Whoever said a change is as good as a holiday is a prat. Well maybe not a prat, but someone who lives a totally different life than me. Maybe if your life is steady, your routines are predictable, and the unexpected is completely unexpected, then change is good. But change is all too familiar to me. It’s the bully that lurks in the bushes and jumps me, anytime, anywhere.
And so I constantly live in fear. In fear of a new foster carer, a new group home, a new school or being banged up. In fear of a change of circumstance or mood that ends in black eyes and broken hearts. In fear of a new power structure on the estate where I don’t know where I fit and getting it wrong could end up with me paying the ultimate price. If I have learned one thing it is this- change hurts. It unsettles me to my core and it can be dangerous.
So I walk around, always suspicious, always on guard. If I know it’s coming, I’ll always be prepared. And it’s pretty much always coming, so I’m always prepared. Prepared means living this half life, where I never fully engage with anything, because I know change is lurking in that bush round the corner. Prepared means not trusting people when they talk to me as if I will be here for a long time. Prepared means not opening myself up. Prepared means not forming any meaningful connection with you, or anyone. Why would I? Change will come and I’ll just end up hurt again.
So I find myself stuck in a behaviour cycle, where my fear of change, of loss, of hurt, of disappointment stops me from trying something new or behaving differently. You see, when everything is always changing, nothing about my behaviour and my attitude does, because I crave constants, and in a world that offers me none, I will make my own.
So I’ll stick with my behaviour, I know how it works; how everyone responds is formulaic, I know the score. I’ll stick with my drinking, my drug abuse- it drowns out the roar of the pain of the changes of the past and the change to come. It is my emotional constant in a sea of emotional turmoil.
I’ll stick with my mates who you believe to be a bad influence, because I know how our relationship works, even if our ‘friendship’ defies the dictionary definition. They are always there even when family comes and goes, carers come and go, social workers, teachers, schools, ‘homes’. They are my relationship constants in a world where I don’t know whether I’ll see someone again beyond tomorrow.
And I just don’t realise that my protective barrier of behavioural constants causes more change to come my way. That I help to foster rejection, the precursor to another change. But I am expecting this change, I am prepared for this change. And so we go round again.
So when you tell me that I’ve got to move school, move carers, move my life and my ever heavier bag of pain, don’t expect me to respond well. Even when you have spent hours on the phone, organising what you think would be a great change or a great move, don’t expect me to see the positives. Remember change hurts, change is dangerous. I crave constants, not this relentless anxiety-inducing change. All I will see is the negatives; I can’t see the bigger picture.
So if you want me to make the most of genuinely good change opportunities you have to help me see that bigger picture. How? Well let’s see…
1. Listen to my stories of change.
Before you even mention the specific change you have to acknowledge how much change in general can suck for me. Until you connect with me on this and I can see that you understand, any change you are going to suggest will be immediately assigned to the sucky idea pile and is likely to fail.
If you understand what I don’t like about changes that have happened in my life, then you can try to ensure that these issues are avoided or at least minimised with the new change.
So for example, if I am moving school again, talk about what I didn’t like when I moved school before. It could be I hated the not knowing anyone, the walking in the gates and just having to hang around alone, looking like the newbie idiot until the bell went and that was why I always showed up late. I wanted to avoid this newbie discomfort, which was why I chose to start my day arguing with a teacher about why I was late than turn up on time. Which was why I was pleased when thy gave me a break time/ recess detention: no awkward lonely dork moments outside then either. So an argument, easy: looking like a lonely dork, no way.
Minimising this as an issue could be as simple as allowing me to come straight to a staff members office at the beginning of the day and at break, at least to start with. Removing this stressor would then remove my need to behave badly to protect myself, other kids might not think I was awful and avoid me, and I might make friends more quickly. I then might be more emotionally available and willing to take the risk of trying out some activity at lunchtime, resulting in positive engagement AND positive friendships. I then might get off the roundabout of disengagement, bad behaviour, rejection, more change.
You see? Understand my past experience of change and you stand a chance of understanding how to help me with this new change. You’ve just got to listen first.
