"He needs a little TLC (tender loving care)" is common advice to a parent or caregiver when a youngster is feeling discouraged or down. And for most kids, this is exactly right. They have had some upset, they are hurt or disappointed. and with a touch of kindness or a word of reassurance they are reminded that their world is really OK, that people care about them, and they pick themselves up.
But with many children in care or in other programs for young people at risk, it may not be that easy. The upset, hurt or disappointment, for them, is usually not just a hiccup or a temporary problem: it is, for them, confirmation of a hostile world, a reinforcement of their own worthlessness, proof that people cannot be trusted. Usually children are helped by TLC. Troubled children may reject it because it threatens their fragile sense of control and understanding.
Hostility, a refusal of love
My favourite psychologist is George Kelly – not one of the big names, though certainly one of the greats. He developed a psychology which did not rely on other people's opinions and diagnoses of a person, but on that person's own experience of himself or herself. And so Kelly saw behaviour not so much in terms of motivation (other people and outside circumstances pushing us to do things) but rather in terms of our own expectations (what do I anticipate in this situation?).
Normally we all learn to "read" situations. Our experiences mount up so that we understand our world, and so we learn what we can expect from it, and how we can live competently and comfortably in that world. Every time the "expected" happens, we are reassured about our ability to "read" situations. When the "unexpected" happens, we are challenged to revise our understanding of the world.
In Kelly's words: "Man predicts what will happen. If it happens, his prediction is validated, the grounds he used for predicting are strengthened, and he can venture further next time. If it doesn't happen, his prediction is invalidated, the structure he used in making the prediction is brought into question, and the road ahead becomes less clear."
So for young people whose world is not easy to understand, when it is inconsistent and unpredictable, and when the experiences it offers are hurtful and scary, their expectations are negative and anxiety-producing. Such a person's whole make-up is based on the expectation that the worst will happen – and they defend themselves from further hurt.
Kelly thus explains the hostile or love resistant person. We approach the repeatedly hurt and rejected child with warmth and a smile. The child has two choices:
(a) "This experience doesn't fit in with my model of expectations; maybe I will have to change my negative view of life"; or
(b) "This experience doesn't fit in with my model of expectations; therefore the warm smile is not for real. I don't trust this. Why should I expect this person to be different? She isn't. She's just the same as everyone else. She is just what I expect her to be!"
Kelly says: Instead of building and modifying his theories about life on the basis of the data he observes. the hostile person has come to accept only one theory, that the world and the people in it are hateful and untrustworthy. So instead of modifying his theory, he chooses to distort the data to fit in with his theory. One warm smile, then, is no good.
Tipping the scales
We child and youth care workers are often called on to provide not just one, not just twenty, but enough positive experiences to challenge a youngster's view of life to make him consider modifying his theory.
This month there are other articles which explore this theme. Mark Tomlinson is interviewed on the meaning of attachment in work with older troubled kids. The writer of Acceptance, Touch and Hunger accepts that youngsters will leave a program with no guarantee that they would find themselves with accepting adults in the future, but that "at least they would have learnt that acceptance was possible." So, as we build their expectations of life, we care workers can at least show children that it is possible for them to be liked, to be accepted, to be loved. Barbara Varenhorst (writing on harnessing the energies of love in Reclaiming Children and Youth) uses these words: "One moment of unconditional love may call into question a life-time of feeling unworthy, and invalidate it!"