Tag Archives: teens

No Hay Mal Que Por Bien No Venga

If there is one thing that all human beings crave it is relationships. From birth we learn to rely on our care taker (whoever that may be) to fill our most basic needs- food, clothes, and shelter. As we move on in life our needs increase, evolve and are (hopefully) met by many people- a friend to assist in finishing a pint of Ben and Jerry’s after a bad breakup, a mentor to help navigate the career path of our choice, a significant other to share in our successes, failures, and all of the other tedious and frustrating moments in between. While these needs may seem to grow increasingly more complex with time, when you break it down it is all about human connection.

As a case planner at a Residential Treatment Facility, I work primarily with 16-21 year old boys who come from all walks of life, various foster care placements, and unique family dynamics. What they all have in common is traumatic life experiences. In children who experience trauma, studies show that even one positive relationship  -whether it be with a teacher, coach, or relative, can significantly impact that child’s ability to form trusting relationships.

For the young adults that I work with, the struggle to first believe in the possibility of healthy relationships and to next find these relationships, can be daunting. When helping the residents through their struggle to trust, and subsequent disappointment whether it be in their family, the System or themselves, I generally stick to two key phrases.  They are  “Accept What You Cannot Change” and “Hurt People Hurt People.” Of course when I reflect on my personal experience of true loss and disappointment, I realize how difficult it is to actually apply these phrases.

I have constantly heard that the most rewarding part of Social Work is that you will learn more from the people you work with than they will learn from you. In the few months that I have been working, I have learned more than I ever could have imagined.

Month 1:

On one of my first days at work, we pick up our resident, Jose*, who from the day I met him seemed to be wise beyond his 16 years.

I first met Jose when we sat next to each other on a chaotic bus ride from an agency outing.  As the majority of kids screamed, fought, and in one case even broke down and cried, he quietly showed me a bracelet that a Veteran had made him in appreciation of training a Service Dog. On the bracelet were letters of the dog’s name.  Around us, as the scene erupted with a resident kicking open the back door of the bus while cursing at staff and sounding off an alarm, I looked over at Jose’s bracelet and could not help but smile despite the chaos.  To this day, Jose continues to wear it. 

We travel to the site of Jose’s family team conference (a meeting to discuss his progress in foster care as well as the progress towards his permanency goal). Jose’s grandmother Ms. Rodriguez* greets us. They exchange the obligatory one shoulder hug most teenagers pull-half forced, half sincere.

The boys I work with almost all have a goal of APPLA, otherwise known as “Another Planned Permanent Living Arrangement.” While there are several possible permanency goals including but not limited to return to parent/caretaker, and adoption, most who have been cycled between placements and rejected for most of their life finally and understandably arrive at the goal of independent living- one where they alone seemingly have complete control over their future. Jose, on the other hand is one of the few who has a goal of return to caretaker.

Almost immediately Ms. Rodriguez asks to use the bathroom. We all discuss the VMAS from the night before in her absence. Eventually the ACS Facilitator arrives.  It is time to get down to business and the tension is palpable.

“Jose, I understand that we are here today to change your goal from return to family to APPLA.   Do we all understand what that means?” My colleague who has worked at the agency for some time and is clearly familiar with the case, with Ms. Rodriguez and most importantly with Jose (well beyond my pleasant interaction on the bus) speaks on behalf of Ms. Rodriguez who is elderly and ill and explains her inability to supervise Jose as initially agreed upon.

Ms. Rodriguez is a woman whose wrinkles are a testament of the struggles I can only imagine she has endured. She is the matriarch of the family, with a silent strength, but after raising a family, enduring tragedy and incarcerations, and now her own illness, is tired.  Jose, in contrast, is young- wide-eyed and angry. Jose cannot understand this decision- disgruntled statements such as “I know you’re active” “You don’t want me” and “I just want an honest answer” are muttered under his breath. Ms. Rodriguez is visibly hurt, but can only muster the strength to state, “I just want what is best for you. If you do not believe me, you are better off without me.”

