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52 MAY 2003
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work with girls

If we are the good guys, why do we feel so bad?

Pearl Berman

The author, who has written widely on abused girls, provides a different perspective by describing how these angry girls sometimes abuse the staff who seek to help them. The article explores why maltreated girls sometimes act abusively to their staff and provides suggestions on strategies for avoiding burnout and maintaining a positive, therapeutic demeanor even in the face of challenging behavior.

It’s an ordinary morning. You enter your office or classroom expecting to have a few minutes alone to get organized for the day. Instead, there is Jill. She is early, and she is using your desk scissors to rip the stuffing out of your chair.

Questions streak through your mind such as, “Am I a failure? Is Jill untreatable?" Before you really consider these rhetorical questions, you deal with immediate reality. You get control of the scissors without causing injury to yourself or Jill, and you restrain your desire to plunge the scissors into Jill’s body or your own. Now the time has come to congratulate yourself on a job well done and forgive yourself for the very nasty thoughts still coursing through your brain.

If, after taking a deep breath, you can go on to make this event and its consequences therapeutic, you don’t need this article. For all individuals who have recurrent dark or helpless thoughts about students like Jill, or who are doubting whether they are the kind, empathetic, caring, and gifted helpers they thought they were, read on: Combat burnout, understand why maltreated girls may abuse you, remember who you are and don’t be a loner, act like a bulldog, and be realistic.

Understand why maltreated girls may abuse you
Some abused and neglected girls walk in the door kicking and swearing. Some refuse to talk. Others make ceaseless demands for unending nurturance and protection – “If you loved me you could ... If you really cared you would." Others seem able to “yes, but" forever. Why are they so tough on you when you are working so hard for them?

These girls have received erratic, poor-quality, or abusive parenting. They may show profound deficits in developmental, physical, academic, and/or social skills. The repercussions? They truly may not know right from wrong. They may not know what to learn or how to learn from us. As non-abusive helpers, we ask girls and boys to trust us and follow our instructions. Why should they? They have good reasons not to. We may show few differences in our overt behaviors from those of their abusers. They may have asked for help before and not received it. In addition, they may have huge reservoirs of bad feelings stored up against those who have maltreated them. It was not safe for them to display these feelings before, but they are safe with us now. So, the geysers of anger, fear, pain, and distrust burst forth and drench us.

Besides having socialization deficits and great amounts of unresolved negative feelings, these girls are also developing people and will show all the cognitive limitations and irrational thinking of people their age. For example, they may believe that you could do anything they asked if you really wanted to. Over the course of treatment, they may show a developmental shift from assiduously copying you to desperately seeking independence from you.

Multimodal treatment is usually optimal for dealing with the complex problems presented by these little girls and teenagers. However, due to lack of family support for treatment, monetary resources, or treatment resources, or due to transportation difficulties, one form of treatment is often all that is available. When therapists are floundering, they frequently blame themselves or disengage from the girls instead of maintaining their focus on the realities of the situation.

Remember who you are and don’t be a loner
You are a bright, caring, and committed individual. You are not all-knowing and all-powerful. Work within your strengths and the areas of your training; mobilize other resources to deal with anything else. For example, community mental health professionals specialize in working through deep-seated individual and family problems. School counselors and teachers specialize in academic problems, age-appropriate peer relationships, and the competencies young people need to build satisfying lives. Protective service workers investigate allegations of past and ongoing abuse or neglect. They can remove a child temporarily from the home if a dangerous situation exists. They can mandate treatment, provide transportation to treatment, and provide financial support for needed services. The district attorney’s office and the court system can prosecute abusers and mandate them into treatment or remove them from the community. Religious leaders can help teach the values of honesty, retribution for transgression, forgiveness, and spiritual healing. Medical personnel can provide education and support recovery from physical trauma. Cooperation between professionals results in effective, multiple-impact treatment plans. Working closely with colleagues from other fields prevents the acting-out child from playing one professional against another. It also helps ward off burnout through shared responsibility and mutual support. These girls will frustrate you. When that happens, expand your thinking through consulting with others, trying new techniques, reading new articles and books, or attending a conference.

Act like a bulldog
It takes time to be really successful with severely abused or neglected girls. Early, quick progress may suddenly grind to a halt. You may have experienced a honeymoon period in which everything you said was received eagerly, and your student or client appeared to be working hard to please you. When this phase ended, you realized that major change really was not occurring as you had hoped. She is still doing badly in school, in foster placement, and in social relationships.

Remember, you may be doing exactly what you need to do, but you need to be a bulldog and not give up. You may need to do the same thing over and over and over again before you see the benefits. Progress may build gradually at a snail’s pace, and then it may appear abruptly. You need to have faith that your nurturance and your modeling of honesty and integrity will ultimately conquer teenagers” distrust of adults and their attempts to be impervious to your influence.

Be realistic
Treatment can produce powerful changes, but do not expect smooth progress or complete success. Success with a child may need to be defined in terms of circumscribed goals such as “She is surviving in a mainstream classroom" rather than the more ambitious goal of “She is an honor student." Sometimes ambitious goals can be achieved, but often they cannot.

You have recognized your strengths and limitations and have developed an appropriate treatment plan. What next? Expect the going to get rough. Seek another opinion on your treatment plan and techniques; this eases your mind that you haven’t forgotten something important, and it shares responsibility with others. For peer support, seek ongoing consultation with others as treatment progresses. Plan breaks in treatment intensity and don’t try to force yourself to “do it all in I day." Long-term cases can lead to such intense involvement from you that you lose a degree of professional judgment about what is and is not realistic for the girl with whom you are working. Remember, it is she who needs to be most actively involved in your treatment partnership, not you.

Summary and conclusions
Remember that you are the bright, caring, and insightful person you always thought you were. What you need to be now is a bright, caring, insightful bulldog. Bulldogs do not give up. When they are on the right track, they hang in there until success is achieved. Because you are really just a person with the tenacity of a bulldog, don’t hesitate to let loose and take time to consult with others when the going is tough or you are beginning to feel detached from the girl you are helping.

Altruists need and deserve support. Don’t forget that if you are going to work with these tough, needy girls, you cannot work alone. The child or adolescent you are treating must participate actively with you in treatment, and families, professionals, other children and teens, and youth workers must also be involved. Expect to feel burned out sometimes. Then take action to fight it–consult with others, read articles, take a vacation. There will be some girls you cannot help. Give yourself permission to refer them to others, and then forgive yourself for not being the perfect helper for every girl who needs help.

This feature: Berman P. (1996). If we are the good guys, why do we feel so bad? Reclaiming Children and Youth. 5 (2). Summer 1996. pp 108-109