A soft knock on office doors around SaintA last week was followed by a small boy with big dark eyes meekly entering.
“My name is James. And I pulled the fire alarm,” he said.
James, who is in SaintA’s Residential care program, was accompanied by his therapist, Chris Kangas, and therapist Intern Ashley Yungwirth.
As they watched, James solemnly added, “I know I shouldn’t have done that, and I’m sorry.”
The apology was part of helping the child understand that actions have consequences, that what he had done had inconvenienced a lot of people. It was cold and rainy on the day he had pulled the alarm, and everyone in the SaintA building, including himself and almost all of the 300 children in the on-site charter school, Capitol West Academy, had to stand outside for several minutes. Because a fire alarm requires leaving the building quickly, most had no coats, let alone umbrellas.
In the end, although James entered most offices with a high degree of trepidation, he left them smiling.
James admitted the day of the alarm to what he had done, Chris said, but it took about a week and a half before he was willing to talk about it with any genuine degree of accountability.
“We can’t engage a child like this until he is ready to talk,” Chris said. When that time came, Chris asked the boy if he understood clearly what had happened. They talked about how mistakes impacted other people, how they have a ripple effect.
Chris drew parallels to some inappropriate behavior between James and his younger brother at their home prior to SaintA. The talk included James empathizing with his brother, saying he probably had been scared and confused by his behavior — just like many of the very youngest CWA kids were on the day of the fire alarm.
“We had to go slow so we could assess and process how much he understood,” Chris said.
Chris went through a series of questions to help coach James on the ingredients of a quality apology before the “Forgiveness Tour” around the agency, which included about a dozen offices.
“We started with open-ended questions highlighting the need to first introduce himself, then say what he was sorry for and how it impacted others before asking for forgiveness.”
Some staff asked James if he was really sincere, Chris said. But everyone forgave the boy, and in various ways they thanked him for his apology. Most said they hoped he would not pull an alarm again.
“James experienced a new, and hopefully profound, personal experience directly in the eyes of people impacted by his actions,” Chris said. “The end result was a really uplifting experience, experiencing the pride and positive reinforcement for admitting and showing he was sorry for a mistake.
“Prior to SaintA, his fear of disproportionately abusive consequences may have been too much of an obstacle to even think about this.
“On the other hand, we didn’t want to do too much reinforcing that he’d want to pull the alarm just to say sorry again!” Chris said with a smile.
This exercise underscored the value of relationships, Chris said, and it served as a good illustration for staff of SaintA’s emphasis on perspective shift when interacting with children such as James, who have been traumatized. This was not a bad kid wanting to harm people. It was a kid with a very troubled past who was upset, who does not know how to regulate his emotions, and who acted out.
“And it’s teaching kids who never were taught about things like this, about admitting mistakes and the value of people showing pride in him when he did, getting unconditional acceptance even though they did not like what he did.
“Our hope is that he will internalize everything and won’t do it again.”
James had a very aggressive upbringing and experienced a lot of abuse, Chris said. He is small in size and developmentally behind for his age, largely due to his past trauma. At home, punishment often outweighed whatever “crime” he had committed.
“Kids like this have a lot of fear; it’s about survival to them. There’s no advantage to them ever admitting doing things wrong,” Chris said.
Something like pulling a fire alarm is a cathartic release for children such as these, Chris said. They have been so disempowered and abused that they lash out however they can to exert some degree of control.
So this small step, with 12 apologies and lots of forgiveness, reaped big rewards for James.
“How he responds to this experience, now more complete, will also help us to understand him better, and to tailor our treatment approach with him and his family.”
Interested in learning more about trauma informed care? Attend a community training session.