A Woodbury-ish Report

Note: My friend Lon Woodbury operates a consultancy which, among other things, helps pair teens who struggle in social and educational settings, and programs within the niche community specific to helping kids with difficulty functioning in the mainstream. His company publishes Woodbury Reports, a newsletter and blog that contains articles relevant to the “Troubled Teens” niche.  I was one of these kids as I grew up and I parented one as well, and worked as a Guardian ad Litem advocating for troubled kids whose problems brought them into the juvenile justice system or dependency actions. All of which gives me the unique perspective of having seen the issues from literally all possible sides. Lon asked me for some content he might use in his publications. Probably not what he expected, but hey, who’s writing here? (wink) 

One of the biggest problems with the professionals like counselors, school faculty, law enforcement and state agents who work with kids struggling in life is that they look at the kid as being in control of the problems they are struggling with. They will often even say that the children brought their problems on themselves. That’s wrong for the most part. While these kids can indeed be their own worst enemy, it’s not like they can make a simple decision to “straighten up.” Teenagers who struggle in the mainstream are responding to the world as they see it. Young people face pressures and challenges that are overwhelming, and in tremendously greater volumes than previous generations. Just as each generation has been more advanced than the generation preceding it, the same holds true for the pressures they experience. With modernization comes complexities, complexities with ramifications for youth that are entirely different than perceived by adults. Frankly, adults really can’t relate to the new situations very well because they’re alien to them. They can empathize to a certain degree, but they can’t relate. That, however, doesn’t leave them powerless.

What is necessary to pull young people from the quagmire their lives have become is a significant shift. A paradigm shift, although I hate to use that expression. They need to experience some kind of rite of passage, actually a series of them followed by a major one. The little ones teach them to compartmentalize what’s gone before and be able to look at it as the past; as something that no longer relevant to them because of the plateau achieved by the attainment of each of the smaller goals. Then be able, with the major rite of passage to step away from the past into a new world in which they feel a sense of control and purpose. In school, the completion of each year leads children to graduation. Much like graduating high school allows the great sigh of relief and a different focus in life, the same sort of thing needs to be made available to kids floundering in a society that has no time for them or the special needs they require. Society isn’t about individuals, it’s about the mainstream and either you’re a part of it, or you’re a reject. A loser. Programs attuned to the needs of troubled kids need to step in and short circuit the denouement between these kids and mainstream society by overlaying a structure of successes that lead to a graduation-like rite of passage that lets the kids discard the past in favor of a future they’re ready for as much as it’s ready for them.

The successful programs that assist kids who struggle are the ones that provide the necessary disconnect between then and now. They create a virtual demarcation line that dissolves the pressures and issues a kid is dealing with and permits them to focus on how they want things to go now. It lets them feel as though they can set a goal and achieve it. Some may say it empowers the kids, but it’s more like it offers them the belief that they are in control now, rather than the indefinable pressures and tendencies that kept the kids in unbreakable cycles of trouble.  The thing is, you can’t tell a kid that they have the power; too many programs do that and it’s counter-productive. It’s part of the mantra they hear from the so called authority in their lives and they don’t believe it. Like most everything else they haven’t discovered for themselves, it’s baloney that may serve for the mainstream, but not for them.

“Life is a bushwhack,” say the operators of wilderness programs. They try to puts kids in charge of themselves and, one day at a time, drives them to forge through difficult terrain. The program calls the daily traverses through hard country a bushwhack, and suggest it as a metaphor for life. At the end of each day the trekkers reach a place to relax, to eat and rest –to feel rewarded for their efforts, or be discomforted by their failures. If the kids don’t take appropriate care of themselves they end up suffering the consequences of their inappropriate comportment of themselves in a way they can only hold themselves responsible for. If they haven’t thought and acted for themselves, the circumstances refuse them the reward of comfort. Day by day the example is set by situation rather than adult direction. Each day the concept that when they reach the goal of the camping spot and get their personal camp set up, that setup is a small rite of passage and their comfort is the reward. Certainly the counselors along on the treks provide reinforcing commentary, but are mostly there to provide the kids on the trek with help in finding answers to life questions within themselves rather than actually answering the questions, and provide oversight for the safety of the trekkers. The end of the program, the return to the main camp and the family meeting is the master rite of passage. The kids efforts are recognized and applauded. A virtual line in the sands of life is drawn and the kids are offered, by their own perceptions, the opportunity to discard all that came before and step into a new era in which they feel that they have control over as well as the skills to master what comes. But it’s critical that the program have the right focus and the right staff and counselors, fully vetted. We have to keep in mind the programs that showed bright promise only to be revealed as circles of hell. It’s incumbent on all programs to exude competence and professionalism.

