Trained as both a family therapist and a psychologist with a focus on children, adolescents, and families, Sermeno has worked with children and their caretakers around the world. She consults for a wide array of children’s advocacy groups, including the New Mexico Youth and Families Department as well as that state’s Juvenile Justice Department; the United World College, an international school dedicated to providing opportunities to teenagers from violence-torn countries; and the nonprofit Bright Futures for Children.
Wrapped in her professional repertoire is a wealth of knowledge. The science behind brain development, the outcome of studies of children born into adverse situations – Sermeno can easily recite in intricate detail the research-based components that guide her profession. And when prompted, she does. But sitting on a sunny bench in Telluride, Sermeno keeps it simple.
“All good things in life begin with a relationship,” she says, abridging her many years of professional experience in the field of child psychology as well as her ongoing education as a mental health consultant to describe the focus of her work with a single, straightforward statement.
Sermeno’s effortless ability to abbreviate the complexities of child psychology into a language that’s easy for parents and educators to understand could be the main reason that she is recognized as one of the best in her field. It’s certainly the reason she was chosen by Bright Futures, one of the state’s Early Childhood Councils, to serve as the region’s mental health consultant after Bright Futures was awarded a grant from Colorado’s Division of Behavioral Health two years ago. Since then, Sermeno has provided an invaluable resource for caregivers in San Miguel, Ouray and West Montrose counties, providing training for educators, workshops for parents, and consultation to childcare providers.
“What she’s done has been amazing,” says Cathy James, Bright Futures’ executive director. “She is really leading the state right now in this arena.”
As Sermeno describes it, the grant focuses both on capacity building and on providing professional support to caregivers in Ridgway, Telluride, Paradox and points in between.
“There is a great deal of brain growth and development that happens in a child’s early years,” she says. “Their capacity to learn, and their capacity to love, are all rooted in what psychology calls ‘attachment processes,’ which all happen in those early years,” thus making the quality of a child’s first five to six years of life vitally important to their future mental and behavioral health.
Sermeno possesses an intimate knowledge of the importance of healthy, supportive relationships during a child’s formative years. She was born in El Salvador, a country that during her youth was ripped apart by war and violence, and she says that those experiences engendered in her an early passion for the field.
“Coming from El Salvador as a teenager and bearing witness to the high number of children who were orphaned by violence, I’ve always had a preoccupation with the impact that callousness, cruelty and humiliation can have on young children. I have always believed that as a society, our greatest resources are our children. If we don’t take the time or money to intervene when children are injured emotionally, as a society, we pay for that,” she says.
Thus, a great deal of Sermeno’s professional focus has been on understanding the impact that loss, trauma and fear have on children, and how those experiences translate in terms of their later ability to grow into morally centered adults.
Much of her work in the region, however, has focused on providing resources to already sound childcare programs and to local families. As she describes it, most parents and childcare providers already possess many of the tools necessary for creating a nurturing environment so vital for a child’s early development; Sermeno simply provides more of those tools.
The mother of a teenager herself, Sermeno understands that it isn’t always easy being a parent. But, she says, parenting isn’t about perfection.
“Parents need to relax and understand that the most important element in building a relationship with a child is the quality of your engagements. It’s not about perfection, but rather this concept of atunement, or being able to respond to the emotional and physical cues of your child,” she explains. “It’s not about whether or not you make mistakes, but how you go about correcting them and getting reestablished and engaged with your child.”