Brittany has been part of our agency for many years. She started on the Junior Unit, graduated to the Girls Unit, and then transferred to one of our Group Homes. She has had many ups and downs. But right now she is driving the staff crazy.
Brittany has been completely defiant. She will use the phone whenever she wants to for as long as she wants to. Whenever anyone asks her to do anything she swears at them and tells them she doesn’t need them, they cannot tell her what to do. She is nasty, calls staff names, and is threatening. She led several peers on an AWOL a few nights ago. The other girls are complaining- how come Brittany is getting away with this behavior? Maybe they should begin to act like she does.
Leah, the supervisor, talked with Brittany. Brittany maintained that she does not want anything from the house or anyone in it. She said: “You cannot change me. This is who I am.”
The staff is frustrated. Brittany is making them feel disrespected, ineffectual and useless. They are worried about the stability of the house. They are tired of all this nastiness. Brittany is restricted, and they cannot see any way she will be able to get off restriction. In fact, they are considering whether her visits to her foster home should be contingent on better behavior. Especially because Brittany taunts them with the fact that she can act however she wants and still go on visits. The situation is particularily frustrating because staff members have a connection with Brittany and care about her, and it feels like she is rejecting that connection and pushing them away.
The first question is always: how do we understand this behavior? What is happening in Brittany’s life? What might she be feeling? What needs is she trying to meet?
Brittany has started a transition to a foster home, the Thompsons. She has lived with the Thompsons in the past, but had to leave their home due to her behavior. However, they retained a connection with her and are now willing to try again. They have been through a lot of major episodes with Brittany and have not given up. But the Thompsons are not yet completely sure that Brittany can live with them. They are having her for weekend visits, which are going well, and are exploring their options in therapy. No date for discharge has been set. Brittany has been doing well in her public school, and it is also unclear whether Brittany will be able to stay in that school if she does go to the Thompsons, since they live in a different town.
Brittany has made many statements about being eager to go to the Thompsons and leave this stupid group home behind. At times she has also expressed doubts about the Mrs. Thompson. She is not sure she likes her or can trust her. Recently when Brittany was going through a medical problem she asked staff not to tell Mrs. Thompson because she was sure it would make Mrs. Thompson hate her.
It is so hard, in the midst of Brittany’s defiance, to see how scared she is. This is the most difficult situation in the world for her. She is attempting to take a leap of faith and trust her fate to an adult and a family. This has not worked out in her past. Many people have not been able to stick with Brittany. And in fact she has a previous disruption from this very family, although they retained their connection. Brittany is preparing to leave the agency that has raised her and has been her home for years. She is leaving the group home that has been her base and her success. She knows all too well how much more precarious a foster home is than an agency. And furthermore, the time frame is indefinite, the arrangements are unclear, and it is not even certain that she is going.
Brittany is trying to make it work. She is behaving well at the Thompson’s and also at school. But when she is back in the safety of her group home, all her tension comes out. The message is her defiance is: “I don’t need you! I won’t miss you! It is perfectly fine that you all are pushing me out the door into an unknown and unreliable future because I never liked you in the first place!” Her unwillingness to accept direction and help is her extreme method of convincing herself that she can depend on herself and she will be fine whatever happens. Her heightened agitation, constant drama and behavioral episodes are her way of escaping the tension she feels so acutely right now. She is sure that this placement with the Thompsons will not work out. She knows that she is an awful girl that no one could ever want or love. She cannot bear to trust again and risk being disappointed. She daily expects the news that the placement plans are cancelled. She hates to say goodbye to the staff she depends on. Yet, part of her longs for the love of a family, for normal life, for a future.
And, she has no idea when she will go. This is in part a feeling of safety- she doesn’t have to leave yet. In part it is frustrating- I want to move on! And in part it is just tense.
So if this is our working hypothesis, what should staff do? What they should do is the hardest thing possible- look past the defiance and the obnoxious behavior, see the frightened little girl inside, and move closer to comfort her. First of all, they should talk about all this: “It is often hard for kids to leave, no matter how much they want to. It still feels scary.” Or: “I’m sure you feel worried about whether it will work out with the Thompsons, and part of you really wants it to, and part of you is afraid it won’t. Sometimes that is so hard that you try to believe you don’t even like the Thompsons.” Validate that these feelings are natural and to be expected. Brittany will reject these interpretations, and insist that no, she is eager to go and that the staff is just stupid. But somewhere inside she will hear what is being said and be comforted. Talk with the group as a whole about how hard transitions are, and if possible encourage all of them to share feelings they have had in making changes (like what about when they came to the group home?) and how they have managed them, Anything that is possible to make the transition process as clear and transparent as possible will also help Brittany.
Find ways to remind each other as staff of Brittany’s history and what a difficult leap of faith she is trying to make. And remind each other that even as she feels safe enough to rant and rave, you are playing a priceless and important role in Brittany’s life.
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