Relationships and trust are critical to all healing and growth.

Pamela Cantor

Founder, Turnaround for Children

New York, NY

Critical relationships have shaped and altered the trajectory of my life at every single inflection point. I was the victim of very severe trauma as a child and my family couldn’t face it and couldn’t support or protect me. But what I’ve come to understand is that in virtually every story of trauma, there is the event, but events don’t usually predict what happens to children. What predicts what happens to children is who buffers that event.

When I was 15 years old, I was at a pretty low moment. I happened to be seated on an airplane next to this woman who would become a longtime friend, Laura Gschwandtner. Laura was reading the same book as me, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, and it provoked this conversation about our very complicated childhoods. Eventually, she said there’s a man who was incredibly helpful to her family, who happened to be in Westchester where I lived, and she said that I should call him; so I did.

The psychiatrist she recommended, Dr. Jack Schoenholtz, became a crucial support and mentor over the past 30 years, as well as during the 10 years I was his patient. I went to him as a kid who felt very ashamed, very hidden, and I can still remember being in his office and having him tell me, “You are a pearl in an oyster.” More than anything else, the best part of this relationship was how he let me know that this was true over the many years we worked together. 

Over a period of years, what began as a remedy for so many hurts and different kinds of neglect and lack of protection became this extraordinary trajectory that led to me becoming a person who walked in the world with my head up. There was a moment that I walked into his office and I told him I was going to become a doctor, and I didn’t know what he was going to say, but he said, “Of course you are.” And there was this absolute conviction that this was possible. “When you think about who I’ve been in your life,” he said, “it’s been part father, part teacher, part friend, part grandfather, part so many different things, and when children have those experiences, they identify with that person. They want to be that person.” When he said this, it made sense to me that I wanted to be him. 

The approach I took to my practice with children and to my leadership of Turnaround for Children, the organization I founded, was one grounded in the science of learning and development and the fact that human development rests on the primacy of the human relationship. It was the most important thing Jack ever taught me and was affirmed as I studied the science of relationships in medical school and applied it to my practice. The human relationship is the source of belief, courage, and identity; it is the energy source for the brain and it is the most powerful buffer we have against the effects of stress. Relationships and trust are critical to all healing and growth.

Pamela Cantor, M.D., is the founder and senior science advisor of Turnaround for Children.

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