Eyes and Mouth

What if a simple look, a flash of eye contact, was enough to send waves of shame crashing over you? For the survivors we serve at TVF (Treasured Vessels Foundation), eye contact has not been something that is safe. For many reasons most of the women that come to TVF did not have parents that lovingly connected with them through eye contact, smiles, safe touch, and words of delight.

Studies in attachment theory and neuroscience have increasingly revealed the importance of a loving connection and secure attachment. It is vital for our brain development, social engagement, and emotional regulation. When a baby connects with the eyes of a parent, their brain begins to sync as they learn about their social environment. The better able a parent is at attuning and connecting with their baby, the better the neural synchrony in and between them will be. This improves the child’s ability to learn.

When a baby catches the eyes of a parent looking at them with delight, a chemical reaction is triggered in the baby’s brain. This chemical reaction releases hormones that create a feeling of joy. As the baby and parent continue to deepen their connection, it provides the baby with the tools necessary to weather the challenges of life and develop a secure sense of who they are.

Unfortunately, this emotional bond is hindered when eye contact and connection or words of care and affection are absent. In these instances, the child hears words that are angry, harsh, and judgmental. Growing up, the phrase “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” was a popular saying. Thankfully, advancements in science have shown us that language has the power to impact our emotions and shape the way we see ourselves and the world.

At the start of a resident’s journey at TVF, their self-esteem is assessed. These assessments have revealed that our residents have extremely low self-esteem and struggle with emotional regulation. For them, making eye contact is challenging and uncomfortable. The deficits from their critical developmental years have had significant negative consequences. Without serious holistic interventions, survivors of trafficking will continue to struggle with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), anxiety, depression, and relational and economic instability.

The holistic interventions offered at TVF focus on helping our survivors develop the relational connections and skills they missed. It starts with staff that is not just caring but attuned like a mom would be to their child. At first this is uncomfortable and triggers anxiety and sadness in our residents. This is like the reaction to touch and kindness experienced by animals who have been abused. Videos on social media show abused dogs, who are often tied up, cowering, and crying out in what seems like pain when the rescuer begins to show affection.

A frequent conversation that occurs between our TVF team and residents is how residents should ask for connection and safe physical touch. Instead of letting our team know that they are wanting to connect, they may act out in awkward or inappropriate ways, or exhibit aggressive behaviors. Through therapy and staff support residential interns learn how to say, “I am feeling sad. Can I have a hug and then go for a walk?”

This may sound like a conversation a parent may have with their young child. However, when there is an absence of connection, children do not receive the necessary tools to move through the developmental phases and gain relational skills. The more severe the trauma, the more extreme and noticeable these deficits become. When these deficits are not addressed it significantly impacts a person’s quality of life. If you want to learn more about developing your own relational capacity, check out the reading recommendations below.

 Author: Elizabeth Schutz, LPC-Associate, Clinical Educator

Reading Recommendations:

1.     Healing Developmental Trauma by Laurence Heller Ph.D. and Aline LaPierre Psy.D

2.     Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents by Lindsay Gibson, Psy.D

3.     Living from the Heart Jesus Gave You by James G. Friesen, E. James Wilder