Children and homelessness: When hugs are not just hugs

The world is misty this morning when I awaken.

An hour later, the mist rises and the world around me becomes visible.

Yet for that moment in time, it appeared to be gone. Vanished.

Like life. We travel along and suddenly encounter an unknown, a situation that doesn’t make sense, a darkness we’ve never known before.

We struggle to make sense of it. To grasp it’s meaning. To get through it.

We feel like there is no up or down. That everything is turned inside out.

That what we knew no longer is true. That who we are no longer fits.

And then, one morning we awaken and the world is right side up again.

We see the sun. Smell the flowers. Hear the sounds. And we are at peace again. Relaxed. Content with our place in this world.

Experiencing homelessness is like being in the mist. There is no sense of relief in site. No up or down. Just the great abyss of loss and despair that envelops you in its massive all-encompassing fog of hopelessness.

The fog of homelessness does not rise as quickly and effortlessly as the mist this morning.

It has staying power. Tenacity.

For children, that fog can change their entire lives. It can close off pathways to resiliency and well-being, leaving them stranded on islands of cognitive disabilities, poor impulse control, susceptible to drugs, abuse and more. It can circumvent clear-sightedness with its constant blocking of the view outside. The view beyond a family emergency shelter’s doors. The view beyond this place called homeless.

At the family emergency shelter where I work, children walk through our doors everyday. Confused. Angry. Lost, they follow their parents to this place they don’t understand, unsure of how to respond to the loss of the world as they knew it in this new world they do not know.

It is challenging. Hard. Confusing.

Supporting children through a familial experience of homelessness is vital. They need to be taught tools that build their resiliency. Tools that help them positively cope with their feelings. Tools that help them interact in a communal setting in ways that create less stress, less turmoil.

Last week, as I stood in the dining room helping staff manage dinner, a young boy came up to me and without a word gave me a big hug.

I was surprised, a little uncomfortable but in the moment thought, “How sweet.”

Later, in talking to one of our fmily support workers she was telling me of the challenges this young boy faces with understanding appropriate and inappropriate touching.

He doesn’t understand personal boundaries, she told me. Part of what we are attempting to do is to teach him what it means to have personal space and how to respect our own, and others. We need to help him understand boundaries so that he doesn’t randomly go up and hug strangers and find himself in unsafe situations.

It was like a fog lifted.

I understood.

When that young boy had hugged me, my surprise was based on my discomfort that a child I do not know would just walk up and hug me. I wasn’t sure how to respond. I wasn’t sure what the hug was all about but because I have a worldview that sees children through the lens of, “They do the sweetest things and hugs are sooo cute,” I saw his hug as ‘sweet’.

Framed in the context that he does not know or understand the use of personal boundaries or the need to ask permission to hug first, I can see that my lens was fogged up with my misunderstanding. Because of my frame, I saw him as expressing how grateful he was for the dinner he just had, or for having a place like the shelter to come to, or just that he was friendly.

In actuality, his hug was an expression of his lack of understanding of boundaries, and a deep need for attention and affection, which he will strive to get wherever he can, even from strangers.

And therein lies the challenge. To support this young boy in his early childhood development, teaching him healthy boundaries, and how to be safe in this world, is more affirming than accepting inappropriate hugs.

In the fog of my lack of understanding of the situation, I didn’t know how to respond in ways that would best support him in his development.

Out of the fog I understand the importance of stepping back from my worldview to see into the heart of what so many of the children we see at the shelter experience — a world of chaos, crisis, stress and turmoil.

A world they do not understand and will do anything possible to make sense of if only so that the fog will lift and they will feel less frightened, alone, scared.

And while it may feel like the best thing we can do is to give them all a hug, it’s not.

The best thing we can do is to build a safe container around them in which they can learn to build resiliency, healthy boundaries and powerful ways to be in this world. That way, no matter where they live, when the fog of homelessness lifts, they have the tools they need to live rich and fulfilling lives. A world in which they connect on deep and appropriate levels with the people around them. A world in which hugs are not an expression of your attachment issues but rather, an expression of your capacity to connect in healthy ways to the world around you.





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