When a child in the foster care system has no permanent family, where the child then lives is a function of the child’s behavior. Least restrictive, and least expensive, is a foster home. If a child’s behavior precludes living with a family, then a group home placement – somewhat more restrictive and also more expensive – is tried. If the behavior is still such that the child needs even more supervision, then the child could be placed in a residential treatment center, which is an institutional upgrade of the old orphanage. It is very much more restrictive, often having its own school on grounds for example, and far beyond expensive. However, if a child’s behavior requires even more control, the next step is a locked psychiatric ward. Short term, that would be in a local hospital; long term – and the end of the road – it would be in a state hospital. The expense is beyond belief. Restraints, medication, and sometimes one-on-one staff supervision, become the ultimate behavior management tools. There is no more restrictive place to go from here.
Obviously (I assume it’s obvious, that is), the children in such hospital placements are often very confused and angry kids and they need sharp and simple clarity in all communications with them. They are astute observers and learners and like all kids they watch and learn from what the adults do, and probably more importantly, from what the adults do not do. One needs to be very careful with them. Sloppy thinking does not cut it when working with them.
This past week, I met with one such foster child, a young teenager. This boy, like so many of those in the hospital with him, has problems separating his feelings from his behavior. At some point or another in the days before I saw him, he blew up at one of the nurses who wouldn’t give him what he wanted when he wanted it. He become loud, nasty, disruptive, and abusive to her.
In my meeting with his social worker, I said that what this boy needed was for us to draw the connection – a direct line – between his behavior and the concept of “abuse.” He needed to understand that while he didn’t feel abusive, he most certainly was acting abusively. And beyond that, he needed to comprehend that his feelings are not the measure of acceptable behavior.
When the young teen entered our meeting, however, the social worker emphasized to him that his behavior had been unacceptable because he had hurt the feelings of the nurse. The nurse, after all, although a professional, has feelings also etc. etc. etc. And he should monitor his behavior in that light.
And I – internally – went bonkers.
He is to measure the rightness or wrongness of his behavior towards the nurse by whether or not he hurt her feelings??? What if she was such a cold person that her feelings were not hurt by his behavior, any more than if he were an animal in a zoo flailing out in reaction to some issue the animal had? The nurse’s lack of being bothered by his behavior would then free him to act out?
Isn’t his issue – the core one that keeps him in a hospital – that his feelings are the be-all and end-all of the way he measures his behavior? And she’s implying he should give that up only if he hurts someone else’s feelings?
I know that it was not the social worker’s intention to teach this boy the lesson that feelings must rule. But it’s what she did – presumably inadvertently – by not teaching him that his behavior must be measured by something other than feelings – his or anyone else’s. If “being nice” worked for him, would he have ended up where he is?
His behavior towards that nurse was wrong because it was disrespectful whether she felt disrespected or not. It was abusive whether she felt abused or not. She is not to be at the mercy of his feelings. But neither is he to be at the mercy of hers. That is, after all, the very definition of abuse.
I suppose that empathy is taught by getting little kids to recognize that other people have feelings too and then working on their behavior from there. But I think it is backwards, at least when it comes to older kids. It seems to me that right and wrong has to come before empathy. It seems to me that good must precede nice.
My relationship with Chris Huntington began by him kicking me out of school (“today”) because of my behavior. He wasn’t focused on my feelings – my fury about what he was doing didn’t even come into his decision. He was focused solely on what was right. When I tried to negotiate with him, to “compromise,” to buy time, I got nowhere, infuriating me even more. But also bewildering me. He wasn’t being mean or nasty or abusive to me. And in my gut I knew that. I knew that he was responding to me and to my behavior, and not reacting to his feelings about me and that behavior.
My fury was irrelevant to what was right or wrong??? What??? What world is this???
At seventeen years old that was a revelation to me.
Today, March 10, Msgr. Christopher Huntington is dead thirteen years. He lived to 89 so I know that I can’t complain. But I am anyway. He introduced me to a world, to a perspective, to a way of thinking, that I hadn’t known existed.
Because I was stupid or because of what I’d learned from our culture without even knowing it?
Thank God that I had him.
Jack is absolutely right on this. Feelings should not enter into the decision about what is right and wrong. We’re living in a culture that is drowning in feelings, people reacting to perceived wrongs, with behaviors that are predicated on their feelings.
Jack went bonkers INTERNALLY. I often go bonkers INTERNALLY, based on what I see in our culture. But too many people go bonkers EXTERNALLY. Most recently, I see it in the discussion about gun violence.
Even if a child changes his behavior based on the feelings of others, they are acting out of guilt, not learning right from wrong.
Sandy Berenbaum, LCSW, BCD
I’ve heard you talk about this so often, Jack. What that social worker said to that kid was what I was taught in college, when I was working in a college day care center. I had to emphasize if one kid said something nasty or hit another kid, that it was the feelings of the other being hurt that was the real damage done.