Session 6


conditions that lead to wellness, resilience and growth

A story about restoring: The grandmothers
and the grandfathers

Shannon is a seven-year-old Indigenous child in care who is currently living in a residential treatment facility to get support for moderate to severe anxiety. She has been moved many times, from foster home to foster home. Shannon has no contact with her family of origin or her Indigenous culture, though she is very interested in learning about both. Her anxiety symptoms have made it difficult for well-intentioned caregivers to provide the care she needs and have led to her living situation breaking down over and over.

Shannon’s anxiety symptoms can be difficult to identify and are often mistaken for behavioural problems such as defiance, aggression and oppositionality. Misunderstanding these symptoms often leads Shannon’s caregivers to approach her with behavioural change strategies—such as rewards and consequences—which ultimately fail and leave everyone frustrated.

Shannon never cries. Her tears have dried up and have been replaced with protective armour to keep her safe from further wounding. Without the opportunity to feel safe, Shannon cannot experience the emotional let-down she needs to restore a sense of balance and well-being. The alarm causing Shannon’s anxiety will stay stuck indefinitely and lead to increased anxiety. She needs to experience safe relational conditions that allow her tears to be restored.

Shannon has not been receptive to any of the practitioners assigned to her within the treatment centre. Despite many attempts, Shannon will not engage with anyone except the Indigenous youth care counsellor, Emily, who does not have a formal role with Shannon. Emily is available on a drop-in basis to simply hang out, talk, sing, drum, smudge or work on Indigenous art projects. Shannon asks to see Emily regularly.

One day, Shannon and Emily sit cross-legged on the floor of the Indigenous space of the treatment centre, facing each other, chatting and visiting. Emily, knowing Shannon’s history, her love of Indigenous ways of knowing and being, and her need to restore the capacity to feel and express sadness, decides to follow her intuition.

Emily brings some rocks she collected on one of her many walks along the local river into her play with Shannon and provides her with teachings about the grandmothers and the grandfathers. Emily tells Shannon that Indigenous perspectives hold that rocks are ancient and wise, and that they represent our ancestors, and our grandmothers and grandfathers, who have been here since time immemorial. As Emily provides these teachings, Shannon picks up each of the rocks and begins running them down her arms and legs. Tears begin to stream down Shannon’s face. She looks up at Emily and quietly shares that she feels able to cry because the grandmothers and grandfathers are with her.

Shannon’s story shows the importance of relationship and cultural affirmation for the well-being of a child or youth. As Shannon connects with the ancestors, her tears are restored and a moment of rest in her nervous system occurs. Little breaks like this from alarm, though temporary, can contribute to a lasting sense of well-being.

What could Shannon’s caregiver learn from this story about Shannon’s needs for safe relationships, a big invitation to exist just as she is, and culturally affirming and safe experiences? What rituals can the caregiver create at home to help restore the conditions for well-being on a regular basis?

Shannon needs a relationship with a caring adult who is not alienated by her symptoms. Restoring the conditions for Shannon’s well-being through relationship rituals that help her feel safe, invited and able to feel her vulnerable emotions, such as sadness, will go a long way.


These are potential approaches to restoring a youth’s relational needs. As a caregiver you are in a wonderful position to lead the child or youth in your care into relationship and into gentle expression of their emotions in ways that are best for them. The more insight into anxiety you have, the less you will allow yourself to be alienated by a child with confusing anxiety symptoms.

'It's your path but you don't have to walk it alone.'

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