At a recent presentation I did for the MAAPS conference, a question from a participant and a response from my friend Bob Davis crystallized some thoughts I have been exploring about learning restorative tasks. The participant asked: “We have a girl who is constantly saying mean things about others. As a restorative task we had her do research on peace movements and on Martin Luther King. She does this well- but it doesn’t affect the behavior. She keeps doing it.”
Let’s begin with the assumption that we are trying to create a response to a behavior that will decrease the likelihood of the behavior recurring. We must start by forming a theory about why the girl, let’s call her Kathleen, is saying mean things about others. What feelings is she having at those times? What need is she responding to? How is this behavior adaptive for her?
Most likely Kathleen is feeling small and vulnerable, lonely and unloved. She has no sense of inner connection to others. She does not have any friends, is sure none of the other kids like her and that she will never have any friends. At other times in Kathleen’s life when she has felt small and vulnerable, people have hurt her. Saying mean things and getting a reaction gives Kathleen a feeling of power, of strength and control. She does not know any other way to get that feeling.
Do we think that Kathleen is mean because she does not intellectually understand that meanness hurts other people? She has received a lot of meanness in her life, and knows exactly how it feels. Do we think she does not want friends and is just not motivated to be nice to others? We know how desperately she wants friends; it is not motivation that is the problem.
Therefore Kathleen will be most likely to decrease her mean behavior when she feels better. If she feels safe, loved, strong, connected, accepted, noticed, and appreciated she will have no reason to be mean. When she learns how to make and keep friends, is absorbed in her own interesting and successful activities, and trusts adults to care for her she will be more generous and kind. Our overall treatment plan and our response to each individual event should be planned to achieve these conditions.
Another way to look at this is to consider what happened right before Kathleen was mean. The most recent time was when two other clients were playing a game together and laughing. The time before that was when she was in math, could not solve a problem, and noticed that Maria was already done with the assignment. In both cases Kathleen felt inadequate and stupid, and spiraled quickly into despair and hopelessness.
What would we like Kathleen to do when she sees two girls playing and wishes she were part of it? What would we like her to do if she feels stupid because she cannot do her math? What would you do in either of these situations?
In the first case we would like her to approach the girls gently and ask if she could play too, or find another girl and engage her in some kind of activity. This is hard to do, requiring both social skills and courage. Another option would be to approach an adult and ask for help finding an activity. This requires trust in the adult. Or, she could absorb herself in a solitary pursuit like drawing, which requires that she has some solitary activities that she know she likes.
In math, we wish that Kathleen would ask her teacher or another student for help when she can’t do a problem. This requires having enough confidence to expose a weakness, and a trust that the other will not ridicule you and will pleasantly help.
This analysis leads us to a lot of ideas of areas in which we can help Kathleen grow. To recap, she needs:
• Social skills
• Trust in adults
• Discovering some solitary activities that she likes
• Confidence to expose a weakness
• Trust that the other will not ridicule her and will pleasantly help.
So what can we do?
• Use a curriculum like DBT to teach Kathleen the skill of joining in or proposing a play activity
• Be trustworthy our selves, do what we say we are going to do, and create opportunities to strengthen our relationship with Kathleen
• Teach Kathleen activities she can enjoy; build on any strengths and interests she has; celebrate her work
• Help Kathleen feel confidence in herself through activities in which she teaches others, leads groups, gives to social causes, and excels
• Treat Kathleen with gentleness and compassion. Make sure she experiences many instances of friendly, non-shaming help.
What if our response to Kathleen being mean to others was to build up her skills in one of these ways? We can look at the event that triggered her meanness and give her practice in another way of handling it; we can have her teach a game to some of the younger kids; we can have her work with a staff member to use her strength to make something for others; for example if she likes to cook she and a favorite staff could make a delicious dinner for the other kids.
Which brings me to my friends Bob’s comment that Kathleen could be an expert in the Civil Rights movement, and if she still felt small and scared inside, she still will need to make others feel bad.
I really, deeply, honestly feel that when kids feel better they will act better. Yet I wonder if we could actually act from that philosophy. It is so deeply engrained in us that the kids will change if we make them feel BAD after they do something that hurts others. If we acted from this belief we would have to see their harmful actions as an expression of how horrible they feel inside, and choose responses that make them happier. And I can just hear the responses now: you are going to reward her hitting me! How are they going to learn if they don’t pay? How will they take responsibility for their actions?
What do you think? Do you agree with my assumptions about the causes of Kathleen’s meanness? Could our programs move in this direction? How can we facilitate this transformation? Please click on comment and share your thoughts.
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