Making It Real, a team based on-line course about implementing trauma-informed care in child-serving treatment programs.

Click here for more information and for a valuable free gift, a Checklist for Trauma-Informed Teams.

Continuing our series on language:

Conversation2One of the most powerful parts of our use of language is how we describe the youth’s behavior. What meaning and explanation do we give?

Here are some examples:

In a blog post last month ( ) I looked at the times when we say: the kids are not grateful for what we do. Look at how they are defiant right after we did something nice for them.

In another blog post we met Dahlia who left her mess on the counter and went to school ( ) . Do we describe her behavior as a sign that she is irresponsible, uncaring and does not respect the staff?

Another example is when we describe youth as not being “invested in treatment”. We would use this phrase when a youth was breaking rules, not talking in therapy, refusing group, or staying in her room, which, by the way is a mess. If we describe this behavior as “not being invested” our natural response would be to think of ways to get the kid to be more invested. On our better days this might be offer them rewards if they attended group. On our more exhausted days it might be to increase the punishment for not participating in therapy.

What would be the difference if we used these words: Jennifer is discouraged. She is feeling hopeless. Or, Jennifer has difficulty trusting, because in the past when she has opened up to therapists they have left or she has been moved.

What actions would these words lead us towards? Maybe looking for ways to help Jennifer find some activities to look forward to. Or advocating with her state worker to develop a viable discharge plan. Or validating how hard it is to trust after you have lived in 16 foster homes. Or…

Or here is another example:

The door from the Girl’s Unit slammed open and Sarita erupted out, screaming: “I am not going to the…mall. I will not go to the mall. Every night he wants us to go to the mall. And I have to get my eyebrows done tonight. Someone needs to take me. Now. I am not going to the mall.”

How do we describe Sarita’s demanding behavior?

One interpretation is that Sarita is a spoiled, demanding manipulative girl who just wants what she wants when she wants it. She wants everyone to forget about everything else except for what she needs. She freaks out every time anyone says no to her. She thinks she’s special.

And that leads naturally to: well, she is going to have to learn. People can’t just drop what they are doing whenever she wants something. She will just have to wait her turn. We will have to teach her to stop yelling and disturbing people. That’s not going to get her what she wants. We won’t do one thing for her as long as she is making this kind of fuss.


Maybe there is another way to see it. Maybe, in fact, Sarita has very rarely gotten what she wants. In her life, few people have listened to her or cared about what she wants. She is not the center of any one’s universe. As she has grown up in situations of chaos, and then equally as she has lived in situations of congregate care, the only way she has been able to get anything has been to yell as loud as she can.

Maybe when she wants something (to get her eyebrows done) and someone else does not seem to be listening and is just proceeding with their plans (to go to the mall) the words in her head go something like this:

“He is not listening. If I don’t get my eyebrows down I will look ugly and no one will like me.  He does not hear what I need. He does not care what I need. No one hears or cares what I need. I have no one, I have nobody. I am no one. I am nobody.”

And then she starts to feel unbearable emotions- despair, hopelessness… Which come out in the intensity and pressure of her speech.

Where would that thinking lead us?

It does not mean that it is okay for Sarita to scream and swear whenever she wants something. That would surely not give her a life worth living. It does not mean that we should immediately drop everything and take her to get her eyebrows done in order to quiet her down.

But what it does mean is that we do not approach Sarita with lectures about how she should be quiet and stop bothering people and she can’t always get what she wants (which believe me, she knows).

Instead, we start with “Sarita, what is the matter?”

And then, our part of the conversation includes statements like: You definitely do not want to go to that mall.  You have had it with that mall. It’s very important to you to have your eyebrows done as soon as possible. And where do you have to go to have that done? So what you want to do is go to… And you feel very strongly about this…

Because, in fact, Sarita will gradually stop screaming when she feels she is heard when she is talking.

And that is an experience we can give her.

Do you see how the words we use to describe behavior lead to our actions, which increases or decreases the child’s healing?

What examples of this do you see in your setting? Please share  your examples in the comments below.

Share this on: