What NOT to do! -or- the night Leslie lost it

Remember I work with teenage boys in a foster care group home. With a few exceptions, they are there because they have behavioral problems that make them unable to live in a regular foster home.

I told you previously about Planned Ignoring, but that is certainly not our only “treatment tool”. We also use things like proximity, redirection, hurdle help, controling the enviroment, etc. Another thing we try to do is recognize when a boy is becoming escalated. Usually when you look back on an incident you can identify a “trigger”. The trick is to recognize the trigger and defuse the boy before he explodes.

As staff, we strive to be aware of what our own triggers as well, so we can stay calm and professional with the boys at all times. Notice I said strive. Sometimes triggers can change. When I first started, power struggles were a big trigger for me. I had little patience with boys who would not do what I asked them to do. Even in prison, if I asked nicely the inmates would usually do what I asked. If they didn’t, I would be firm and tell them it was an order and then they would comply (99% of the time). Of course, they obeyed for reasons of their own. They want to be on the “good side” of female officers. . .use your imagination. It was maddening to me to ask a teenager to do something and have them ignore me. To deal with that, I learned that consequences are not always immediate. I also learned to let go of my pride about not “winning” every confrontation. I don’t get triggered by power struggles anymore.

However, recently I discovered a new trigger. I call it “Relationship boundaries”. One of the tools of treatment is to “use the relationship”. All the people I work with are in this field because we want to help the kids. We may get really annoyed with them at times, but we genuinely care for them and want to help them succeed in life. Helping them can be a slow and difficult process and as one staff member put it, “soul crushing”. So when we do feel like we have made a connection, a relationship, that is satisfying. Rewarding.

I don’t expect that having a relationship with a kid will make them instantly into model residents, but I do think that there is a mutual level of respect on some level. When that is violated…trigger!

The other night at work one of the boys was up late again. Oliver, (I don’t have to explain that that is not his real name and why, do I?) was angry with my partner. He decided to take it out on both of us, so he waltzed into the office.

Residents are never supposed to be in the office. He was walking around looking at things and saw my Diet Pepsi on the shelf and picked it up. He knew it was mine because my partner told him to put my Pepsi back, and he refused.

This was my first trigger. I had thought Oliver and I had a relationship. He crossed a boundary by taking my personal belongings. I could have suppressed my anger if he had just drank it. After all Pepsi is irrestible! But maybe he doesn’t like diet, anyway, he stood in the middle of the office and started to pour small amounts on the floor saying, “This is for Tom, this is for Bob, this is for. . .”

It seemed to be some strange tribute to dead “homies” (friends, for those of you who don’t know Teenspeak). Seeing him there not only wasting my Pepsi, but making a mess for us to clean up, something snapped inside me. I got up from the desk, grabbed my other Pepsi and walked over to him.

“Here take this for your other homies,” I snarled and tossed the Pepsi at him.

He didn’t like that (what did I expect?) and threatened me with, “If you do that again, you will regret it.”

“Go ahead and hit me and we’ll end this.” I shot back at him, meaning that if he hit me, my partner would call the police and he would go to juvenile. End of story.

That caused him to back pedal a little, “Hey, I didn’t say anything about hitting you.” Phew!

I regained control and sat back down at the desk. Later when he was calmer, he left the office and he offered to pay me for the Pepsi. I said, “It’s not about the money, Oliver.” It wasn’t, it was about relationship boundaries.

When I told my husband this story, he just stared at me stunned for a moment. Then teasingly he said, “What were you thinking? What if he had hit you? Oh, I can just see it. . .you would go to church with a black eye and everyone would blame ME!”

What was I thinking? Clearly I wasn’t, that was the problem. Part of me didn’t really believe that he would hit me. I just didn’t like being threatened and wanted to call his bluff. Another part of me thought he might do it, but was too angry to care. After all, I’ve been through childbirth five times, I think I can take a punch!

Tonight I came to work and apologized to Oliver for asking him to hit me. “I’m sorry that was unprofessional.” He said he was fine with it, but missed the cue that it was his turn to apologize. Sigh.

What are your triggers? What things, if you were aware of them, could help you be a better parent, spouse or friend? It is a worthwhile question for all of us.

One comment

  1. I don’t think you needed to apologize at all! I think you did just what was needed: you showed him the implications of what he was doing, and you gave him a real choice. He might not have said he was going to hit you, but what was he talking about when he said “you’ll regret it”? It was definitely a threat. If it hadn’t been a threat to hit, it might as well have been. Because most importantly, you felt threatened. The authors of Crucial Conversations talk about breaking through silence. Everything important to the situation has to get “on the table.” Until that happens, no real dialogue can happen. So you broke through the silence and showed him that he was threatening you and that it had real consequences.

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