Imagine being a young woman overwhelmed by feelings of fear and shame which have defined your sense of self for as long as you can remember.
Imagine what happens when you then become a mother and have no strong and secure foundation from which to shape your own child’s life.
Your baby’s normal attachment needs may frighten you, and your inability to meet those needs will reinforce your self-reproach.
Understanding the impact of this shame has been the focus of a joint project between Family Outreach and Relationship Services (FORS) specialist therapist Dr Jackie Amos and Clare Smith, Training and Development Coordinator.
Over the past four months, the duo has trained FORS staff to recognise when shame might be driving some of a mother’s responses to her child, putting him or her at risk.
“If you have a strong enough sense of belief in yourself, the shame we all experience at some point in our lives is manageable,’’ Dr Amos said.
“But if shame and fear is all you have ever known, then it can become toxic and potentially drive neglect and abuse.
“When the maps a mother is trying to parent from are distorted by her own early experiences of relational trauma, she acts with the best of intentions but sometimes it all goes terribly wrong.’’
The aim of the shame project is to support parents – including young men who have grown up in fatherless families or families with destructive role models – to make sense of their own struggles with shame in order to make positive change, one small step at a time.
“This is a challenging concept for the community to accept in the context of harm to children, and does not excuse the neglect and abuse of our most vulnerable,’’ Dr Amos said.
“But there is something powerful driving the parents which we think can be understood and worked with, rather than judged and condemned.’’
Dr Amos said embedding an understanding of shame in case management was also helping staff predict and understand parents’ reactions to some supportive interventions.
“The key switch was understanding you could still be child-centred while focussing on the parent.’’
In a state-first for non-government organisations, Centacare appointed Dr Amos, a child and adolescent psychiatrist, to train and support staff in working with mothers impacted by intergenerational trauma.
Dr Amos’ work is being highlighted as part of National Child Protection Week, September 4-10. This year, the campaign invites all Australians to play their part to promote the safety and wellbeing of children and young people by building stronger communities.