The Staff are Talking
Sonia and Ralph were talking on their break.
“These kids.” Sonya says. “They are just not grateful. Here we have done all these extra things for them this summer. And they do not seem to appreciate it at all!”
“I know,” replies Ralph. “Very few of them even say thank you. We have taken them to the beach, to Six Flags, to go-carts and mini-golf. And they are just as obnoxious as ever when we get back!”
“Just yesterday” Sonia chimes in, “I took the girls out for ice cream. I didn’t have to do that. We stayed for quite a while- it was so hot out. And then when we got back, I asked them to go to their rooms and chill out for a while. Several girls had the nerve to talk back to me, and Lisa and Tanika started to get into a fight with each other!”
“You’d think after all we do for them they could at least respond to a simple request. It makes me not want to do any extra activities at all.”
“Yeah. Maybe if they see what it is like to stay on campus all the time they will be a little more grateful for what they do get.”
Ahh yes. Grateful.
How our assumptions do leak through in the most casual of conversations.
What does grateful actually mean? Dictionaries define it as: Warmly or deeply appreciative of kindness or benefits received; thankful. Gratitude is a positive emotional reaction in response to the receipt of a gift or benefit from someone.
Gratitude, thankfulness, gratefulness, and appreciation are feelings, emotions or attitudes in acknowledgment of a benefit that one has received.
And how is one to know whether the other person is experiencing these emotions? Of course one indicator is what the person says. Do they say thank you, do they express how wonderful the experience was, acknowledge the effort of the other person, describe how good it felt to them, etc. And it would be reasonable to expect that the person who was feeling especially grateful or thankful would treat the giver well, want to reciprocate in kindness, and would demonstrate a pleasant attitude. And maybe we could expect…well, hope…that the person would stop some of their most obnoxious behaviors after they have had this fun experience.
What Goes Wrong?
Where has this process gone wrong between these staff and these clients?
There are many possibilities. We start with some basic understandings:
Our children’s experiences with relationships have left them with a deep ambivalence about getting close to someone. If a staff member is taking me on a trip, will she meet my needs, stop for a bathroom break, keep me from getting lost? What can I expect at this place where I have never been in the care of these people I don’t really know? A wonderful time together can be scary- can I really trust this person? If I open up to her, will she hurt me?
The brains and biology of our children have been altered by early abuse, neglect and attachment disruption. Sensory data may be difficult to integrate. What seems fun to others may seem overwhelming, confusing and scary. Who knows who could be at this place? Needing to constantly scan for danger can be exhausting.
Our youth do not know how to modulate and manage their feelings. If they start to feel lost, confused or overwhelmed- or even hot and cranky- they can rapidly spiral into a sensation of complete hopelessness.
When a person does not feel worthy of life, feels like a bad person, she may not feel she deserves pleasurable activities. She may need to sabotage good feelings. She may need to push away any one she has had fun with.
If someone has not developed an inner connection to others, any separation can seem like forever. We just had all this fun together and now you are leaving?!? Who knows if I will ever see you again? I knew I should never have relaxed and enjoyed myself (back to the beginning).
And then there is another, more worrisome over tone in this expectation of gratitude. Here is an example:
Kayla was 6. She was absolutely adorable with big blue eyes. After early abuse and neglect, she had been recently taken in by Mr. and Mrs. Whitmore. About five months after she was placed, the couple went on a cruise to Alaska, asking DCF to find two weeks respite for Kayla. She stayed with a nice family she had never met before. The parents returned and brought her back a stuffed seal, which she promptly threw away. Mrs. Whitmore complained to her social worker that Kayla did not seem grateful that they had brought her this nice present; in fact she did not seem grateful that they had taken her in. She didn’t seem to understand what a terrible life she would be having if they had not done so!
This is expecting children to be grateful that they are now getting some small part of what they should have had all along; what every child deserves; love and safety. This is seeing the children as less than, as poor unfortunates who should be glad for any scrap. How about the idea that they should be angry about the unfairness of their lives, and protest loudly that they have been wounded through no fault of their own?
Some of this tone can sneak into all our thinking on the hottest days.
But Can’t They Just Say Thank You?
As Sonya and Ralph read the above, I can hear them saying: “Oh for heaven’s sake. We know all that. But can’t the kids just say thank you? Can’t they just express some appreciation of the effort we have made, or some happiness in the experiences we have shared?”
Yes. And they will. They will share this with you with they come back and visit in three years, or ten years, or bring their daughter to “see the place that Mommy became a person.” At that time you will be amazed how they remember every detail and say things like: “it was the first time any one celebrated my birthday” or “I was so scared on that roller coaster and I remember that you held my hand.”
And that will give you the stamina to take this present surly group out for one more ice cream cone.
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