The Healing Power of Jazz and Relationships

By Erik K. Laursen Ph.D., RYI
Posted on October 31, 2013, in Challenging Kids

About a month ago, Tabitha was born. I know that Kevin and Jackie, her parents, will do everything in their power to love her and challenge her to pursue greatness through failure and success.  I am confident they will give her opportunities to make her own decisions (while considering the impact on others) and teach her to be generous. In 2000, when Kevin’s life was in shambles, we talked at length about his life.  Here are some of the experiences he shared: "My mom was 16 when she had me. She couldn’t really take care of me because she was so young. The first couple of years, she would often leave me alone for hours in the care of my two-year older brother while she went out partying. She started doing drugs and was in out and out of prison. I stayed with my grandmother, where my uncle also lived, but it was Granny who raised me. Whenever my mom got out of prison she would come live with us. It was always chaotic. Granny and mom yelled and screamed at one another most of the time. When they wouldn’t calm down, my uncle started yelling and throwing whatever thing was closest at whomever was closest. If they didn’t cut it out, he would hit anyone within reach. He was very violent. When I was about seven, he began sexually molesting me when Granny was out. He said it was our secret and that he would kill me if I told anyone. When I was about 9, I was out of control in school and at home. I got into fights with the other kids all the time. I hit teachers and one time trashed the principal’s office. My grandma was so frail that she couldn’t handle me, so I was put in foster care." Over the next five years, Kevin lived with six foster families where he continued to escalate his behaviors. He was sent to UMFS’s residential program in 1993, where I served as the director. During the first several months, it was difficult for staff to understand and manage Kevin’s behaviors. It appeared that the harder staff tried to connect with him the more he pushed back. Explosive outbursts of verbal and physical aggression toward staff, peers, and property were daily occurrences. We were not able to find a way to understand his pain. One morning after another explosive episode, the night staff asked me to talk with Kevin. He reluctantly followed me to my office letting me know that “I’m f**** not goin’ to talk to you ‘bout nothin’.” We entered my office where I had some jazz music playing, and Kevin sat down.  Remembering that he was not planning to talk with me, I sat down without saying anything. After a while he said, “Who’s that playing?” “Art Blakey,” I responded.   I noticed that he became more and more relaxed. After being with one another and listening to more jazz for another 15-20 minutes, Kevin said he was ready to go to school. On the way we “ran into” the night staff, and Kevin mumbled, “Sorry man.” Today I know how neglect and abuse impact brain development in kids, particularly during the first two to three years of life. Kevin’s mom did not provide the stable, responsive relationship need to build a healthy brain. During the first years of life children naturally reach out for interaction through babbling, facial expressions, gestures, and words. When adults respond with the same kind of vocalizing and gesturing, healthy neural connections support the brain’s development. The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University calls this process “serve and return.” Kevin did not have many “serve and return” experiences during his early life, and as a result he lacked the opportunities to learn to regulate stressful situations. However, patterned repetitive experiences such as music, massage, dancing, or grooming a horse can help re-regulate the stress-response system. I am certain today that this is what Kevin experienced. Over the next several months Kevin and I had jazz time three or four times a week. We listened to Miles Davis, Coleman Hawkins, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, Art Tatum, and many others. The staff members who worked directly with Kevin told me that he became better and better at regulating his emotions. He had fewer and fewer explosive episodes, and within the next eight to nine months we were able to find a foster mother who took Kevin into her home. Kevin lived with Ms. Jones for almost three years. She cared tirelessly for the foster youth in her home and treated them as if they were her own children. Shortly after Kevin graduated from high school he turned 18. Even through Ms. Jones told him he could stay with her, he left to seek out his family, as do many other youth in foster care. The next few years were turbulent as he tried to find support and stability from his family. There he had some good moments, particularly with Granny. He sought me out a few days before Christmas in 2000, when his life was in shambles. He was broke, homeless, unemployed, and had a six-month-old daughter, Aretha, whose mother was 17-years-old. They had lived together for few months, but it didn’t work out. Aretha was now in the care of the maternal grandmother. It looked like Aretha’s was on a path to mirror Kevin’s life. After a brief period catching up on life events, Kevin asked about my two children. I had often brought them to work for social events while he was in the program, and my son David had also made a special effort to talk and play with him. Now, in the middle of his own pain, he was genuinely interested in hearing about both of my children. Then we began to talk about him. He then told me he had no plans for the next few hours or days, much less anything after that. I suggested that we repeat our jazz time which might inspire us to come up with some ideas. We talked, listened, and agreed to call Ms. Jones. We listened and talked some more,and after a couple of hours we reached Ms. Jones. She was elated to hear Kevin’s voice and told him that his room was waiting for him. I drove him to his old home, and Ms. Jones met him at the door with the warmest smile and embrace.  She said, ”I’m so glad you are home.” After the holidays, Kevin began working in a day care center. For the last seven years he has worked as a teacher/counselor with youth in residential facilities. He has been back to UMFS several times to talk with students in the program and to give them hope for the future. His recipe is simple – jazz and relationships. Kevin reconnected with Granny and took care of her until she passed. He has found a way to be with other family members and is actively involved in Aretha’s life. Kevin was married in 2011, and as I mentioned earlier, just had another daughter. I recently received this text message from him: “I am dancing with Tabitha to the tunes of Ben Webster.” I was reminded of the healing power of jazz and relationships. I know Kevin, Tabitha, Aretha, and his wife will be fine.

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