is prefaced as being superior to the other, with both adding value to the theme of prevention and healing from trauma.  The resources we have developed represent four years of consultation with Elders about the best ways of engaging Aboriginal women in the communities we work.

The smoking ceremony is one traditional practice that is very important in Tiwi culture to promote healing.  That is why a healing activity or ceremony has been built into the groupwork program.   The smoking ceremony offers a space for mums and their children (if present) a place to heal and Elders to be empowered in leadership of this traditional practice.

On our first HOC bush camp, I had the opportunity to interview Molly Munkara, an Elder from Wurrumiyanga, to share insight into the spiritual significance of the smoking ceremony.

Molly Munkara

Molly Munkara

“Long time ago, Tiwi people used smoking ceremony as part of their ritual.  Healing is part of our traditional culture.  The smoking ceremony….it cleanses our mind…and heart.”

Molly says she was only 4 or 5 when she was taught about the smoking ceremony.

“We learnt that from our grandparents…our ancestors.  They handed down that smoking ceremony to our parents.  I was joining in, looking, participating in what they do.”

Molly shared the significance of the ceremony at sorry time.

“When a person passes away, it’s in-laws of the deceased person that prepares the smoking ceremony and the Elders too.  We have a meeting, discussion first.  And they talk to the families about it, when it is going to happen…

They send a message around the smoking ceremony is happening on that particular day.  And they gather round.  Families or anybody who have connected to that person’s life [can participate].”

On this night, I witnessed a smoking ceremony with a different purpose – healing of the self in mind, body and spirit.  The Elders began by calling out to the spirit ancestors for keeping us safe, instructions for the children on what to do, a song and prayer from the Catholic tradition.  After the leaves of the bloodwood tree were set alight, crackling under the heat, Elders used small bunches bathed in smoke to swipe the shoulders and head of those being blessed.

Bloodwood leaves for smoking

Bloodwood leaves for smoking

“We’re going to gather around the smoking ceremony to heal our spirit… purify our minds and cleanse our bad spirit away.  Bring the good spirit inside us.”

“A couple of ladies will do the smoking, they build up the fire and put their leaves in the drum, and then when they are ready, they will call.  We will walk through the smoke.”

I wondered allowed whether Molly had any particular thoughts in her mind during the ceremony.

“We think about things that are not right in our lives.  And we’ll throw that away with the smoke.   And then we think about new life after that, new beginnings.  What are we going to do that’s really good for us and our lives. We do get some [messages] from elders, what they want us to do.  Like get a better life.  Try not to fall into that same bad cycle, that goes around.  Try to get out of it.  And then start to form a new life, good life.  So we can be happy and in good health. Feeling great about myself.  We really need to love ourselves too.  And treat ourselves with respect.”

Preparing the fire

Preparing the fire

Molly reflected on how the smoking ceremony has been healing for her own life.

“The smoking ceremony has helped me a lot in my mind and heart, physically and emotionally.   [Physically], it helps you, in what you do [not with illness or disease].  Like going out with family, spending time with them, going out hunting with the Elders, gathering, singing and joining in any other activities.”

It’s an honour and privilege to be invited onto traditional country to not only allow us to run our program but also be invited to participate in traditional healing practices such as the smoking ceremony.

For anyone practising social work in Indigenous communities, I encourage you to think about the sort of traditional knowledge and practices that can be respectfully acknowledged and built into your program.  Too often I hear about cultural practices that are dying out or lost forever.  Many of these offer opportunities for Aboriginal people to help themselves.

Our work should be about healing too, not just therapy.

Reconnecting with the Hopes and Intentions we have for our Children

20160421_140355The Rings of Growth is an art activity included in the first session of the Healing Our Children group-work program with women on the Tiwi Islands.  In this session, the women are introduced to the metaphor of a tree as a way of reflecting on and talking about their own lives.

In our training with Tiwi workers we used the Life of a Tree video to show how each ring of the tree represents one year of growth.  These rings can reveal years of hardship (such as lack of water), years of rapid growth (usually during our wet season) and other unforeseen events like insect damage, fire or even crowding out by other sun-loving trees.   Although these rings may be invisible to us, the scars from these tough times are always there.   The Rings of growth is a metaphor that can be used to think about the long term impacts of domestic and family violence on children.  We cannot see inside a child, therefore we cannot assume they haven’t been affected.  It can also be used to explore the influence that positive early childhood experiences have on children’s long term growth and development.  This is the purpose through which we invite Tiwi women to document their own Rings of Growth and share hopes they have for their own children’s future.

This activity invites the women to draw the inside of a tree as if it was cut across the middle and each of the rings of life were exposed.  The women are asked to think about what they were doing when they were a child and the memories they have about what other people did that made them feel good inside, safe and loved.  These things, however small, are the things that helped them grow up and be strong.  For each ring of the tree they have drawn, the women write or draw a memory of something that made them feel loved, safe and comfortable for each year of their childhood.  This can include special events, favourite activities, special people in their lives, significant words said to them, important lessons they learned  or stories they were told by Elders and family members.  The women need at least 30 minutes on this activity to draw, colour, chat and share stories with each other.  After there has been sufficient time to document significant memories and knowledge, the women are invited to explore what their drawing might tell them about hopes they have for the future of their children.