In that moment one of my over recycled mantras comes to life- “Hurt People Hurt People.” Both Ms. Rodriguez and Jose have been rejected and consequently they reject. I begin to panic about the communication breakdown that is overpowering the conference. I understand Jose’s feelings of rejection and his grandmother’s inability to care for him. I myself have been guilty of the human impulse to reject before rejected. (tweetable) I remember the “Hey Jude” quote that seems to plague us all at one point or another-“you know it’s a fool who plays it cool by making his world a little colder.”

I visualize the conversation I will have with Jose. I will remind him that he deserves a family and walk him through other options such as the adoption process, re-iterate how much his grandmother has demonstrated that she cares by traveling to every conference and court date, and encourage him to stay in touch with her. Before I can utter a word, the conference ends, we sign the sheet, and exit the room.

We leave separately and no one speaks. Ms. Rodriguez stops to get fruit at a local bodega.  As we are walking to our car, Jose crosses paths with his Grandma, his eyes lighting up instantly-“Abuela- your fruit is going to topple over!” He adjusts her bag, moves the fruit around so that it is more secure, and they hug each other goodbye. This is no half-hearted teenage hug. It is all sincerity. At that moment I know that Jose and Ms. Rodriguez will be okay, and they will work things out on their own without me lifting a finger.  For after all the crux of healthy relationships is not perfection, it is messing up, occasionally drifting apart, but loving each other enough to get back to where we need to be. 

When doing this work, I remember a proverb that I picked up while studying in Spain: “No hay mal que por bien no venga.” (tweetable) It was one of the many that I was fixated on memorizing, a small sample of life lessons that my “Madre” would serve up nightly at dinners, with a fair share of wine and paella as she processed her recent divorce, and one which I channel when I am on the brink of becoming jaded. It is a phrase with many meanings but one message: “Every cloud has a silver lining.” “When one door closes another opens.” “There is no bad from which good will not come.”(tweetable) The choice of translation is of course up to the listener.

The most powerful thing I have taken from the young adults and families that I work with it is how to be strong in the face of rejection and resilient in the face of life’s un-anticipated struggles. I have learned the importance of picking oneself up and surviving when it seems impossible, and sometimes if you are lucky, re-building those bridges that were so badly burned you never thought they would stand again. After all, no hay mal que por bien no venga, whatever that may mean…

*All names have been changed to protect the identity of the individuals referenced.

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Letting Go

People who know me  from afar might be shocked to learn that I’m kind of a control freak. They might notice my scatterbrained personality that tends to spill over in every interaction, my tendency to set my alarm for PM instead of AM, my pattern of eating leftover pizza for breakfast, and assume I’m a mess. As a 24-year-old trapped in a teenager’s body who cries over episodes of The Office, I think this is definitely a fair analysis. However, when it comes to my job and my day-to-day life, it’s a completely different story.

Basically: I really, really, really need to be in control. Of. Everything. I need to be running the show. I need to know what I’m getting myself into. I need to be the one making decisions, writing lists, and delegating tasks. In high school, when people would mention things like my “strong leadership skills,” it was just a nice way of saying that I tended to barrel to the front of the group and start bossing others around. I think I have definitely relaxed in many ways as I’ve grown, but the desire to completely control my day-to-day–which currently is my job–remained–well, until recently.

It’s been exactly one year since I arrived at the Children’s Aid Society and began my job as a sociotherapist in Teen Foster Care. It’s hard to think about everything I have learned over the year, because my brain would explode, so I just want to focus on perhaps the biggest lesson—one that I have learned and re-learned, over and over, in daily interactions, for the past 365 days.

Yes—I have learned to relinquish control. In my job, at least–which is a start.

Here’s the thing about my job that’s incredibly obvious: teenagers will do whatever they want. Positive or negative, well-thought-out or not.  Another obvious point, though one that took me longer to accept– it remains true that I have zero actual say in some of the choices my youth might make. An easy example–I cannot physically MOVE them to and from appointments–no matter how hard I try. I cannot lead a young adult by the hand into a room to take a GED test for the fourth time, or into a mandatory job orientation, or to their living room for a home visit. This realization is not radical, and it shouldn’t be. Going into my job I was aware that my expectations would and should shift as I began to get to know my clients better.  It took about ten minutes to learn that I was not necessarily a top priority for some of my youth–which is totally understandable! They had, and still have, so much going on. Very quickly, I was faced with the realization that relinquishing the control over my day-to-day work was probably going to be one of the only ways I would be able to stick it out.