Short and median term programs works for about 30% of the kids who go through them. There would be a greater level of success if it weren’t for subverting factors like families who cannot see and respect the virtual line and rub the kid’s noses in the past and disallow them to move forward. It may be school, friends or other social factors as well –like the cliques they were a part of who want to pull the kids back into the old habits and thinking processes. The thing is, the kids cannot be protected from these factors, they must deal with them personally. Life is a bushwhack and it’s almost a cruel joke that the very parents or institutions who got the child into a program end up subverting good works achieved. Long term programs have better prospects for success because time constraints don’t impose limits on the therapy and guidance plans designed for the youngsters. However, not all kids in troubled situations need a long term program. Some require much less and longer term therapy can actually turn counter-productive. As such, the triage of program destined youth needs to be spot on and oriented to the needs of the child much more than the desires of bottom line headcount.

Wilderness programs are just an example here. I don’t mean to highlight  or endorse them. I only to use them as an example of what I’m talking about when I say that kids in troubled lives need to have the opportunity to create that demarcation line, and to recognize it themselves as a time of disconnect from previous perceptions and attitudes. The kids need to discover and then recognize that line in the sand. The job of the programs for struggling kids is to supply a consistent supply of challenges from which kids extract their own rewards, and to provide  situations that can be seen by the kids as their own personal rite of passage. It’s all about what the kids perceive, not the adults, and so the program operators need to recognize that and spend less time telling kids what to think and more time providing the tools and circumstances that let the young people discover their own worth, ability and power. There are numerous programs out there to choose from and they run a gamut of motif and genre. Wilderness experience is not the sole choice and there are many approaches to providing kids with the situations and tools that permit them to become self aware and self reliant in ways conducive to acceptance by society in general. Of course, it’s also critical that wilderness (and other approach) programs are administered with competence, oversight and total commitment to the children enrolled. It should never be forgotten that while approaching adulthood they’re still kids and still at work building their maturity and shaping their comprehensions.

Kids need structure and boundaries and both need to be malleable and dependent on the kid. Their boundaries should be set in such a way that the kid is allowed to fail. Failure should not incur punishment, but the logical consequence of a tightening of the boundaries. Once success is achieved, the boundaries need be expanded again, with the intent to eventually remove them entirely because the youth is setting their own boundaries. They know their abilities and limitations, and their successes at self management are reward enough for them because the reward is manifested as self respect and recognized personal value. The final rite of passage there being graduation; the complete elimination of all boundaries save those that are self imposed. Everyone wants to succeed and kids, even those embroiled in problematic lives are no different. For mainstream kids this is the milieu of school and peer interaction. For kids who don’t fare well in the mainstream setting, it takes a program that can accomplish the same ends, albeit personally tailored to the needs of the individual and NEVER a group.

Not all youth will respond positively to efforts to help them: some are simply wired wrong from the outset. This was the most difficult lesson for me to learn. It was explained most succinctly by a psychiatrist I was working with who said “sometimes there are just bad kids.” He didn’t mean bad in terms of individual character, he meant that like some electronics are bad from the factory, these kids are handicapped in a way that will never allow them to exist in a world of self-restraint. They will end up institutionalized or incarcerated. One of the responsibilities incumbent on program operators is identifying these youths and culling them from the program participants for the simple reason that they will consistently sabotage the efforts of the other kids around them.

In all cases it’s about giving youth who struggle in the mainstream the opportunity to become successful and contributory members of society by helping them find a life that doesn’t overwhelm and trouble them. …Which is probably better stated as trying to give them a chance to live happy and fulfilling lives. This is done by providing opportunities to succeed and opportunities to fail. Like Yin and Yang, they compliment one another and the trick to exploiting their value is to help youngsters find their own strengths and the ability to employ them comfortably.