Women whose childhood experiences were largely pleasant, memorable and positive, usually have similar hopes and intentions for their children’s lives.   For those that are struggling in their parenting, it can be a positive way of getting back in touch with hopes that have been lost along the way.   Those women with an unpleasant memory may use the opportunity to explore what positive message or learning they have taken from their experience.  They may reflect on how they want things to be different or better for their children than what they had experienced.  Remembering and recommitting to these intentions within the support of a group, can move women to action in positive ways with their children.

In my experience, women have enjoyed making connections between their early childhood experiences with their own development into adulthood.  Recently, one woman traced back her strong interest in natural remedies to her memory of being thrown in a big copper pot by her grandmother and being treated with bush medicine for chicken pox.   Another first learnt to sew in school and is now actively involved in a women’s cooperative doing screen printing on fabric and making a variety of articles as her work for the dole activity.  Yet another remembers her dad teaching her the rituals of the Kulama ceremony and is now instrumental in keeping this tradition alive with her grandchildren.

Metaphors have the power to be transforming and insightful.  The learnings that women have taken away from this very simple exercise have been delightfully surprising.  The potential is unlimited for adaptation for different client groups and contexts of work.

 

2016 – It will be a Shining Year (if i have anything to do with it)

IMG_20160116_165221And so it is with trepidation and determination that I sat down in January and planned out my year ahead.   But I didn’t want to do it just any old way.  It had to be what Sark would call a wild succulent process – one that would make me want to follow through on the goals I set.  So I ordered myself a gorgeous diary and journal to create myself a shining year.  During the mapping process, I came to appreciate what a unique position I am in.  I currently hold down two jobs – the first as a Project Worker has been in the making for many years through my experience working on the Tiwi Islands – the other, a new environment counselling children and families in a mainly mainstream setting.   If you have ever held down two intensive part time jobs that demand your energy and your passion in completely different ways, then you’ll know what a challenging task it is to change hats mid week.

Of course all these responsibilities has meant that the work of Metaphorically Speaking as a private practice has been put on hold for now.  Well sort of.  You see I’ve set myself another goal this year too.  To finally self publish a children’s book that’s been in the making for the last few years.   This dream grew out of my work as a children’s counsellor on the Tiwi Islands and NE Arnhemland.   I have noticed that primary school aged Aboriginal boys had real difficulty talking about domestic violence in their families and community.  Often shame was so great that they were silenced or too traumatised to speak about their experience.   Gender and cultural barriers also provided extra challenges.  Much of my work focused on using non verbal methods of communication such as drawing, clay or drumming to help boys express themselves.   I also came to appreciate the power of metaphors to help children talk about their lives in safe ways through groupwork on family healing bush camps using the Tree of Life methodology.   The Elders enthusiastically took up narrative practice ideas that drew on storytelling traditions focusing on strengths, hope and resilience.  Seeing how well these ideas worked in community has inspired me to use similar metaphors to reach out to children, who are silenced by their experience of violence.  My goal in writing this book is for counsellors, therapists and even mums and dads to have a way of giving children a voice to their experience by lifting the veil of shame and self blame.   I also believe the book values the strengths of culture in keeping children safe and strong.  I feel privileged to be working with Christine Burrawunga in making this book a reality, with Christine turning her amazing artistic talents into the role of illustrator.  As is so much a part of my practice, this project will be a two way learning experience and genuine partnership.   I look forward to working together with Christine over the next few weeks to begin dreaming and scheming the images to accompany the text.  This is a journey neither of us have been on before.

2016 is also an exciting time, as I near closer to starting our very first support group on the Tiwi Islands for pregnant women or women with young children who are living with or at risk of trauma from violence.   This project is a long time in the making, and has come about through funding made available through the Indigenous Advancement Strategy to Relationships Australia.   Last year, my focus rested on training local women in Wurrumiyanga to be group facilitators and peer mentors to participants using the talking tool called It Takes A Forest to Raise a Tree.  This resource is something I have developed alongside Elders in the community beginning in 2010, after they expressed worries about their grandchildren and the difficulty of connecting with their parents, they described as the lost generation.  Finally, the tool will be out there hitting the ground where it is most needed.

Meanwhile in 2016 I will also be starting some new work in Child Inclusive Practice in my counselling role at Anglicare Resolve.  This requires new learning and new approaches for working with children whose parents are separated, as well as getting my head around the family law system, how it operates and how it impacts on families and children.

So there’s lots of work ahead.  It’s daunting.  It’s exciting.  It’s gonna be a shining year.

For more information about my work on the Tiwi Islands, you can contact me at Relationships Australia NT.  To access my culturally safe counselling services for children and families in Darwin, contact Anglicare NT Resolve.  To get a copy of my children’s picture book, stay tuned.