"The best compliment to children or friends is the feeling you give them that they have been set free to make their own inquiries, to come to conclusions that are right for them, whether or not they coincide with your own." ~ Alistair Cooke (British/American Journalist & Broadcaster)
Never, in a million years, did I see myself working with "troubled teens." In fact, I avoided working with the teenage population for my entire career (minus almost four years now). After completing my MSW and then subsequently being unemployed for six months (due to a lack of french language skills)....I would have likely taken any job that was offered to me. Never being unemployed before....the first two to three weeks were amazing, followed by the next five months of life being pretty shitty and involving racking up even more debt. How I landed the job I currently have with zero experience in working with adolescents is beyond me. My supervisor has told me that she saw something in me that I didn't even see in myself. I'm glad she did.
My initial thought: teenagers....how hard could it really be? As it turns out, really, super-duper hard.
To clarify, the kids I work with aren't your average "troubled teenagers" who argue over not having a good enough cell phone or kick and scream about designer jeans or curfews. The kids I work with would absolutely love to have problems that benign. To provide a brief description, the youth I work with have mostly been in the care of The Children's Aid Society for quite a number of years and, almost entirely have the worlds most fucked up parents (in North America anyways). These are the children of addicted parents, of parents who abuse and neglect and who shove away instead of holding close. Most often, the kids I work with - their parents were exactly where they were years earlier, because their parents weren't much better. The intergenerational issues are omnipresent and generation upon generation of families are functioning poorly and struggling with the same issues over decades. By the time these kids end up on my doorstep, they are super messed up individuals who have no understanding of appropriate love and limits. They are totally out of control and, most often, they have been through every placement available and finally someone has clued in that they need more than a place to rest their head at night and, therefore, they are sent to treatment. That's where I come in.
I've been working for the same agency for just over three and a half years now and my role within that agency is primarily to provide therapy to youth and their families. There's a lot more to it than that but, I want to focus these entries on the kids and what I learn from them. Yes....what I learn from them. What they teach me about life and love and the world is far greater than I could ever offer them in their one-hour session, once a week. The youth in our programs live with us (not me, within the agency itself) as we provide residences in the community, most of which can house seven to eight youth at a time. In general, they stay with us anywhere between nine to twelve months to receive treatment - and, almost always - they do not want to be there (at least initially). Providing therapy to young people who generally don't want it makes my job challenging and I have become uber creative as a result.
My job title is "Clinician," which in reality translates into: listener, problem solver, hugger, confidant, person in which to laugh and cry with, and the one-who-does-not-judge-me. I judge parents sometimes, even though I shouldn't and even though I am aware that you can't parent if you've never been parented. They're the easiest target to hit when a kid is describing the ongoing abuse they suffered since age four. And, the fact of the matter is: it is the "parents fault;" I know this because therapists make their money off of "mothers." If there were no mothers, the need for therapy would likely decrease by 85%. There is good reason for this; however, this is not the forum in which to get into attachment theory.
One of the first youth I ever worked with, who was extremely violent and intimidating at his 250lbs, changed my title to what it remains today: clinish. He felt that the title "clinician" was far too professional and removed, so he changed it and I have continued to refer to myself as this since that time. He was the first youth I had success with - and "success" in my line of work has a different definition than it does in mainstream society. Success does not mean that this youth went on to complete school (which he did), become meaningfully employed (which he also did) and become a "productive member of society." Rather, it means that he learned to love himself, to forgive his past, and move onto a life where he experiences happiness. That is my measurement of success.
Some of the daily issues I am exposed to are: self harm (cutting, burning yourself), drug and alcohol abuse, suicide attempts, running (from the program and into the more dangerous parts of society), aggression, sexual acting out, and lots and lots of yelling and tears. What these particular kids need is LOVE. Unrestricted love and attention and then more love. As a professional, I am not "allowed" to provide these things to kids (again, for numerous reasons that I'm not going to get into here), but I love them. Yes, I certainly do love them - in all the right ways.
Different aspects of my life have drastically changed since working at this job. First off, I have grown to love children more than I ever thought possible. I am extremely passionate about these little people (aka. circus clowns) and I have challenged myself to learn everything possible (which is virtually impossible) about child development. My love for children and youth exists deep into the core of my being and my only concern is: protect, protect, protect. That's all we need to do. Love and protect. I have also decided that having children is not for me. Now, this was solidified since working with this population; however, the feeling that I would likely never embark on that adventure has been present for many years. When people ask me if I have kids, my stock answer is: "yes, eight of them....and they are totally fucked up." Of course, it's more complicated than working with the more damaged children in society, but, I feel that my love can be offered more usefully to other people's children than my own. Most of my colleagues think I'm crazy for choosing not to have my own children, as I have been labelled as someone who likely would be an "excellent mother." They don't know me (and my sometimes profound levels of immaturity) all that well.
I often wonder how it will be in Africa, working with kids who are damaged for different (and similar) reasons. How will I handle working with those kids, as it took me quite some time to develop the skills necessary to manage listening to stories of abandonment and abuse all day. I hope I am awesome at it.