The first few months of my job, I seemed to be in panic mode every single time there was some kind of problem, even relatively tiny–i.e., a youth missing a doctor’s appointment, getting suspended for two days from school, losing an ID for the third time, etc. It was not, of course, a relaxing way to live particularly when these events combined with bigger, more complex problems that I actually really had to focus on to help solve.

So I took a look around. Having been lucky enough to be granted dedicated, supportive co-workers, I needed to figure out how they were dealing with everything. I zoned in on my supervisor, and soon I began to notice that each time she was presented with any sort of work-related issue–positive or negative, minor or major–she responded in the same way: by simply saying, “Okay.” No panicking. No flicker of stress. Just a calming affirmation that she had heard.

This floored me.

How could she be so calm in situations where the youth that we worked with just did not seem to care about showing up? Or completing important paperwork? Or even responding to calls? Teens who were on the cusp of aging out, who needed housing, who needed jobs, who along with us were racing against the clock to secure some sort of permanency.  It is important to note that some of the teens in our small unit did not have these tendencies–but many did. 

During those first few months, if our supervision sessions spiraled into me talking through my frustration about a client’s behavior, she would listen, shrug and say, “All you can do is all you can do.” At first I was skeptical.  “Was it really as easy as that?” It seemed to work well for her. So we started there.

All I can do is all I can do.”

As time progressed, I repeated the mantra in my head whenever a stressful situation arose. I really had to work to apply it to my everyday professional life, but soon it seemed to start sticking.  I began to realize that between the hours of 9am and 5pm (or 6pm, or 6:30pm…), all I could do was try to be the best sociotherapist for these teens that I could possibly be. Then I could go home and flail on my living room carpet or stress-cuddle my cat and be as much of a mess as I wanted.

But at work, it was different. Each relationship with a client is unique–it was all about doing all I could to meet each where he or she was at. That meant listening, or talking, or not talking, or doing crossword puzzles, or watching one horrifically bloody scene from a Twilight movie (one of my teens convinced me it was worth watching–I beg to differ). It also meant using frustrating moments as teaching opportunities which went both ways. It meant reflection and conversation, goal-setting, and planning. It meant cutting some slack for both the teen and myself. Sometimes it meant shifting expectations. Sometimes it meant taking baby steps and rewarding tiny victories.

Things began to shift. For one, I was relieved. I was being more productive at work because I didn’t jump up and try to hastily problem-solve every single situation that arose right that second. I was able to take a deep breath and say, “Okay.” I was able to begin focusing my attention on appreciating positive behavior instead of becoming frustrated by negative behavior. And at the end of the day, I realized, it’s just not about me. I learned to not take things personally. The comfort that might have come with me being able to influence my clients to make every appointment, sign every paper, change every negative behavior–it just wasn’t going to happen.

And that’s life.

That’s life.

Learning to let go of the desire for control over my job has been an incredibly rewarding experience, one that I was bound to learn sooner or later. I’m glad I learned it sooner. That’s both the up-side and down-side of social work–things get real, fast. I choose to consider that an up-side. I feel grateful for everything I have learned the past year and look forward to learning more and more.

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Ilena’s Testimonial

Working in foster care is incredibly challenging. You want to do
everything for your kids and sometimes you can’t make a single thing
go right for them, and it can feel like you’ve made things worse.
Children’s Corps taught me to appreciate the little things. I didn’t
realize how frustrated, overwhelmed, and helpless I’d feel but I also
didn’t realize how much joy I would get from making a surly
fifteen-year-old giggle, talking to a seventeen-year-old about the
tattoo he got in honor of his grandma, and seeing the look of wonder
upon the face of a West African teenager the first time he saw Grand
Central Station. Children’s Corps taught me to appreciate everything
there is to appreciate, and keeps reminding me when I forget.

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