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Friday, July 29, 2011

"He Said What About Your Mom?" Trying to Help Clients Keep Perspective When I don't Have Any

I had a young man come into my office, a bright, precocious older child living in a group home for a variety of reasons, most of which were not his fault. He happens to be black. His crime of the week? Getting into a fight with another group home boy, a new boy to the house. So we discuss this because somewhere in the middle of all this we have developed rapport. I’m not sure why, except that one week he was telling me therapists can’t help him and the next week he had his guard down. I passed some kind of test, or maybe his life is just going better. Regardless, he tells me his side of the story. He tells me this new kid was calling his mother names. Not just “your momma is so fat” kind of stuff, but real names. This kid, according to my client, called his mother a “nigger.” I apologize for even posting that word because of its ugliness, dehumanization of blacks in America, and the years of innocent blood seeping from every letter.

Now, I am a white girl, so this label has never been used against anyone in my family. But I know the history of this word, and its history is evil. The little boy who used this word does not know that this word conjures up hundreds of years of cruel subjugation, but he needed to learn right then and there that it’s not okay to use that kind of language. My client helped him learn this lesson by hitting him in the face.
Personally, I believe a good smack in the face is an awesome object lesson especially for boys, who often use violence as a way to establish a pecking order. If one of my sons ever used this word against anyone I would not have an issue with my husband using some degree of corporal punishment to get the idea across that we NEVER dehumanize others.

But I am not serving in the capacity of a mother or a private citizen. I am serving in the capacity of a therapist, a therapist who is aware that in a group home, it doesn’t matter WHY you punched the guy in the face, it matters that you did, so you must have a “behavior problem.” Never mind that fighting is a common behavior for young boys, especially if you stick 6 of them from different backgrounds, all with chips on their shoulders, into one small house and supervise them with rotating staff with High School diplomas who don’t stick around longer than a few months. Never mind that a lot of these kids come from xenophobic backgrounds to begin with so they are actually scared of people with different skin colors because they were trained to be by their families of origin. Never mind that some of them don’t really see what the point is to making changes because they may NEVER GET TO GO HOME, no matter what they do, and fighting and destruction are the only means they feel they have to make a statement because they never a say in getting taken away from mom.

Regardless of the difficult circumstances these kids are placed in, they are expected to follow rules, to play nice, and to get passing grades in school. I get that we can’t enable bad behavior just because someone has had a hard life. But it’s really easy for a social worker to say that who came from a middle class life of stability, where people don’t use nasty words against other people’s mothers, and you don’t have to watch your back every minute of the day.

Anyhow, I digress. It does my group home kid no good to have a therapist say, “Sounds like that kid had it coming! That’ll teach him to use nasty names about other people’s mothers!” He still gotten written up even if I think he had cause. And who’s to say my client didn’t call the little boy’s mom a “Cracker” or a “Beaner” a few minutes before?  I only get one side of the story. So, I plod onward, asking him what he will do differently the next time, encouraging him to rise above his environment, sharing my analogy of a lobster in a bucket (you don’t have to put a lid on a bucket of live lobsters, because as soon as one tries to get out, the others pull him right down in their own attempts to get out) and encouraging him to not let the ignorance of others pull him downward.

But as part of me is really glad he punched that kid in the face, and you better believe I understand where he is coming from. 


  1. Sometimes it's hard to validate the feelings without condoning the behavior, but it sounds like you did it. Because of the way God created me and the gift of mercy, I can usually understand why my clients (and their families) do what they do and feel the way they feel. It makes sense to me, and I'm often sure that if I were in their circumstances, I very well might feel and act exactly the way they do.

    I've been training to be a DBT therapist, and the concept of balancing acceptance and change really resonates with me. I want to help my clients accept who they are, their feelings, and where they are at this moment, without judgment, while also encouraging and teaching them how to make the changes they need to make their lives better.

    I really believe that is how Christ interacted with people, and how God sees us. He loves us and accepts us exactly where we are, there is no judgment and we are not seen as "bad" people to Him; however, He wants us to have more and better lives and closer relationship with Him, so some change in necessary. But, even if we never make the changes, He still loves and accepts us. That's what I try to communicate to my clients because it provides an environment and relationship that allows healing to happen...even if they are resistant at the time.

    Because I work on an inpatient unit, I rarely see "the end of the story," but I hope that I can launch my clients onto their healing journey and give them some hope that things can get better, and that it is worth staying alive to see if thing do improve.

  2. This is a interesting issue. I see this at school, too. Technically, you can't hit someone or even fight back if they hit you, but sometimes, my kids have it coming. The "normal" kids try all sorts of things to make the "weird" kid cease and desist.

    They follow this protocol fairly closely.
    1. Shun the weird kid when they disrupt you having lunch with your friends. Use body language to say, "Go away."
    2. Verbally tell the weird kid to go away.
    3. Verbally tell the weird kid that you will hit him if he does not go away.
    4. Call the weird kid names.
    5. Punch the weird kid in the face.
    6. Get expelled.

    Whose fault is this situation?

  3. We can blame a lot of different people- the mom that drank or did drugs while pregnant with that poor kid so he has permanent social impairments, the older brothers of the kid who punched him because they modeled aggression against weaker people as a way to solve problems, etc, but the question of fault is probably not a "helpful" question. A more helpful question is, what kind of alternatives are provided for the kids so if they are seeking a way out, they can do so in a socially appropriate, non-shaming way. There will always be a few scrawny, odd ducklings in the bunch, (or more than a few depending on how much lead paint, incest, or radiation is around!), but we have to provide outs for both kids to save face and find an alternative. Not an easy job, to be sure.

  4. This brings up the importance of the Responsive Classroom conference I went to this Summer. I know I only teach Second Grade and they are easy at that age but if classroom were places where social intereaction and learning went hand and hand. Days were begun with meetings were everyone is validated,and community is begun each day by sharing and a fun activity. Where classroom rules are created to care for each other and worked out all year long through classroom and private meetings. I think there could be some places where things are different than it is at home and where new beginnings happen. I am working toward that end this year.