Sunday, May 15, 2011

What We Say Matters

I was recently participating in a training at which we were discussing the function of cutting. One participant said:

“We had a girl named Megan who was cutting to be manipulative. She was doing it to get discharged and go to a place like detention where she wouldn’t have to work on her issues.”

What are the assumptions behind this statement? How does it differ from this statement?

“Megan has been working on some difficult issues recently. This has brought up some painful feelings and she has begun cutting for relief. Sometimes she doesn’t even want to work on her issues and wishes she were in a place like detention where she wouldn’t be in treatment.”

Same facts, different assumptions, leading us to different responses.

Another place I visited I noticed how often staff made statements about how bad the children were. Examples are:

“You’d better watch out putting that in your pocket. These kids will steal it from you in a minute.”

“These kids don’t care what we say as long as they get what they want.”

“You always have to watch your back around these kids.”

The staff tended to bond with each other around how awful the kids were.

Or, consider a staff member talking about a child who says mean things: "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.”

Someone describing the cutting of a foster daughter: "she just wants the foster mother to feel sorry for her."

Do you agree that the phrase "feel sorry for her" connotes an illegitimate need, something that she shouldn’t want or need? Doesn’t it imply that she is trying to get some kind of unwarranted or excessive response? Also, this phrase implies that we should resist feeling sorry for her- and by extension resist coddling her, fussing over her, or being sympathetic. Yet some cuddling and caring may be just what she needs.

We make these casual comments constantly in our many discussions about the kids. Yet by each comment we are expressing a theory, an understanding of why they are doing these things. And at times it is a theory that blames the child and implicitly accuses him or her of doing the behavior deliberately to annoy us.

When we make these comments we forget that the child is doing the best she can, that her fears and needs are legitimate to her, and that she is using the only means she has to meet them. She will only be able to change when she feels safety within committed relationships, and when she gradually learns new skills.

Try monitoring the conversation where you work, and see what assumptions are expressed in the casual comments about the children. Click on “comment” to let me know what you discover.

it is important to stop and challenge ourselves. One comment can lead to an entire attitude that will infect our response to the child and interfere with the child’s healing.


Anonymous said...

Hello I work at a residential treatment facility in NJ, I have heard statements like "this kid is not going to change he has done everything he can here not it is time he get discharged", "this kid is just trying to get my attention all the time, he is so needy", and "I can not believe anything this kid says it all seems like it is fake". This statements reflect attitudes that are not sympathetic or empathetic. At times I think creating feelings that are discouraging to staff and that is the place the come from to intervene with a child which becomes counterproductive. I also feel that it becomes a way they bond through our own sense of helplessness or other difficult feelings about the situation.

Anonymous said...

I recently had a client tell me that her mother told her (when she was very young) that she was just crying "to get attention" and that she should stop. She's grown up to be a young woman who engages in cutting behavior. This young lady was amazed when I pointed out that all children cry "for attention"- it's how they communicate that something is wrong and they need help.

Anonymous said...

In talking with one of my principals about a child, he said he wanted to suspend him from stealing a teacher's nameplate. I offered him this re-frame: This child's mother is in rehab, his father (who is currently engaged to his former nanny) says terrible things about his mother to him, he's moving out of state in June and this school is a place in which he has felt accepted,loved and safe. Perhaps he wanted to take a part of that with him.
The principal said that he really needed to talk to me more often.