Finding the logic in the chaos of troubled teens

Take a glance at the behaviour of a difficult-to-engage young person and ‘logic’ is generally not a word you would immediately associate them with.  Words such as ‘chaotic’, ‘impulsive’ and ‘unthinking’ trip off the tongue far more easily.  However, while these readily accessible words describe the appearance of their outward behaviour, they do not get anywhere near helping you understand what is really going on in their lives.

To do that, you need to ‘get in their heads’, as scary a prospect as that might seem, and understand the stream of thoughts, conscious or sub-conscious that lead them to this behaviour.  Once you do, it quickly becomes apparent that this stream of thoughts and behaviours have a profound internal logic; their behaviour is entirely understandable given their experiences and their thoughts about life and themselves. The task of helping them change then becomes a real possibility because you can’t change a way of thinking and behaving until you understand why they think and behave that way in the first place. Put simply, you can’t solve a problem until you know what the problem is.

When first working with a young person the first question you should be seeking to answer is, ‘What is really going on here?’. You probably already know how their behaviour manifests itself but you need to scratch (or dig madly) below this surface to try and find their internal logic.  Obviously this entails understanding their personal circumstances, past and present (family, educational experiences etc) as their experiences of life will inform their thoughts about life, themselves and what they consider to be ‘normal’. While their behaviour will often make little sense when the usual definitions of ‘normal’ behaviour are applied, once you understand what they consider to be ‘normal’ (which is usually highly abnormal), their thought patterns and behaviour then often start to make a whole load of sense.

Their internalisation of mistruths about life as they grow up affects their thoughts and behaviour in the future. For example, when children witnesses domestic violence, this violent behaviour is normalised. Consequently, boys who witness family violence are more likely to batter their female partners as adults, and girls who witness their mother’s abuse have a higher rate of being battered as adults. (“Battered Families . . .Shattered Lives,” Georgia Department of Human Resources Family Violence Manual, January 1992.)

However, usually there is more than one strand of internalised mistruth, and exhibited behaviour can often have multiple causes. In fact it can often feel like you are unpicking the Bayeux tapestry with each thread being an internalised mistruth. While professionals are usually excellent at identifying those strands, it is often the case that they do not take the extra step of trying to understand how these different threads interweave with one another to make up the final tapestry (the behaviours you have before you).  They have identified the threads (the father who left when they were 3, the alcoholic mother, the multiple exclusions from school etc.) but they have no idea how these experiences have made the young person into the person they are and how they inform their thinking. And without knowing this, you will never be able to know what is really going on. Trying to establish this is what makes the difference between an average and an excellent worker.

In my opinion, the reason why so many workers stop at the thread identification phase is not due to laziness or lack of care for the young person but due to a fundamentally incorrect assumption- chaotic young people do not have any underlying logic. You can see why it is easy to arrive at this conclusion- all they see is the outward chaos and assume that the thinking must be chaotic too. However once you understand a young person’s internalised mistruths and how they came to enter that young person’s head you can actually see the logic of their thought processes and how they end up behaving the way they do. It is then possible to begin to work through those mistruths (more on how to do that later) and help the young person to gain some insight into their thoughts and past experiences and help them to rethink their futures, to re-weave their tapestry.

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Adopting such a strategy immeasurably aids the building of a fantastic client-professional relationship.  The most
difficult to engage young people have told numerous professionals the facts of what has happened in their lives to the
point where they are BORED RIGID (whatever number of professionals you are thinking of, I can assure you there are many more, and the more disengaged the higher the number of professionals they will have been in contact with). Instead of ensuring the continuation of their boredom rigamortis, you need to take a refreshing approach. Instead of getting them to tell you the facts of their lives, for goodness sake read one of the many volumes of reports and assessments written by the professionals to get the facts. If you start of your relationship with the young person asking them what has happened in their lives then they are sure to tell you in no uncertain terms where to go and it will take a long time for you to undo the damage, if ever.

As you need to know how life events have affected the young person you do still need to do some sort of exercise with them to get this info, but in order not to put their backs up, do it creatively. Instead of putting them on the hotspot and just asking them questions which will only end up making them squirm at best and furious at worst (put yourselves in their shoes!), you could get them to do a visual lifeline with their ages across the x-axis, and really unhappy to really happy on the y axis, represented by smiley/unsmiley faces, and get them to draw a line tracing how their feelings have changed over time. Then use that as a leader into what was happening in their lives at particular points on the line to help you understand how those events affected their thoughts and emotions. By doing it this way you quickly establish a) what the important events in their lives were and b) how they made them feel. For both, you will be surprised at how often their responses are not what you would expect.

By doing this, you are not going into your working relationship with them making any false assumptions about what was important in their lives, and you are also showing an interest in how they feel. This can only be refreshing for the young person. By doing so you are still letting them tell you their own story (so you don’t have to wholly rely on previous reports and assessments that may be incorrect in facts and interpretation), but you are also showing that what is important to you is not necessarily WHAT happened but how it has AFFECTED THEM- you care about them as a feeling person. Overall you are showing that you are genuinely trying to understand them.

“Feelings”, I hear you say, “they would rather talk about anything but their feelings”- true, but you would be amazed how young people open up when they don’t have to sit opposite you and just talk. Give them something to do with their hands and most importantly, their eyes, and you will be pleasantly surprised how much more they will open up. An easy way to achieve this is to use visual feeling prompt cards in your discussions- e.g. smiling face card, upset face card, angry card etc. This will help those who find it hard to verbalise how they feel and will also give them something to do with their hands and to look at if they don’t want to make eye contact. And failing all else, I have always found a conversaton over a game of pool or craft activity to be extremely enlightening as valuable information often pours out of them, giving you the insight and the necessary knowledge to piece together their internal logic puzzle.

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