2. Build in as many constants to the change as possible.
Remember, I crave constants. Constants help me cope with change. Think about when you move house and how having familiar things or people around you help you to adapt to the new building, or the new town and the new social situation. They provide some emotional comfort while you are experiencing the stress of change. I need this as much as anyone.
So for example if I am moving care home or foster carer, make a point of keeping in contact with me as much as possible at first, and ideally visit me in person. Tell me before it all happens that you are not abandoning me, that you will be in contact with me as long as you’re needed to help me settle in, even if it can only be by phone. I need to feel like I’m still connected to something from before, to help me connect with now.
Remember, if you work with me on a regular basis, you may well be the most stable thing in my life. You may be the most important person in my life, even if my behaviour towards you isn’t that great and you don’t think we have much of a relationship. Trust me, that relationship may be better than any relationship I’ve ever had with an adult.
And don’t assume that someone else, my teacher, my guidance counsellor, my social worker, my probation worker has a stronger relationship with me or a more appropriate professional role and will make those visits or calls. Trust me, it’s almost guaranteed they won’t. The extra mile is way too far for most. But if you go that extra mile you will see better results more often. Please, at least try to be my constant during the change.
Keeping in contact with me will not only help to prevent problems from occurring in the first place as I will feel more secure, it will also help everyone to iron out any initial difficulties. I know you are busy, but frequent visits or calls in the first few weeks may save you untold time in the future if this change is the one where I start to change, where I start to settle, to connect with others and build positive relationships. And if you are someone like a teacher who won’t get the time saved benefit of going the extra mile and actually stepping out of your school into another, think of karma. If you do it for me, another teacher might do it for you when you get a new tough kid in your school. So go on, lead by example and do the right thing- not with just your workload on your mind, but through knowing you’re doing the right thing by me.
And if you want to give me one of the best relationship constants going, get me linked up with a mentor. There are organisations in most cities and towns geared towards helping people like me whose life circumstances and consequent behaviour aren’t helping us succeed. The beauty of a mentor is that they go where we go, whether prison, new school, new carer, wherever and they usually commit to meeting with us young people for at least two years. The relationships that are built usually last longer though because they meet that desperate craving for a constant and we are changed, we open up and we build a real relationship.
Another way to build in constants to a change is to try and keep as much routine, as much schedule normality for me as possible. So make sure I can get to footie practice across town, or dance club. It is these activities that will help me cope. They help me physically work out the added stress of the change and also provide comfort with familiar faces and environment.
If you build in constants to change then it is way less likely that I will have to rely on my own behavioural constants, my substance abuse constants, my negative friendship constants. It won’t be like tripping a switch, but the more secure I feel, the more likely I will be to try this new thing out and get the positive benefits. And once I can see some positives I will be far less inclined to jeopardise it with the behaviours and actions of old.
3. Frame the change as a re-definition
I am pigeon-holed, boxed, labelled. People do it to me, I do it to myself. I’m a problem. I’m trouble. I’m nuts. I’m a criminal. I’m a bad boy. I’m a sassy girl.
With all the difficulties that a change can bring, a change that is presented to me as an opportunity to rebox or relabel myself often seems quite appealing. Although I may posture that I like my bad boy label, beneath the machismo I will often have a secret desire to live a more normal life, where I am treated normally, where life is just easier. And a change provides an opportunity for this. In a new environment where most people don’t know me and don’t have a detailed case history, I have an opportunity to change how others perceive me.
So sell this change as a re-definition opportunity. Work with me on what I think my positive traits are, how I want to be seen by others. The friendly guy? The kid who’s great at drawing? The guy that can rap? The gal who is quiet but thoughtful? The funny one? And what traits do I not want them to see? My anger? My impatience?
And then do the work with me, to help me present myself in a way that helps people see the positive traits, and to help minimise the negative ones. So work with me on expressing myself more clearly, asking for things more politely rather than in a demanding way, or work with me on controlling my anger. And work with me on using my positive traits, like my humour, to release the tension of a potential confrontation. Help me use what I already have, and help me to acquire what I don’t have to help me present the best version of myself.
More often than not, I will have given no thought to how others view me. I will have no idea how my tone of voice, my use of words or my body language paint a picture of me in other people’s minds that is not an accurate representation of me as I want to be seen. I won’t understand why people take such a dislike to me, or why they seem to single me out or treat me unfairly. As far as I can see it, it’s never about me and always about someone else’s perception.
