Sunday, June 03, 2012

The Real World, Once More

I did a consultation for a treatment team this week. They were a delight to work with. They are very used to looking for the need behind behaviors, and are caring and sympathetic to the youth in their care. Still, they struggled with the same issues everyone else does.

Validating does not mean agreeing.

Tenesha said: “I think this validating can backfire. I mean, When Stacey says she hates this place and everything we do here sucks and the staff are unfair, how can I tell her that she is right? I don’t agree and it would be going against my self and my team.” This reflects a misunderstanding of what validating is. Tenesha does not have to tell Stacey that she agrees with her- she doesn’t. Instead, validating is saying that she hears what Stacey is saying and understands what she is feeling. So, Tenesha does NOT say, “I know, Stacey, this is a lousy place.” Instead she says: “Right now you hate living here, and everything about the place is on your last nerve.” To say this with genuine feeling, Tenesha thinks about how hard it must be to be fifteen and have no family, and to be the only girl in your high school who does not live at home. Then she asks Stacey what in particular is bothering her right now, and tries to help her solve whatever her problem is.

Living in the Real World

Then in the consult Maria said “I still think this validating can go bad. I mean, we validate, validate, validate. What are these kids going to do when they get out in the real world and no one validates them?”

First of all, I think it is interesting that when people make these comments they always portray the real world as so harsh. I live in the real world, and I receive quite a bit of validation- luckily.

Getting What You Want Makes You More Able to Do Without It

But anyway. I would like to talk about the fact that meeting a child’s needs makes them MORE likely to be able to meet the next challenge, not less. When ever teams consider doing something special for a child (sit at her door at night, give him special food, allow him to stay up late) they become concerned that the child will want them to do this forever. Yet, when we feed a baby milk on demand we are not concerned he will want milk forever. We help a toddler learn to walk and to deal with obstacles in full confidence that he will be more independent in a few months.

To further understand this, let’s meet Jose and Richard. They are in fifth grade together, and they both love action figures. Jose has quite a collection, and he brings some to school and the boys stage elaborate battles and adventures. Occasionally, Jose invites Richard over to his house after school. This is very exciting for both boys, because Jose has lots of action figures and their accessories. Now they can really create some stories. However this doesn’t happen too often, because Richard cannot ask Jose to his house, and he feels bad going to Jose’s too often. Richard never knows what his mother will be like in the afternoons, and whether he will have to take care of her. Besides, he shares his room with his brothers, and he only has four action figures and one accessory. He’d be ashamed to have Jose over.

As the boys grow older, which boy do you think most easily got bored with action figures and started to become interested in teenage things? Which boy said to a teacher that he trusted: How am I supposed to start growing up? I haven’t had enough time to play with my action figures!

To belabor the obvious a bit- Jose’s father did not say: “Let’s not give Jose any action figures, because then when he grows up he will always want to play with them.” When you get what you need at the moment, at the right stage of development for you, you take it in, and then you move on when your needs have been met and you are excited by the next phase. If you do not get what you need, your needs are not met, you stay at least partially stuck in that stage, and moving on is more difficult.

So, our kids have never been validated. Nothing in their lives has indicated that anyone was putting their needs first: not when they were neglected, not when they were abused, not when they were moved, and moved again, and again. They have a huge developmental hole where validation should have been. In other words, they have had few experiences in which someone said, I get it, I understand what you are feeling, I see how you could be feeling that way, and maybe even: I have felt that way myself. They have had few experiences of feeling: I am not alone.

So validate all you can- it won’t turn against you. And then when the youth leaves, maybe she will seek out more validating people, because now she knows how good that feels. And if she runs into non-validating people as we all do, she will have inside her a memory of how you understood her, you were on her side, and she will be able to manage that invalidation without disastrous reactions.

And you will have helped her find a life worth living!