Have you ever heard the expression: “There’s more than one way to skin a cat?”
I had no idea where it came from and could not for the life of me figure out why anyone would even put the word skin as a verb and the word cat in the same sentence. I decided to look it up on the internet and here is what I found out about its origin. In short, it is an old British literary proverb that has been recycled and adapted in other books written in the 1800s. The meaning is essentially unchanged over the years. This proverb basically says that there is more than one way for people to get what they want. Similarly, when you enter an address into your GPS or smartphone to get driving directions, it will likely give you several routes to get you from your destination to the desired one. They all get you there but some are more direct, take more time, use more familiar routes and some avoid the stress of heavy traffic. You may reluctantly choose to get on 695 at 4:30PM on a Friday evening knowing full well it’s the known route, but is guaranteed to cause you stress in the form of long traffic jams. Still, every time you get on the beltway you deal with predictable, unpleasant conditions. So why would you continue to do that even though you get the same result almost every single time? Have you ever ventured on unfamiliar routes virtually unknown to the masses of commuters to find you can get where you want to go in the same amount of time but perhaps by driving more miles. Maybe this alternate route has revealed itself to you to be relaxing, enjoyable, scenic and preferred. Perhaps it took longer to get there, but was a pleasant or less stressful way to go.
This can be applied to looking at human behavior. I’d like to quote Albert Einstein in his definition of insanity. Einstein defined this as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. I’ve also heard wise people say “If you do what you’ve always done, you’re gonna get what you’ve always gotten.” How many times have we found ourselves engaging in the same behavior we have sworn at other times we are no longer going to do? This may apply to eating habits, weight loss, alcohol consumption, behavior in our relationships or work productivity. When we find ourselves under stress, we are even more likely to revert back to our usual ways, even if we told ourselves we wouldn’t. It’s true of us, our youth in care, of all human beings. It’s in our nature to do so. Because it is, we can hopefully give ourselves a break for not changing ourselves, our behavior or our habits right away. We may or may not extend this tolerance to our own children, our youth in care and others around us. I believe at times we forget to do so. It is easy to get frustrated and angry at youth when they continue to do what we know they were taught by us not to do. We get particularly angry when we are clear youth are deliberately defying what we have expressly asked them not to do.
All youth in treatment foster care have emotional challenges and a diagnosis. If they had none and were better behaved, they may never have left their birth families or would perhaps be in regular foster homes, not treatment foster homes. Spend even a moderate amount of time in the company of our TFC youth and you will become aware fairly quickly that they struggle with some serious issues. Many of our youth do not look particularly hyperactive, depressed or agitated all the time. Many of them do and its very clear these are difficult behaviors to work with for parents. Still, many of them show us that their disability is displayed in their decision-making. Some may even look like they are actually enjoying the fact they are causing the caring adults in their lives great stress. It is very easy to get activated and upset when youth do this with us. I am a parent of two children who have at various times dug in their heels on refusing my directions. I have physically felt the rise of my own agitation and the knee jerk response to want to assert control and make my kids do what I have told them to do. I have also worked for fifteen years in a residential treatment center for emotionally and behaviorally challenged children. These are youth who have “upped the ante” by being violent, provocative, defiant or otherwise mean-spirited. I get it.
What I am going to ask you to consider in the rest of this article will hopefully stir your thinking. While I’d prefer all of your reactions to be about considering new possibilities for dealing with challenging youth in your homes, I am aware that some of you may find what I propose to feel like giving up power, control or authority in your homes. I am going to propose to you that there is more than one way to skin a cat or more than one way to get to a destination. If you read this and shrug it off, get irritated or refuse to change your tactics, I want you to think about what that’s about. Perhaps you believe it is the task of youth to fall into your home routine and not the other way around. When new military recruits arrive at basic training, do drill sergeants ask the recruits “what’s your preferred style and pace of learning”? I think not. Drill sergeants enforce compliance and do not negotiate to elicit the cooperation of soldiers in training. Fear of negative consequences, such as middle of the night ten mile runs or push-ups until one’s arms feel like they are going to fall off, can be very convincing to motivate desired behavior in recruits. The key difference here is that you cannot compare recruits to traumatized youth. Some TFC youth you may think could benefit from the discipline of military training. However, as I’ve mentioned in previous articles, traumatized youth act out from a place of disempowerment, in efforts to assert some degree of power in their own lives. Too many times our TFC youth have tried to demonstrate power or resist feared authority through acting out with negative, and at times intolerable, behavior. In our TFC monthly In-Service series, we will be offering a session in June on empowering traumatized youth in the TFC home using principles of trauma-informed care. Participants and trainers will discuss how to empower youth with some of the worst behavior, in a way which will decrease the occurrence of negative acting out behavior. It will center on a process of negotiation and exploring the thought processes of our TFC youth.
