6 Awesome Lessons Teaching Troubled Teens Teaches You
Group homes are meant to keep at-risk youths from becoming way-past-risk-and-currently-pointing-a-gun-at-someone criminals. That has to be a delicate process -- caring for disturbed children and helping mold them into productive, functional, sane, boring adults. We can't imagine that kind of responsibility. Luckily, we found Nathan, who used to work at a group home ranch in Arkansas, and he told us that ...
You Start Out By Deprogramming The Kids
If you spend years treating a child like a piece of shit, eventually they're going to believe that they really are a piece of shit and start acting all ... shitty. So at the ranch where Nathan used to work, the staff's first responsibility was to convince the residents that maybe, just maybe, they weren't squeezed into this world from out of somebody's ass.
"In a way, we have to deprogram them," Nathan told us. "A lot of these kids come with ingrained ideas about who they are. ... A kid who has been told his whole life that he's worthless garbage by the people who are supposed to love him the most isn't going to change right off the bat."
People who bitch about "too much coddling" seem to forget that the opposite can be way worse.
That's why you have to take things slowly and start by merely acknowledging when a resident is trying their best.
Nathan explains: "The boys we worked with responded very well to me simply saying things like, 'I'm so proud of you for bringing your grade up,' etc. An unfortunate number of them never heard someone they respect say that they were proud of them."
Also, and we know that this will go over super well with the commenters, religion was apparently a big help:
Just remember this helps needy kids before typing, OK guys?
"The church we were involved at was great for the kids. They emphasized forgiveness and changing to be something better. For a lot of these kids, the idea of a God who cares about them and will forgive them when they mess up is completely mind-blowing."
We like that term: "mind-blowing." Maybe we'll use it some time.
The Kids Need To See You Fail
"Honestly, what 90 percent of the kids needed to see was adults fail, dust themselves off, try again, and succeed, or at least learn something from failing," Nathan said. "Many of them only saw adults lash out when they fail, and had no concept that failure is an important part of life. I tried to talk with all the boys who witnessed my 'failures' about what we learned, and how we (or I) might do better next time."
"Look at this as a chance to learn, guys: Now we know that some nail guns don't have a safety switch."
Nathan gave us a real-life example:
"Our property had a creek on it, and that was our go-to summer pastime. One day, on the way back, one of the boys says, 'Hey! You should take the new road!' Having only worked here for about a month, I took it. Well, that road quickly turned into an extremely steep horse trail. Needless to say, we made it down fine, but up was another thing entirely. I battled for every foot of that hill. And when I finally got to the top and saw the path turned back into the woods, I promptly turned us around and went back down and up the other side."
Moral of the story? Screw horses and their stupid abilities.
The entire incident freaked out the kids on the bus (the oldest of whom was just 11), but Nathan never lost his temper, and in the end, he asked the passengers the most important question of all: "What did we just learn, gentlemen?" One kid shouted: "Not to listen to us!!" and hopefully got a good laugh. But the point is that everyone saw an adult screw up in a calm, composed manner, and it wasn't the end of the world. Based on some of our customer service experiences, pretty much everybody in line at Starbucks could also use some of this training.
Treating Kids With Respect And Kindness Can Change Their Lives
"We work very closely with trained psychologists and doctors to determine which resident is autistic or has OCD, etc. They make their assessment and then give us advice on how to approach it," Nathan told us. You can't fix mental and developmental disorders with respect and a can-do attitude. However, those things apparently work wonders on the ranch's other residents: "Your liars, bullies, the thugs, the tantrum-throwers," he said. And kids who eat their cereal with water instead of milk ...
"Put everything else on the back burner; this is an issue we need to address immediately."
According to Nathan, praise, respect, and the occasional ice cream were great for getting those boys back on the right track.
"When a kid starts acting up, you give the others a privilege, like getting to go outside, and you put the disruptive child in the position of wanting attention but not getting it for acting out. This creates the idea that attention is earned through cooperation and respect, not misbehavior. I've seen some very unruly kids turn around just by praising them for doing the right thing and basically ignoring their misbehavior."
But if all of that fails, Nathan said, you have to get tough and absolutely murder the kids ... with kindness.
Hugicide, if you will.
"You know, I love having a good time with you, but sometimes things happen that make it hard to have fun with you, which makes me sad. So, when I notice you doing something bad, I'll count to three. If you stop, then great. If you don't, then you'll have to go sit in your room for a while to calm down."
And when they think you're bluffing and don't listen, that's when it's crucial for you to keep your word and teach the kid that their actions have consequences. So what you do is confine him to his room and explain how you're doing this not because you're mad but because he's brought it on himself. If the kid is still being a little jerk, though, you can deprive them of something he enjoys. Like their cereal. Or their water.
