Saturday, April 19, 2008

What’s Going on With Michael?

Michael is a fourteen year old boy who is living at a shelter home. He was brought there after his last foster placement, his fifth, disrupted. After nine months Michael had begun to think he might be able to stay with this family. But their bio son started playing with Michael’s game boy, they got into a fight, and somehow Michael found himself hitting the boy over and over. That was the end of that family. They say he can have another family if he learns to control his anger- fat chance that that will ever happen. So here he is at the shelter, and he has to admit it isn’t all that bad here. He has been starting to make a few friends at his new school. He had started to connect with Haley, a girl in his class, even thought they might get something going- how stupid of him. Yesterday she told him she wasn’t interested in him and he was a loser. So he came home in a lousy mood, and got into a fight with a staff member- that nice one, Alicia- over of all things cleaning up some soda he spilled. He refused to do it, it just all seemed too much. Then in home work hour he tried to drown out all of this with his music, but the dumb staff confiscated his radio. Finally he just crashed.

So now it is morning and here’s Alicia again waking him up in her cheery way. And he is still here in the shelter. And he is still himself. And she is reminding him that he has a restoration to clean up the kitchen before he goes to school. What can’t she leave him alone? He doesn’t really mean to start swearing at her.


We can talk abot how Alicia should talk to Michael, or about what his consequences should be, or about how she cannot let him speak to her this way, or how we have to be consistant and not let these kids get away with this sort of behavior.

But what will actually be healing to Michael?

Now- stop and think about your own life.

Imagine that last night you had a fight with someone you love. You awake today in a very angry and irritable mood. You stub your toe on the way to the bathroom and you can’t find your keys. The shirt you wanted to wear is in the laundry. Nothing is going right- and yet you have to go to work. And if you start swearing at people at work, your job won’t last long. What do you do to get yourself to a place where you can not only go to work, but treat the people there kindly?

Some people might pray, others meditatate. Some listen to music. Some deliberately compartmentalize ("I have to put this aside now; I can deal with it later.") Some talk about their difficulties with a friend before starting the day. Some remind themselves that all is not lost ("I’m sure Chris and I will be able to work this out, and the shirt I picked instead actually looks pretty good.")

What does Michael need in order to be able to survive his very real and serious difficulties with out making them worse?

He needs a sense that he is a worthwhile person who is having some problems, instead of his current certainty that he is a total mess with no redeeming qualities.

He needs to be able to recognize when he is upset, and to put words to it.

He needs some one he trusts with whom he can talk over his thoughts and feelings.

And he needs some strategies he can use to keep functioning when life is hard.

We can help him with this- we can notice the good in him, give him opportunities for competence, be delighted with his progress. We can name and normalize feelings. We can be that trustworthy person by acing in trustworthy ways. And we can deliberately teach him strategies, in part by modeling and naming our own.

So what should Alicia do in the moment of waking Michael? She should ignore his swearing, remain calm and gentle (not too cheery). She should note his mood and mention it gently: "I can see you are feeling a bit low this morning." She should provide any soothing strategy she can think of: "Maybe we can have some music on this morning as you get ready." She should not worry about needing to punish or correct or change him. She can instead concentrate on helping him feel better and calmer, and giving him some emotional supplies to bring to the day.

It is through these processes that Michael can heal and grow. The consequences for swearing are not our most powerful change strategy. Our most powerful change strategy is forming connected, calm relationships.

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