The thing is, it’s possible to have those things in your home which are negotiable and those things which are non-negotiable. Short of issues around safety and respect, I am a believer that whatever you can place in the negotiable category should be in there. That may sound like too much for some of our youth. I ask you to consider it differently. An example of something that was completely non-negotiable for me when I worked in the RTC was safety. No one was ever allowed or excused to be violent toward another, themselves or with expensive property. This was a rule that covered everyone and was enforced consistently at all times. There may also be things which you won’t negotiate but will address consistently without getting into power struggles. The issue of use of language and respect may be good examples of this. We cared for many kids who had foul language and were disrespectful. We reminded youth that these were in our code to be followed. Some would come around somewhat quickly and others would resist for a long time. They would withhold respect of the staff and use inappropriate language in communicating what they wanted. When cursed out, staff would redirect the child. Depending on the child, a staff member may give a child a time out, may inform the child that disrespect has lost him or her a desired privilege or may ignore the child. Some of you may believe that ignoring the behavior shows you condone it, and letting the child get away with that will mean the child will get the upper hand or get worse at this behavior. I often have to remind adults dealing with these kids that the behavior was already learned and part of the child’s repertoire. There are behaviors we all have, which we’ve had for many years and which will not disappear instantaneously. Psychology of learning tells us that one of the best behavioral interventions for eliminating a behavior is to ignore it, which essentially gives it no payoff or result. After a while, the behavior theoretically goes away or gets extinguished. Thinking about ignoring swearing in your home may sound impossible. But I have seen very skilled interventionists look a cursing child in the eye and saying: “When you are ready to speak to me with respectful language, I am ready to listen and hear what you want.” That was immediately followed by ignoring all of the subsequent curses thrown at the staff member. Sometimes a youth would adjust language immediately. At other times, the child may persist for a while. However, I’ve rarely seen this technique not work with most youth. Once a child has stopped cursing loudly, he or she has generally gained some degree of emotional calm or control and is capable of then hearing from the adult that foul language is not respectful and will not get the youth what he or she is seeking to acquire. That may be adult engagement or having a need met by the adult.
The way I’ve seen this play out with youth in care is like this:
A child becomes upset or triggered about something, escalates and uses profanity, the language of anger for many youth. An unknowing adult intervenes by immediately focusing on the profanity, thinking if the rule breaking isn’t addressed immediately or if a limit isn’t set, the child will interpret this as profanity is acceptable or tolerated. The adult may direct the child to time out or his/her room for swearing. The child escalates further and experiences the intervening adult as added stress. Not only that, the child may subconsciously hear the adult as critical, which exaggerates a child’s own negative self-talk which had already started when he or she became frustrated in the beginning. The child becomes more upset and out of control. The cursing increases in its intensity and volume. The adult responds by raising his voice and demanding compliance – which is for the child to stop the behavior immediately, when the child is clearly less reasonable and less in control of his or her emotions. Since the child isn’t stopping the cursing, may actually be doing it more at this point and perhaps added some other negative behavior, the adult who is determined to gain compliance and assert control threatens the child with losing something, like a privilege. The child responds with increased agitation because now he or she has less control. The adult doesn’t seem to know what got him or her upset in the first place and is now threatening to make the child more miserable than the thing which bothered the child at the start and may have had nothing to do with the adult who is now seemingly pouring gasoline on a raging fire. The child has no brakes and now directs his/her anger at the adult. The child may insult, swear at or threaten the intervening adult. The adult responds with a raised voice and informing the child that he or she now will incur unpleasant consequences, and lose something for days or weeks. This can go on and on, and I’ve seen it escalate to violence. A classic struggle around power and control.
Here’s the way it could play out:
A child becomes frustrated about something and is heard by a tactful adult using profanity, the language of anger for many youth. The adult realizes that the tone of the child’s voice and the appearance of the child’s face and body language is consistent with the child being upset. In full knowledge that profanity is not allowable per the house rules, the adult says to the child: “Tell me what happened”. The child may inform the adult about what happened, possibly with a raised voice, and perhaps with more profanity. The adult says to the child “I can see and hear how angry you are. Can you come over to me and tell me what has you so angry that you are yelling? Do me a favor, if you can. Try to lower your voice a little so I can understand everything you are saying to me.” The child yells more, then gradually lowers his or her volume. The cursing begins to decrease. The adult hears what the child is saying and responds by saying some variation of “I know how frustrating that can be”, “I know you don’t like when that happens” or “Now I know why you are so upset”. Any of these statements can serve to validate the child’s feelings and make him or her feel like the adult has listened without anger at the child. The adult maintains a low tone of voice and open body language while speaking to the child. When the child calms down, the adult then asks the child what he or she remembers saying when he or she was angry. (This is part of the Life Space Interview, or LSI learned in TCI-F). The adult asks the child if profanity is acceptable in the home. The child, who is calm, says it is not and should know this being oriented to the home when he or she first moved into the home. In addition, the adults have role modeled respectful language along the way since the child moved into their home. The adult informs the child “I know you were upset and spoke like that in anger. I would like you let me know next time you get angry without cursing. We’ll need to keep an eye on this. If using poor language like this doesn’t improve, we’ll need to work out consequences for that to remind you about the rule. Can you try harder next time to just let me know what’s going on without putting yourself in trouble?” The child feels understood and validated, but is reminded about what behavior is acceptable. The adult is experienced as patient and fair. This builds “relationship capital” or respect for the adult in the child. No yelling. No power struggle. The adult never lost authority or power. The adult did not lose control. By responding this way, the adult elicited the child’s cooperation and de-escalated the child. The adult did not enforce compliance. Both the child and the adult maintain their dignity and respect. There is more than one way to skin a cat or get to a destination.
