FCYU129 cover image See all stories from issue #129, Summer 2017

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Staff: Use the Stories in This Issue To Help Teens Move On
Represent staff
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The writers in this issue are moving on from both the people who abused them and the self-destructive behaviors they took up in response. Sometimes what a writer went through is so intense that you can miss the insight into their coping mechanisms or the positive steps they took to make their situation better. But these stories contain much information that can help staff and foster parents provide trauma-informed care.

Provide Consistency

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The author of “There Are Better Ways to Cope” (p. 10) is very good at pinpointing exactly what makes her cut herself. Her abusive grandmother “insults and berates me one minute, then the next she goes all sweet on me.” Her mother is similarly unpredictable: “She verbally abuses me sometimes…. Other times she’s supportive and defends me when my grandmother yells at me. It depends on whether she’s high or not.”

Over and over this writer says that the abuse by caregivers hurts, but that the inconsistency and unfairness is equally painful and often leads to her self-harming. She even refers to the cutting as a way to reach equilibrium: “I need to take the pain that’s inside and put it on the outside.”

The author of “Peaceful Warrior” (p. 8) makes the same point: “Fighting seemed like the only way for me to get justice.” She also observes adults falling short on consistency: A foster mother “tried to control us, but she didn’t have the time or energy to make sure we were OK.” Of her own mother, she writes, “I never understood what I did wrong” to warrant being beaten.

Takeaway for staff and caregivers: Strive to be consistent and even-keeled. Be supportive and firm when teen behavior is frustrating, but avoid harsh or arbitrary consequences. They probably won’t work. And they will reinforce the sense of anger, helplessness, and disorganization that causes teens to act out in the first place.

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The foster care system often repeats the inconsistency of earlier trauma through frequent staff changes, for example. Do your best to explain these transitions and let teens know that frequent change and disorganization is a failure of the system, not them. Let them know life can be more coherent and they can control more than they have before.

Suggest Coping Skills, Including Therapy

The writer of “There Are Better Ways to Cope” uses several substitutes to help her stop cutting, along with listening to music, reading, and reminding herself that she will get to leave her grandmother’s house. Similarly, the author of “Peaceful Warrior” presents this strategy to cope when something’s unfair: “I try to analyze the situation and see if there’s a way for me to solve things without escalating.” She also uses yoga and other exercise to calm her mind and talks things through with her therapist.

Therapist Julie Sahlein talks about learning to trust again and how therapy can speed that process up in “How to Ditch Bad Habits—and Bad Relationships” (p. 16). Her summary of how therapy can help is something you can share with your foster youth. Tell them that the therapist helps you carry the burden of your painful feelings, and you learn that you can tolerate those feelings without getting high, cutting, or any other distraction.

Healing Through Writing

The writer of “Better Ways to Cope” also calms herself by “writing about what’s upsetting me instead of cutting.” By writing, she makes sense out of chaos and disconnected, disorganized events into a story. Traumatized people often have trouble finding coherence—not only are the events of their life random and scary, but it’s generally hard to focus if you’ve been traumatized. You can miss how things add up and wonder why other people seem to see patterns and norms where you can’t.

A youth who has been traumatized can heal by piecing the events of her life into a narrative that makes sense. Writing is good for victims of abuse and neglect because they interpret their own experience, often for the first time. They can make sense out of a painful life and find their own agency.

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(FCYU-2017-07-04)