Sunday, January 28, 2007

Asking Directly for What We Want

Asking directly for what we want is very difficult.

First of all you have to know what you want. That is not always easy. It involves noticing your own distress or need, and correctly diagnosing a possible solution. Many times we feel vaguely unhappy or sad and have no idea what would help.

Then, you have to have in your heart the concept of needs being met, the possibility of improvement. You have to have some experience of feeling bad, then feeling better. When you need help, some times people help you.

And which people would that be? You have to have people you can trust around to receive your requests. You have to experience them being willing, pleasant, and regularly saying yes to you. Your experience must also be that they are gracious and generous about helping you, and do not extract a high price.

Also, to ask for help you have to feel enough okay about your self that you can handle not being perfect. I need help, I cannot manage everything myself, but I am a good enough person over all. I actually deserve help. I help others.

That deserving is a big thing. You have to think there is some reason that some one would actually be willing to do something for you.

Asking for help directly makes you vulnerable. The other person could say no. They could make fun of you. By telling them what you need you are showing how they could hurt you.

I know a lot of very competent people (especially women) who cannot ask for help. I know many professionals that have trouble delegating and work from an "I-can-do-everything-myself" stance. I know women who take on every responsibility in their family, and men who can’t share worries about work. I know a man who overwhelms his friends by doing things for them until they become annoyed, because he can’t imagine they would like him unless he "bought" their friendship. I myself often have difficulty asking for and accepting help.

When we work with treatment systems we try to teach staff willingness to step back from an interaction with a kid and accept help from a peer when you are stuck. People say that this is hard. Harder still is identifying the kid you are struggling with and asking the team members to help you figure out what is going on for you and thus do better treatment with that kid.


When we focus with our kids on "asking appropriately" we are demanding a very high level of functioning, maybe more than we ourselves can do. How many times have I heard a staff saying "you didn’t ask appropriately" or "she is only doing that for attention". Manipulation, as we have seen, is the essence of asking indirectly and dishonestly for what one needs.

If we believe that symptoms are adaptations and solve a problem, we cannot wait until our kids can "ask appropriately" to meet their needs. None of the above conditions have been true in their lives. Instead, we have to guess and use observation and trial and error to figure out what their needs are. Then we have to meet them. We have to volunteer help, give graciously and generously to them as best we can. Then, maybe, after much time, they can relax, trust, and feel safe enough to ask for what they need.

Maybe even appropriately.

And maybe if we also create environments in which we can relax, trust and feel safe, we can also learn to ask for and accept help from each other.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Non Profit Blog Exchange

I am writing as part of the Non-Profit Blog Exchange, a method of connecting the non-profit blogging world and further spreading our work. The blog I am reviewing is Marion Conways’ Consultant to Non Profits Blog, at This blog covers many aspects of non-profit leadership, including fundraising, finding volunteers, on line donations, promoting your web site, and Board responsibilities. I recommend it because it contains information that is helpful across many types of non-profits. It is very interesting to learn skills from say, museums, and apply them to behavioral health. It helps us identify the commonalities in our struggles. Marion offers very useful help for non-profits of all kinds.

Who Are These Kids?

If I walked up to the first child care worker I saw at your place and asked, "Who are the kids who come here? What are they like?" what response do you think I would receive? Would the person say: "They are kids who have experienced severe difficulties in their lives, who are hurt, who haven’t developed the skills they need to have lives worth living. But they are really great kids"? Or would the response be more like: "they are very difficult, aggressive kids. They have committed crimes or done other bad things. They are wild and out of control. They can’t be trusted, they will hurt you, you need to watch them, you can’t let them get away with a thing"?

Of course the response would vary with the day, with the minute. It might be different from program to program. And most likely the response would contain parts from both responses above.

But who we think the kids really are determines what we think they need. In the first scenario (again, keeping in mind that these are extremes on a continuum) those kids need to heal, to learn to manage their pain and emotions, and they need skills. In the second scenario, those kids need control, punishment, vigilance, to be watched, a tough staff who holds them accountable and doesn’t let them get away with a thing.