Youth in foster care deserve our patience. They have had years of experience in which adults have had zero patience for them around their emotional and behavioral growth. Many adults have lost their patience and their self-control in addressing the needs or behavior of children. It is common for youth in care to have developed this into a pattern of behavior which they exhibit consistently in homes, in schools and in treatment settings. Many subconsciously attempt to recreate their early experiences by provoking adults wherever they go – because they are accustomed to adults losing control, or rejecting them. While it is scary and unhealthy, it is familiar. This is similar to the way victims and perpetrators of horrible domestic violence continue to find perpetrators and victims with whom to start relationships. The outcomes are predictable to those on the outside looking in, even if the relationship participants appear unaware that this is the dance they do in creating what is familiar. Our TFC youth may try to engage you in such a dance by provoking you and attempting to battle over control and around meeting your expectations. We also know that kids in pain tend to act it out before they learn to talk it out. We as adults need to take a higher road in these instances if youth are to learn this from us.
Let’s also look at power and authority asserting interactions with children to get them to change their behavior. A huge majority of our TFC youth did not begin to have behavioral problems right before they were referred for care in your home. In fact, most were likely kids who were very challenging, overly emotional, misbehaving toddlers, who never seemed to grow out of it the way most children do. And isn’t praise, firm and loud limit setting and punishment/consequences the most consistently used technique for parents, teachers and other authority adults with young kids? My point is – If this strategy was effective, wouldn’t it have worked by now? These youth have had years of “Authoritarian” approaches well before they entered foster care – and it wasn’t effective in changing their behavior over time. In fact, many of our youth have shown a significant worsening of behavior as they’ve gotten older. Evidence for this may be the history of multiple family placements, hospitalizations and treatment episodes in residential programs. I’ve seen youth regress significantly in overly controlling environments, dealing with adults who ascribe to a “my way or the highway” philosophy. This approach affirms power in the adults and offers, traumatized and disempowered youth, none. These approaches are justified by those using them as effective because after lengthy battles, youth may have been forced into compliance. This is generally a win-lose scenario and ultimately leaves the youth feeling that the adult got the upper hand and their own need met to be in control.
Your home is a treatment environment. As a TFC foster parent, you are providing treatment to these youth. Youth who have been traumatized and disempowered need an opportunity to experiment with (safely and under solid supervision) the concept of empowerment. A great example is having a discussion and asking a youth what he or she would like to plan for the week, what he or she would like for dinner each night and when is his or her preferred time was to complete homework or chores. Just because you ask a youth these questions, it does not mean you have to do as the youth says and give up your authority. Let’s remember that one’s authority is intact even if a youth does not comply. What this means is by asking and discussing the issues with the youth, the adult communicates that youth have thoughts and feelings about things that are important and will be heard. There is also an opportunity for use of the following: “Let’s agree we’ll try it your way for five days and see how you do. If you leave your homework until later in the evening but get it done before your 10 o’clock bedtime, then that’s fine and that’s what we’ll do. You can use after school time for sports or play. If when I check your homework at 9:45 each night this week, it’s not done or is incomplete, we’ll agree to try my suggestion the following week which is…” The adult elicits the youth’s cooperation on this plan. If or when the youth ‘fails” and then goes against the agreement, there is an opportunity for yet another discussion about how the adult is seeking to help the youth learn self-governance/responsibility/independence. How many adolescents in particular fight against that? Not many. What they do fight about is the accountability piece and their ownership of not keeping his or her end of the deal.
Homework must be done: non-negotiable. When it’s done can be negotiated. The youth is empowered to decide and show the adult his or her way is acceptable. Eliciting cooperation is so much more effective than demanding or enforcing compliance. There is more than one way to skin a cat or get to a destination.
I fully understand how difficult it is to deal with challenging TFC youth behavior each day. Many of these youngsters struggle with trust and may dismiss what you are trying to get them to do. As you all know, traumatized and emotionally challenged youth first need a reason to listen to your guidance before incorporating your teaching. It can take a while to build trusting relationships with TFC youth. This is particularly true for some of our older youth who have been in and out of multiple placements. Just by opening your home and meeting basic needs, youth begin to decide if they will or will not accept your teaching. I humbly request you consider what I’ve written about today and perhaps look for areas in which you usually power struggle with youth in your home. Consider trying an eliciting approach rather than an enforcing one. Discuss with the child what he or she thought about the different approach afterward. I’ve seen this technique work very well for some of the most challenging youth with whom I’ve ever worked. I hope the above was helpful to you. Feel free to contact me at the TFC program if you would like to have time to discuss your work with troubled youth. I wish you all a wonderful springtime.
All the Best,
Jason R. Collender, LCSW-C
Treatment Foster Care