When Jazmine was an infant, she watched as her mother and sister suffered domestic violence. At such a young age, the trauma of witnessing abuse caused her brain to go into a permanent state of survival mode. She sensed threats all around her, crying until her face turned purple and her skin broke out in hives. With her body under constant stress, her brain’s only choice was to fight, flee or freeze.
Jazmine’s brain chose fight. By kindergarten, her behavior had become so difficult to manage that she was sent home almost daily. She was physically and verbally aggressive and already struggling to learn. At home, she threw uncontrollable tantrums and often attacked her older sister, Gedany. Her mother, Maria, was terrified. She was seven months pregnant and afraid Jazmine could hurt the new baby. Without the right intervention, Jazmine could face a difficult and dangerous future of residential treatment, criminal behavior, and incarceration.
Maria tried everything, but she couldn’t shake her guilt or the feeling that somehow, it was her fault. She knew the trauma they had endured had left both daughters struggling with difficult emotions, but she didn’t know how to help. Jazmine’s behavior made it hard to respond to Gedany’s needs equally. “I felt like I was losing Gedany,” Maria recalled.
After years of unsuccessful treatment, Maria was desperate. “It was difficult to see that with each therapist, there was no progress for either of them. Instead, I saw their symptoms get worse.” It felt like no one would cooperate with her or respect her choices for her daughters’ care. Once, a provider even told her that Jazmine was beyond hope. “We are talking about a 5-year-old girl,” said Maria. “How can someone say that about a 5-year-old girl? That was the moment I said, ‘No more.’”
Maria went to the library so she could learn how to help Jazmine and Gedany herself. Her research prepared her to advocate for what her daughters needed and find other resources in the community. Finally, Maria called St. David’s Center. There, the family met Brenda, a mental health practitioner working in the Intensive Family Mental Health program. Brenda asked questions about Maria’s goals for her daughters and built a plan that aligned with what Maria knew they needed. “She told me, ‘We will find a solution. Jazmine is not a problem, and it is not your fault,’” Maria remembered. “I came alive in that moment.”
Brenda worked with Jazmine in the family’s home and included her mom and sister in psychotherapy. The trauma had impacted Maria and Gedany too, only they had learned to cope in a different way. It was hard for them to understand why Jazmine behaved the way she did, which only put more strain on their relationship. With family psychotherapy, they were able to create a shared understanding of what they had gone through and develop a common language for supporting each other. “Brenda helped us through the trauma of our past and was by our side while we faced new challenges,” said Maria. “I know now what to say to my daughters to support them, how to say it and when to say it.” They built trust as a family and grew more resilient in the face of new hurdles.
And Jazmine began to improve within a month. “Finally, I saw joy on her face,” said Maria. Jazmine learned how to identify and regulate her anxiety through psychotherapy and the support of Sierra, a mental health skills trainer. While Brenda and Jazmine processed feelings, relationships, and events in Jazmine’s life, Sierra provided opportunities for Jazmine to practice managing her behavior in real-time. “Sierra and I work together on the same goals for Jazmine,” says Brenda. “Where Jazmine and I will reflect and work on Jazmine’s growth mindset, Sierra will be in the community with Jazmine, working in the moment to pick up on her triggers and how it’s affecting her body.” These skills have made it possible for Jazmine to control her aggression and choose a different way of expressing herself. “For children like Jazmine, skills training is a compliment that helps remind her of her goals and practice regulation,” said Brenda. “It really is the backbone of what psychotherapy needs.”
As a result, Jazmine began improving in school and trusting others enough to make friends. She is able to reflect on her choices and feel proud of the progress she has made. “I’ve seen a change,” she said. “Before I met Brenda, I hit people and I didn’t know why. I felt lonely and really sad, but my mind would tell me to just move on. I couldn’t control it. I wanted to understand.” Now she can recognize the positive relationships in her life and let them support her, like her relationships with her mother and sister. “My mom tried to do everything that’s possible and I wouldn’t let her,” Jazmine remembered. “I get along with more people now. I want to help them.” Jazmine knows both Brenda and Sierra have helped her in different ways. “Brenda wasn’t like the other therapists,” she said. “She understood me and what I was going through. She helped me have better relationships with my family and Sierra has helped me with my feelings. We play games together and she asks me how I feel when she wins. I trust her.”
Today, Jazmine is a sensitive 11-year-old who loves gymnastics and singing in her church choir – and her family. “I just love my mom,” she says. “I really appreciate that I have a really great mom like her. I want her to have a good life.” As for her older sister, Gedany, Jazmine says, “Sometimes our relationship is not good, but I always want her by my side. I want my whole family to just be happy.”
After fighting so long for her children, it’s hard for Maria to hold back tears when she thinks of how far they’ve come. “What Brenda has done for our family, and for my Jazz…” she says, “No one can understand what it has meant to me to see my daughter go from the 5-year-old she was before to the young girl she is now. I will never get tired of thanking God. Brenda, Sierra, and St. David’s Center are always in my prayers.”