I was talking with staff about Jesse. We had gone over his childhood, with his addicted mother and absent father. We had discussed the fact that his mother describes him as having problems since birth. They had told me about his many attempts at treatment, his failed foster placement, and the other disruptions that had led him to our doors. Jesse is 13 years old and very intelligent. He is overweight, poor at sports, and has no friends. And he is mean. He constantly says awful things to others, and (because he is smart) often he finds the very most upsetting thing to say to each person. He has trouble with boundaries- often touching others in ways they don’t like, although not in overtly sexual ways. The staff has tried. They have explained to Jessie how bad he makes others feel. The therapist tries to draw out how bad Jesse has felt at times and link that to how he makes others feel. There has been no change. The staff is feeling hopeless.
Then the unit supervisor speaks: "There is nothing you can do about Jesse. We have tried everything. Jesse just likes making other people feels bad. He admits it. It makes him happy to hurt others."
My heart sinks.
What I wish for is that when confronted with a child like Jesse, staff automatically attribute his behavior to pain and hurt. The amount we feel that this child is a pain is the amount that this child is in pain. Why does Jesse like hurting others? What has happened to him?
I would like staff to see Jesse as a child who has no sense of power, no sense of self worth. The only way he can engage others is through making them feel bad- and he is very good at that. He sees others as likely to hate, hurt and abandon him- why not attack them first? He is scared, shame-filled and hopeless inside, and can only escape from these feelings by making others (including the staff) feel as bad as he does.
Jesse will be able to decrease his meanness when he feels better. The task is not to explain to him how bad his actions are. The task- and it is a very difficult one- is to help him to see how good his actions can be. To help him see his strengths, use his powers for good, establish control in more positive ways, and connect with others through constructive leadership. If Jesse can experience (and experience again and again) the many pleasures the world has to offer, he can find other things that can more reliably make him happy.
In other words- we have to show Jesse that he can like other things, besides hurting people- that friendship is possible, control can become leadership, intelligence can be admired and draw praise from the group.
How can we possibly make this kind of thinking more routine in our settings? How can we begin to realize that change from helping a child to feel better, rather than making him feel worse?
As always, I’d love your comments, just click on the comments button.
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