More often than not, I will have no comprehension that presenting the best side of me actually requires some effort and that if I want to be seen more positively I have to work on it. You have to teach me to own my presentation of myself. I don’t have to own other’s perceptions of me (and often they have been harmful, abusive and lie at the heart of my troubles- e.g. ‘You’re useless’ etc), but it is in my control to do the best presentation job now.
Once I get this, and I actually commit to really trying to show the best and not the worst of me, I will get the positive feedback and it’ll be less effort day by day. The thing is I have got so used to negative feedback that I often don’t know how to present myself any other way and expect anything different. Help me to get that first real taste, and the rest should follow.
4. Set achievable goals
Expectation management is the name of the game. Sometimes when another change comes along, I have ridiculous subconscious ideas of what you expect from me as part of the change. So I might change foster carer, with an assumption in my head that you think I’m going to turn into a saint overnight, and if I don’t then you’ll move me on again. Well I know I’m no saint, and I know I can’t even pretend to be one, so I’ll give up before I’ve even started, what’s the point? So I’ll move to the new foster carer and won’t even try.
So you have to set some realistic, tangible goals with me as to what you are expecting from the change. And make them small ant steps, ones I have some hope of achieving.
So if I am moving carer due to my physical aggression, throwing things around, don’t set a dumb-ass goal like ‘don’t get angry’, ‘don’t get aggressive’, set a goal like, ‘when I feel like I want to throw something, go outside and throw tennis balls in a trash can or punch a punch bag’. Then hopefully as time goes on I’ll stop throwing things around in my carer’s house and at least that care placement will be more secure as my behaviour will be more controlled. Yes, I will still be aggressive, but I’ll be directing it at mutually agreed inanimate objects which will be an improvement and won’t be jeopardising the placement.
Meanwhile you can be working with me on my anger, the thought processes, my responses, and new goals can be incrementally set so that eventually I won’t have the need to respond with physical aggression at even the slightest little annoyance.
So you have to equip me to meet my goals, whether it is tennis balls or anger management work. You can’t blame a basketball player for scoring no points if you don’t provide them with a ball and a hoop!
This way I’ll get the satisfaction of knowing I’m getting to grips with my issues. I’ll be emotionally benefiting from avoiding more change. I’ll be feeling more secure. In short, by setting reasonable goals and expectations a positive change in my behaviour becomes more likely, not less.
5. Help me believe
If anything positive is going to happen in my life, I have to believe it will. And well life has kinda sucked that sort of belief, that sort of hope out of me. Most of the time I struggle to see any good in life, and definitely not in me. So I don’t expect positive change, if anything I merely hope for more of the same, at least I’m used to that.
I’m so used to hearing ‘you’ll never change’ that this idea that of me going somewhere different, doing something different seems as tangible as flying to Mars. I’m a hopeless case, end of.
So you have to build me up. You have to help me believe that something good is going to happen, that I have some good in me. Tell me regularly that you believe I can do this. Tell me regularly that you believe that if I take those ant steps I will get to where I want to be. Tell me that you are there with me, I’m not alone. Tell me that you will do whatever you can to help me.
And be eternally positive. Even when discussing potential problems and issues, you can spin them positively. Something like, “So you think this might be a problem, but if we do x, y and z, I really think we can avoid this, and even if there is a problem, we can work something out. Just make sure you let me know.”
And more powerful than words, is what you show me. Show me with your care, that you think walking that extra mile is worth it, that I am worth it. Show me that you think I can do it, that even when I trip, which I will, you will help me up to carry on, rather than leaving me in the gutter as a hopeless case.
Negative change in my life might seem constant, but with your help you can make constants that help me to change for the better in amongst it all, and make those negative life changes less likely. The biggest constant I need, and on which all the others hang is the constancy of your care and your efforts, showing your hope and belief that I can make it. I can survive, I can overcome, I can be who I am meant to be. Hope is something you see in the eyes of others, and I need to see it in your eyes when you look at me. I can’t believe it for myself if I can’t see it in you. For positive change in me and a slowing of relentless negative change I need this constancy; the constancy that starts with you.