What? Too far?
You Constantly See How Badly People Can Screw Up Their Kids
Let's just get all the horrible stories out of the way as quickly as possible:
Spoiler: You'll want these nearby.
"One kid (let's call him 'Plato') was prone to unbelievable tantrums: screaming profanity, throwing things, even trying to bite on occasion," Nathan recalled. "What really concerned us was that he would try to hide from you for most of these tantrums. He'd be screaming at you from under a table or his bed. This was our first clue that some pretty terrible things happened to this kid."
"Whenever we shut the door to his room, Plato tore just about everything that he could reach. After a couple times, his brother told us that when their mom had had enough of him, she'd make the older kid lock Plato in a closet, sometimes for days. So we changed tactics and told Plato that if he could sit in his room and play quietly, he could have his door open. That cut the number of tantrums in half."
It's like an Easter hunt, but instead of chocolate, you're finding out
where all the horrible flashbacks are hidden.
Aaaand everybody take a deep breath, because we're going back in: There was another resident, "Zeno," who for unknown-though-definitely-depressing reasons, was hypersexual, propositioning every girl at school for sex and threatening to "take what he wanted" when he was refused. He was eventually transferred to another facility for threatening people with a splitting maul. Then there was "Aristotle," who almost murdered another resident by braining him with a rock. He ended up in prison for assault with intent to kill.
Finally, there's the story of Kid X. "One day, his room started smelling odd," Nathan told us. "We did a little digging and found several cups of urine hidden in his desk. The inability or refusal to use the bathroom properly can be a sign of pretty substantial abuse. We took all the possible containers from his room, but he then began peeing on the floor, under his bed, or in his dirty clothes basket. Finally, we decided to have him do all the cleanups, and he slowly started using the bathroom."
The staff never discovered what made Kid X act this way, although Nathan did point out that refusal/inability to use the bathroom is often a sign of severe sexual abuse/trauma. We very, very naively continue to hope that it was the fear of toilet snakes.
Sometimes, All You Have To Do Is Let Kids Be Kids
Many of the ranch's teen and preteen residents came from broken families where they had to take care of their parents or younger siblings, and generally came to view adults as useless sacks of meat that just got in the way and occasionally yelled for their cigarettes. For those kids, just being on the ranch was already a huge help.
"Some of the boys had to learn to let the adults worry about provision," Nathan said. "They came to the ranch and the adults had food plans, and the adults cooked dinner and made sure there was breakfast food. After a while they learned to relax and only worry about the things in their life."
"Ohhhh, so that's why you use milk ..."
"Other kids came from homes that were very strict about what they could and couldn't do. For them, getting to play outside and climb trees and go swimming or fishing helped a lot. It helped them loosen up and enjoy the simpler things in life. Similarly, some of the boys were from the inner-city and had never really had a chance to experience the outdoors. Some of the most fun canoe trips I've had were with boys who had never been on a river. These teens acted like a bunch of 10-year-olds. They were giddy with excitement and horrible with canoes. They spent more time flipped over than in the boat, but they had a blast."
It's like the old saying goes: Nobody can look thug on a canoe, so why try?
No Kid Is Beyond Help
"There was a pair of brothers that hated each other," Nathan said. "Whenever anything bad happened in the family, their mom would pin it on the younger brother, 'Achilles,' so the older brother, 'Diogenes,' associated him with all the bad things in life. They had to be put in different houses after a while because Diogenes was so caustic. Well, over the course of several months apart working on their own issues separately, things started to be less icy between them. One day, Achilles and I had hiked down the hill to get some things from storage, and on our way back up, Diogenes threw his brother a football. The two played catch and shared some small talk for a couple minutes, and then Diogenes gave Achilles a hug and said, 'I love you, bro.'"
"I tell you, I almost cried. To see these two overcome the hate that had been ground into them was amazing. It still warms my heart to think of it."
If you'll excuse us, there's something in our eyes.
Told you you'd want these.
Oh, it's tears. Big, wet, sloppy tears.
That makes sense.
Nathan wants to tell you this: "Please, if you can, spend some time with the kids in your life. Most of the kids I worked with just needed adults in their life who weren't awful. Get to know the kids around you, and try to make a difference in some small way. Something as small as a smile and a compliment can make a WORLD of difference to a hurting child. And, as always, if you see something wrong, say something. They're kids, not boxing bags, and pretending 'that's just life' only hurts them all the more."
Cezary Jan Strusiewicz is a Cracked columnist, interviewer, and editor. Contact him at email@example.com.
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