In your treatment program how do staff respond to romantic relationships between the youth? Do you forbid them, in the interest of preventing distractions from treatment? Do you set limits, and what are they- no sex? No holding hands? Do you respond differently to a homosexual couple that live on the same unit than you do to a heterosexual one? Do you facilitate normative teenage activities such as dates to the movies? Anyone who treats adolescents has had to struggle with these and many more questions. And the relationships are often fraught with drama, anger, broken hearts, agitation and obsession. In addition, parents, social workers, licensing and accreditation bodies are watching and have strong- and differing- ideas about what you should do.
Sally and Mark are in love. Or at least they were this morning- this afternoon, as they return from school they are angry and agitated. Rosita just told Sally that she saw Mark talking with Leticia in school. Three other girls have told her that Mark said he thinks Leticia is cute. But Kendra said that Mark told her that he only cares about Sally. The girls will not get ready for the planned softball game- they are gathered in clumps discussing this. And it’s even worse because Sally and Leticia were good friends. Now Leticia is in her room with the door closed and Sally and several of her other new friends are considering ways to kill her.
Meanwhile, on the Boy’s Unit Mark is desolate. He is in bed with the covers over his head. He refuses to do his homework or attend activity. He knows that Sally is going to break up with him and he cannot live without her. He doesn’t even like Leticia! He sticks his head out and begs his roommate Devon to call the Girl’s Unit and convince Sally that this is all a big mistake. When staff say that it is not phone time Devon becomes belligerent and insists that this is an emergency.
What’s a staff to do? All this relationship stuff is getting in the way of treatment. It is paralyzing the entire program. It is so over dramatic and messy.
I would suggest that all the drama and mess IS the treatment. First of all, of course, this is normal teen age behavior. We cannot keep kids in treatment programs for several of their teen age years and not allow them to have teen age relationships. So much is learned in these relationships, so much practiced. If we forbid them (as if we could- they just go underground) our kids will be behind and incapacitated in one more way. Isn’t it better to let them experiment in the relative safety of our programs?
What is going on here? What needs are being met? What can be learned?
Can we assist Sally and Mark in direct communication? Instead of relying on the highly unreliable assistance of all their messengers, can they take the risk to talk to each other about whether Mark wants to break up with Sally and go out with Leticia?
What about the other kids? All of them are feeling important and excited by their roles in the drama. That’s okay. We don’t really need to go outside to play softball. Maybe we should pull the girls together and have a group about relationships- a very respectful and real group. How do you know if you can trust someone? How do girls keep on being friends when boys enter the picture? How do you decide who to believe? What are you looking for in a boyfriend? Etc. These topics are central to all teenagers and they are great to discuss in groups- many important issues come up. For example, in one group I talked with girls about who they can trust and I was saddened by how certain they were that there was no one, especially no boy that could ever be trusted. In another group, one girl had called another a slut. So we wrote on a white board all the characteristics they considered slutty, and had a great discussion of whether they wanted to be slutty and in what ways they were or were not presenting themselves that way. The trick is for the adults to be real, hold to their own values, but remain curious and respectful about the kids’ thoughts and values.
Maybe one of the male staff could go in and talk to Mark about women- you can’t live with them, you can’t live without them. He could talk man-to-man about how to show a woman she can trust you, or about whatever topics emerge. Neither our boys nor our girls have known very many good men, and they desperately need to know that it is possible to be strong and kind at the same time. Another staff might talk to Devon about what a good friend he is and how he can best support Mark.
We have to have limits. One is: no sex with anyone in the program. But if we can facilitate normal teen age things, it will be so helpful to them. For example: could staff take Sally and Mark to the movies (after they recover from this setback) and sit one or two rows behind them? We also have to make sure we are equally respectful to homosexual couples, despite the added complexity of sharing living quarters.
We cannot forbid romantic relationships. We do not need to see them as a distraction from the real work. There is nothing more real or important to a teen ager than their romances. And I have seen youth grow and change because of love, start to have more confidence because someone cares about them, learn how to share themselves more directly and experience the joys of being understood. I have also seen heartbreak, despair and regression. But I’ve seen all these in my adult friends as well. This is what life is all about- and we can use every piece of the emotional upheaval as an opportunity for growth.
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