Staff Are Annoyed

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!”
Two Teens with Ice Cream“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.”

What Does Grateful Mean?

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 Has Gone 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.

When the staff take the children on enjoyable activities, they are literally rebuilding their brains. The children have deep seated expectations that interactions with other people will hurt; this is being changed when they experience pleasure associated with other people. New connections are being built between parts of their brains when they successfully master an amusement ride or survive a go cart. Yet, the changes do not happen fast. One pleasant afternoon does not create a pleasant child. Or even ten pleasant afternoons. Many, many repetitions are needed to build a new brain.

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.

What Can We Do?

So what can we do? Express our gratitude for each other, the wonderful people we work with. Make a joke, privately, about the meltdowns we expect when we get back. Find what we are grateful for in our own lives. Express to the youth ways in which we are grateful for them (when we can genuinely do so).

Then there will be the time two years later when Tanika comes back for a visit long after her discharge. And Sonia is still working there. Then Tanika will say: “You know, I always remember that time when it was so hot when you took us out for ice cream. I remember I had chocolate chocolate chip. I had never had that before! That was so wonderful.”

And we will feel grateful that we have the opportunity to change a child’s life.

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