ISSUE 102 JULY 2007 CONTENTS HOME PAGE
Do you work with ‘unlovable’ kids?
Slam! The kitchen door almost kicks off it’s hinges when Selena storms in after a bad day at school — again! Fresh from completing my CYC degree, I sat at the kitchen table in the middle of an interview with Naro, a potential employer at her wit’s end — not that I could tell. She attempted to discuss the day with Selena who chose to ignore my presence and dismiss Naro’s genuine concern, swearing all the way up the stairs to her bedroom. My future co-worker just looked at me, smiled and carried on with our conversation. Is this what I am getting myself into? Well, at least Naro seemed to be a neat person to work with. The setting was a specialized resource for inner city kids, a three-bedroom home far removed from down town Vancouver. It’s far- reaching objective was to “re-integrate ‘troubled youth’ back into the community”.
With the alienation of family break-down and the enmeshment of street culture one can only imagine the childhood injuries that many kids carry through adolescence and into adulthood. So much trust lost, so many hopes dashed, so much potential ignored, so much hurt. How many layers of defenses does it take before the Self can feel some sense of protection? And how much anger continues to percolate beneath the surface to be unleashed whenever an uncaring and hostile world imposes itself one more time? So what can you do with a young person who defies everything you offer – just because?
Relationships are all we really have to offer (Thank you to my instructors who have burned this into every fiber of my being). Despite the most difficult, frustrating and chaotic times, a genuine, personal, consistent, and nurturing relationship can penetrate even the toughest of shells. But, along with the commitment, time is also a crucial factor. Trust is not given; it is earned through everyday experience. And, in my experience, an untrusting and unloving young woman like Selena has every reason to feel the way she does. She persistently sabotaged any attempt to offer caring and love — and why not? Why should she trust me, a woman being paid to work with her? Who am I? Why would I mean anything to her when even her own kin have turned away when she most needed them?
Selena had been ‘bribed’ to move into a small, strange community and told that this is what’s best for her. “Well Fuck You! Where is the city? Where is the action? Why am I in this little hick town? I hate it here!” My only way of tolerating the onslaught was to stay solid with myself. This was not about me, never was, and never will be but I am here whenever the need for contact arises. The hostility was direct, dramatic and personal but how else could it be? I could only hang in there and try to understand that I have never walked an inch in this girl’s shoes. Breathe!
Three and a half years ago, Selena despised almost everything in her world. There was always something to hate: school, peers, caregivers, social workers, house rules, the other residents; and always, in her mind, a legitimate reason for hating everything and everybody. Any incident, at any time of day or night, could be sufficient to spark her rage and contempt. I am fortunate to share a service contract with my colleague Naro. Our mutual respect and complementary working styles make it possible for us to endure the rough cuts that make up so much of our daily lives. Without our fortunate blend of experience, ethics and education, we could never have established a living environment that accommodates so many levels of care. We work equal time — four days on and fur days off, 24 hours a day — and share the roles of parent, counsellor, chauffeur, cook, etc. And, in the middle of it all, I am living and breathing a relationship with Selena, along with two other residents, at any given time. It’s a far cry from the safe and predictable world of the classroom.
In the beginning, Selena was cold, harsh, judgmental and almost always angry about something. Once she started to settle into the local community, she returned to her pattern of taking off to be with other disenchanted kids. Her crowd was just as rebellious and welcomed her to their world drugs, alcohol, unhealthy relationships, and bad choices. Selena had re-created her comfort zone. Due to the importance of friends and parties, school became unimportant. She started to miss classes and, on several occasions, would drop out completely. Over the years, it took many different approaches, countless meetings and endless soul-searching find ways that fit for her.
Selena’s verbal abuse and ‘in-your-face’ screaming was enough to make one crack. Her coldness and apparent lack of concern for others offered little opportunity for open communication.
The question we faced was, “How do we create a new comfort zone through the daily trial and tribulations?” There was no overall plan that could be implemented; only the moment- by-moment exchanges with Selena would create opportunities for change. Establishing safe routines, responding in consistent ways and demonstrating respect for personal boundaries gradually laid down a fragile foundation for trust.
At first we began to notice that she was not always suspicious of us and our motives and would occasionally let her guard down. Up to this point I had let Selena set the pace for her growth. But the more we came to know each other, the more I was able to relate to her in a firm, though relatively non intrusive manner, always respecting boundaries and her ability to make choices. My message was, ‘there are times when things are negotiable and times when they are not.’ This was a fine balancing act of granting freedom for expression and setting clear standards for acceptable behavior while encouraging her to take responsibility for the consequences – positive or negative.
Options and choices
Over time, Selena came to understand that her life was always going to be hers and that there are tools available that make the adventure more enjoyable. Through the on-going debates and reflections, Selena developed the ability to consider her options and make choices that best worked for her, but it was tough going. Whatever the consequences, I invited her to examine how they had been brought about by her own actions and not just by a hostile or rejecting world. For example, when she began screaming about the consequences for taking off to live with her “friends” I made no attempt to placate her displeasure. I let her know that the choice was hers to make and that it was in her own interests to carefully consider how her choices influenced the outcomes. In our program, the consequence is that a failure to return to the home results in an automatic call to the police, a reduction of allowance and a full ‘discussion of the incident before the re-instatement of privileges’. Tough love? Maybe. Does it work? Yes! The consequences were always the same so she never was ‘surprised’.
In the early days, Selena would be gone for weeks at a time but eventually, this moderated from a hostile leave of absence to a night or two out on the town.
My hopes were that, eventually, her pals would grow tired of feeding her and supporting her habits and this is exactly what happened. Gradually, she began to lose enthusiasm for running off when she realized that it would not create a huge drama in anyone’s life but her own. By this time, she was beyond wanting to make dramatic gestures to keep up her façade of independence. Becoming a burden to others, being hungry and lacking the luxuries of home was a pattern that had to run its course before the futility of it all finally began to sink in. Every time she returned home, a new bit of life’s experience was added to her closet of wisdom. An on each occasion, we would sit down and calmly discuss her latest ‘adventure’ and she came to see that I was still able to love her despite the self-defeating choices she was making. Her game became old news and not so thrilling anymore, especially when she became aware that she was the only one hurting, that she was battling herself.
Of course there are significant safety concerns associated with this behaviour, but I have learned that patience and faith are valuable commodities in our profession. Kids like Selena are not stupid or incompetent. They know how to watch their backs and protect themselves. In Selena’s case, she had learned to do this all too well, long before arriving on our doorstep.
But the real magic of working with Selena was in helping her to rediscover the child that she had buried under her layers of defences. Because I lived with Selena, I was able to catch glimpses of this scared little girl peering out behind the masks. Over time, I was able to bring my hard-learned skills into our relationship, listening, mirroring, validating, modeling and even role-playing.
Slowly but surely, the glimpses became moments ... then loose cannons. As Salena learned to trust me, she began to relate in different ways. The razor edge dulled. The thing about trust is that a caregiver can only prove, through perseverance, that honesty and trust are possible. I never expected it to happen just because I was an adult, a professional with a degree, whatever. It is a matter of learning to trust the right individuals, in the right circum- stances, plain and simple. Some kids need to learn things the hard way, their way. It quite often seems like two steps forward and one step back ... and it is. That is O.K. because deep down I knew what was happening: the beginning of a transformation.
“Just like the rest ...”
We began to have more good times, more laughs, more fun, more ease. After about one year, Selena asked me if I was going to stick around. She had finally come to realize that I was not leaving despite her unconscious efforts to push me away, make me mad, make me break down, and make me leave (like her three previous workers). In fact, her position had always been ‘If I’m hostile enough you will leave me, just like the rest.’ But not this time. And this, I believe, is at the very heart of the matter.
Children need to know that their caregiver is in for the long haul, that they will not be abandoned, particularly when they have fought so hard not to receive or give love.
Please don’t believe that my work with Selena became a fairy tale; we were at the beginning of a much longer journey. She no longer spat venomously at every turn — only half the time! This was progress, but it was also frustrating. Just when I started to believe things had turned around, the old stuff came back again. (Breathe … remember this is not about me.) Maintaining a cool, caring, responsive (not reactive) stance has allowed her to see that she didn’t have to impose her will on others to get what she wanted. Bit by piece she learned to control her temper and to discard the pain of her depleted childhood. She learned how to negotiate and to pick and choose her own battles. Slowly she began to see that she is worth loving, in return she can love others without fear of abandonment, abuse, or unrelenting expectations. Perhaps life was never meant to be this much of struggle but, for many kids, it just is.
What it takes
So what does it take for a child and youth care worker to hang in? Our constant challenge is to know ourselves, examine our motives, understand our own issues, explore our biases and be solidly grounded in our own sense of self. Only in this way can we be responsive to the needs of children and know that, when the storm comes, we may bend but not break. You can only come to know another person to the degree that you know yourself.
To breathe a theme of “success” into this story I’m delighted to report that now, several years after her arrival at our home, Selena has conquered many of her fears, anxieties, and obstacles. Why? Because we never quit but, more importantly, she gave us a chance. Selena will be graduating this June and re-connected member of her family will be there to celebrate. Shortly thereafter, she will be moving out into the world to build her life with people who will continue to offer care and support.
She did all of the hard work and it is she who will reap the rewards. For the gift is knowing that the relationships within our home have paved the way for new possibilities, choices that only Selana can make. In her own way, she taught us that, when all seems futile, don’t give up. Confidence builds confidence and this can only come from direct experience. As professionals we need to know how and when to use the skills we have; timing is everything. But above all, we must truly love what we do and let go of the outcomes, knowing that we cannot change another life however hard we might try.
This is dedicated the young lady who has helped me to help her. Congratulations! Always remember girl, “The choice is yours”.