It Only Takes One Person

After years in practice, there are several themes that I have seen repeatedly. A few of these themes have become imprinted on my brain, along with some of the individuals and their stories.

One of these themes that I feel compelled to share is that it may only take one person to make a difference in the course of a child’s life. I will pick one person’s story. I will call him Joe (I have changed details to ensure that he is not identifiable).

In our first session, he described issues of coping with his moods and with important relationships. These were clinically significant issues worthy of therapy. However, he also described a successful career, a long-term committed relationship and conscientious, devoted parenting. He was active in his church and in the community.

The rest of his story blew me away. Both his parents had alternated between being toxic, abusive or negligent. He was one of a handful of siblings. None had done well. Two were in and out of various jails. A sister had serial marriages with children with no identifiable father. Two of his brothers’ lives were decimated by substance abuse.

I asked the obvious: “So how did you get by?” His answer was one that I had become familiar with. A schoolmate’s mother had become interested in him, and talked with him periodically, showing interest in how he was doing and giving him an opportunity to experience a normal relationship. That made the difference.

The same phenomena can happen in other settings: A sharp-eyed teacher who asks the child to stay after class; a two-week summer vacation with loving grandparents; a kind (somewhat nosy) neighbor lady. The point is that Joe’s life benefited profoundly from the influence of one other person. I have seen this repeatedly.

Joe and similar individuals don’t have psychological terms to explain the effects of these talks. From my frame of reference, I see that these children developed a sense of identity, felt a sense of self-worth, felt worthy of love and capable of giving love, an empathetic awareness of others feelings, and learned to seek a safe place to express and begin to let go of powerful emotions. This allows individuals to overcome dysfunctional histories and to have rewarding (maybe slightly uncomfortable) lives.

Child development is a complex field, worthy of tons of studies. I salute those researchers. However, given this complexity, it may help to look for simple helpful themes.

Let’s extend this theme. Our adult lives are far more complicated than a child’s. We are not responsible and have no power to parent each other. However, in the right circumstances, there may be opportunities to have honest conversations with each other. Once again, it only takes one person to make a difference.

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