An example from a recent Risking Connections® training demonstrates simple, free interventions we can use to implement trauma informed care- and also demonstrates exactly how hard they are to do.
Juan constantly lies, according to the staff of his group home. He lies to avoid consequences or to avoid admitting he has done something wrong. He also tells lies about things that are happening in his life- such as that he has a girl friend in school. He doesn’t have a girlfriend! He makes up whole stories that simply are not true. For example, staff gave him some new gloves the other night to replace the pair he lost. Now tonight he is saying that he doesn’t have any gloves, that no one will ever give him any, and that none of the staff care if his hands are freezing off.
It is such a normal human response to argue with the truth of these assertions. You KNOW you gave him gloves Tuesday night. He has probably just lost them again or left them in school. Juan really has to learn to be more responsible! We don’t have enough money around here for an endless supply of gloves. And what is this story about a girl friend! You know from talking with his teacher that mostly Juan is a loner in school and has few friends. How is he going to manage life if he keeps lying? So it seems important to tell him that you know this is not the truth and how can you trust him if he keeps lying.
What is happening with Juan during these events?
His hands are cold and he cannot believe he cannot find his gloves again. He feels like such an idiot and a loser. No one likes him, no one cares about him, and no one should- who would want to be around such a jerk? He feels stupid and unloved, and plus his hands hurt. Saying no one has taken care of him enough to give him gloves expresses his emotional truth. Certainly he cannot admit to having lost the gloves again, then everyone will be mad at him, as usual.
What if staff IGNORED the truth/falsehood dimension of the situation and just reacted to the emotional and physical reality? What if Mark, Juan’s favorite staff, said- "Hey Juan I see you have no gloves, let’s find some you can wear." And when Juan said "No one ever gives me gloves" Mark could say "You’re feeling right now that no one cares enough about you to help you- so let me see what I can do to help you right this minute."
How hard would that be? Mark might feel that if he doesn’t confront the lie Juan will have put one over on him, or will never learn that it is not okay to lie, or will start telling more lies to get what he wants. He might feel that he needed to defend staff against Juan's charge of neglect, point out that staff have been responsive and would never let Juan go without gloves. But I would suggest that Juan will need to lie less when he develops a new view of the universe- that this world is a place where people will help you, where people care what you are feeling, where they do not shame and blame you. Only then would Juan be able to admit that he left his gloves at school.
And what about the girlfriend? Juan is desperately lonely at school and is sure he will never fit in there. He thinks none of the kids like him or ever could. Especially not the girls. So when he comes home he creates a new reality, life as he wishes it could be.
What if Mark were to reply: "wow it would sure be nice to have a girlfriend at school. What do you like in a girl, any way? What kind of girl would be the perfect girl friend for you?" and start a discussion of girlfriends in general. At some point Mark could ask, "If you wanted to make friends with a girl, what would be the first thing to do?" and start teaching social skills.
Note that Mark just side steps the true/not true question and again, reaches for the emotional reality. He doesn’t believe or challenge Juan’s story. He just turns it into a discussion of an important subject to Juan- girls. He avoids shaming Juan further (“Juan, I talked to your teacher an in fact you do not have a girlfriend”) which would just lead to Juan’s needing to lie even more.
What would it take for us to respond like this much of the time? When we are away from the situation in a training it all sounds like a good idea, yet in the pressure of real life we find ourselves reverting back to arguing about the lie. Time to think and plan, time to consider what needs the child is meeting, and to choose a more thoughtful and healing response are essential.
What do you think about the likelihood of this sort of response in your setting? Click on comment and let me know.
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