Jennifer’s home passes have been going well. She and her mom Nancy have had some fun together. When disagreements have occurred they have worked them out. Jennifer has been going home for long weekends and even a week over school vacation. The team decided it is time to set a discharge date, and chose the end of the school year. Then Jenn blew up. On her next home pass she went out and didn’t come back until late. Her mother was clear she had been drinking and smoking. When Nancy came to visit, Jenn told her she hated her and didn’t ever want to go home. She said she wanted to go to independent living. As soon as Nancy left Jenn called her and begged her to come back and take her home immediately, and started swearing at her when she wouldn’t.
Going Home is Hard
The ambivalence our kids feel about going home is agonizing and acute. What are some of the contributing factors? They all involve various sorts of fear.
- Fear that they will not be able to handle it, will hurt the people they love.
- Fear that the people they love can’t handle it and are happier without them.
- Fear of reconnecting and being hurt again.
- Fear of school, expecting shame and being an outcast.
- Fear of not being able to do the academics.
- Fear of the outside world, being unprotected, violence.
- Fear of being unable to resist the temptations of peers and the world.
- Fear that the people who hurt them are still around.
And we could go on. How can we best help our kids survive and accomplish a positive discharge?
Don’t Do This
Here’s what we shouldn’t do:
- Tell them they have to decide
- Persuade or pressure them to go to their family.
- Threaten them.
- Be upset that they are deteriorating.
- Punish them.
What we should do, in a word, is explore. Help the child express all the complicated feelings they are having. Maintain a totally validating stance- after all, their mixed feelings are completely understandable and legitimate.
How We Can Help
How can we explore? It sometimes helps to talk about other kids or some kids- move it a few steps away from them. Here are some techniques:
- Divide a big flip chart size paper into quarters. Title one quarter “what some kids like about home”; another “what some kids find hard about home”; another “what some kids like about… (Whatever the alternative is)” and another “what some kids find hard about (alternative)”. Generate as many ideas as possible.
- Draw a picture of a road branching into several roads. Label them with the youth’s possibilities. Have her draw whet she imagines on each road.
- Tell her some things you have heard from other kids about what makes going home scary.
- Try and get the world (state worker or whoever has this power) to be clear about what the steps are if she does not go home. Be realistic not threatening.
- Remember she knows more about her home than you do and she may have some very good reasons to be concerned.
- If possible help mom to talk with her about ambivalence and how to get through it.
- Explore what she gets from her mom and what she doesn’t. Normalize that no one has perfect parents. Talk about ways she can manage when mom drives her crazy, and where she could get whatever mom cannot give her.
- Work on helping her become more comfortable where ever she would go to school. Can she start there while still living with you?
In other words don’t judge, don’t hurry, resist the pressures of the world to fix her ambivalence and decide. Explore. I swear that will be actually FASTER than trying to pressure her to decide.
Continue as much contact as possible between her and her mother. As time goes on, this will resolve. Either she will get past her understandable terror, or she will let you know in words and actions that home is not possible at this time. If that is the outcome, try to preserve as much connection as possible between her and her mother and help them figure out how they can love each other even if they are not living together now.
And you will have given this youth a priceless gift.
How have you helped youth achieve a positive discharge? Share your strategies in comments below.
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