And that leads us to who we have to be. Who we think the kids are leads us to our ideal for child care staff. What is the actual ideal that is operating in your culture? Are new child care staff socialized by experienced workers that they should be kind, calm, soothing, and should gently teach the kids new skills? Are they taught and shown that liking, enjoying and appreciating the kids is essential to what we do here? Or are they scared by violent war stories, shamed for being innocent and trusting, or weak, and taught you have to be tough and firm and not let the kids get away with anything? Do staff brag about their moments of connection? Or are they proud of the battles they have endured, the injuries they have received without flinching or showing any response? Is the staff ideal closer to a person or to a rock?

Again, the reality is undoubtedly somewhere in the middle. But let’s have these discussions out loud. Ask staff what they learned from experienced staff when they first came to work here. Talk about what we want the ideal to be and how we can put that into practice. Remember, how we see the kids is undoubtedly how they will act.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Manipulation Part Three- Us

I may seem to be obsessed with the concept of manipulation, as this is my third blog post about it. This concept, for me, represents how hard it is to create an entire world-view change in the treaters who work with our damaged kids. So often we teach the section in Risking Connection on manipulation, only to hear as I did the very next day a child care worked in the training say with indignation something like: "and I couldn’t believe that child was trying to manipulate me to get what he wanted, what did he think I was, an idiot? And by going to that other staff he did get exactly what he wanted!"

First of all, it actually isn’t a crime for a child to get what he wants. And if we would like to encourage direct communication of needs, we have to be prepared to say yes when ever possible.

Secondly, the question of what may have prevented this boy from asking directly for what he wanted was missing. And more and more I become aware that our systems prevent a child from asking directly- for more phone time, for an extra snack, for a later bed- because we are so wedded to our structure that we automatically say no. "He knows the rules. Who does he think he is?"

Yet we ourselves often ask for and get extra, against the rules- an extra cookie from the cafeteria staff, the ability to leave early just because we are tired from our supervisor, some extra telephone time (when we are being paid to be working) because our child is sick.

I have begun wondering why we get so angry about this. We feel angrier than we do for more severe behaviors, such as aggression, at times. One aspect, I think, is that manipulative behavior appears deliberate and calculating, within the child’s control, as opposed to an angry out burst which is clearly emotionally based. We lose sight of the factors beneath the child’s inability to meet his or her needs directly.

What do we feel when we have been tricked or manipulated? When we are vigilant to spot and stop all manipulation what are we guarding so heavily against?Staff comments give us clues: Does he think I am stupid? I felt like a fool. The rest of the staff will not respect me. He thinks he can get over on me. I looked bad in front of every one. I felt like an idiot because I believed him.

So, being tricked makes us feel foolish and stupid. It taps into our fears that we may be incompetent. We feel unsafe, exposed, laughed at. We imagine we look bad in the eyes of our peers and they are judging us as naïve, gullible. In short, we feel a type of shame. We strengthen our resolve never to feel this way again, and become more guarded and distrustful with the kids. We determine to be trickier than they are.

Can we use this experience to develop a new depth of empathy for our kids? After all, they feel this way most of the time. They have been tricked, used, and made to feel foolish. They have trusted and then discovered lies. They have been counting on someone and been left. They, too, have felt unsafe, exposed, judged, laughed at. And just as we do, they develop the protection of being hardened, guarded and distrustful- and indirect.

Humans, adults and kids, are vulnerable. We don’t like to be exposed. We don’t like to be rejected. We don’t like to be taken advantage of, tricked or lied to. If this happens a lot, we close down, form a protective barrier, hide our true hearts, and interact defensively. We try to get what we can through indirect, covert ways. When we feel safe and trusting, we are most likely to ask directly for what we need and want.

When we hear ourselves use the word manipulation, and we feel that familiar indignation, let’s look deeper into our selves. Let’s use what we feel to help us understand in a new way what our kids feel. Let’s use this understanding as a platform to create meaningful, caring discussion about the possibility and benefits of honesty between people.