Right off the bat, let me clearly iterate that violence, outside of self-defense, is not an acceptable form of human-to-human communication. But, it is a form of communication. Martin Luther King, Jr. taught us that it is the language of the unheard. I’ve spent a lot of my career working with the most violent students in my city, as well as their families who have been crying out for help for years. Often, those cries for help have been met by tone-deaf systems, incompetent or unwilling to address the actual needs of these suffering human beings. Most violent. Most unheard.
(On my soapbox for a second, I’d say these disconnects have a lot to do with cultural expectations of standardization and industrialization of everyone and everything. OK, stepping off now.)
The last several days have given me some insight into my own darker side. Following a severe allergic reaction, that sent me to the emergency room on Monday and Friday, my mental and emotional state has really dipped. The steroids that allow me to breathe have created a mini-monster at home. I haven’t gotten violent with my wife or children, but it’s taking all my coping skills, all my wife’s coping skills, help from family, and probably some divine intervention to keep things running at home.
Intellectually, I find that I have been losing control over my expressive language. Perhaps this is due to the insomnia that accompanies the meds, or perhaps it’s a direct side effect of the prescriptions I’m on. For example, this morning, my parents took my sons to a neighborhood park. I told my mom I needed to give the kids “buckets” of water, instead of saying “bottles.” Sometimes the expressive language comes out so aggressive that it frightens my older son and makes my wife want me to get out of the house. Sometimes I feel like I’m barking at my family members rather than speaking to them.
I am also experiencing difficulties with receptive language. For example, after telling my mom the kids needed those “buckets,” and beginning to fill them up, she asked me several rapid-fire questions. Each question made my hackles rise even higher- and they were all reasonable questions! I was so on edge, I couldn’t verbally answer any one of them.
So, how does this tie in with my empathy for violent kids? Well, I can think of a few in particular whose diagnoses, whether low cognitive functions, autism/Asperger’s syndrome, reactive attachment disorder, fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, intermittent explosive disorder, etc., put those kids in the exact same position of suffering from frustration with expressive and receptive language. These types of frustration shoot the cortisol level up so high, and on such a regular basis that these kids suffer physically, emotionally, and intellectually. Imagine your body regularly shooting several shots of adrenaline per hour (accompanied by constant lower back and kidney pain, and often the need to urinate frequently), your skin feeling like it’s crawling and prickling, and your chest tightening when people speak to you.
Over time, I developed some rules for helping create a less-stressful school environment for these kids:
#1) Shut Up, Teacher! OK, so I’d usually put this nicely. For example, “Use economy of words.” Overtalking, especially over-questioning can drive people up a wall if they’re struggling with expressive and receptive language.
#2) Communicate physically and visually. This can mean sign language, basic motions, special signals you give each other, stop and go signs, etc. If you know the person responds positively to physical touch during a time of agitation (head rubs, deep pressure, brushing), then offer that. If you know physical touch sets this particular person off, then give some space. Either way, you’re using your body to communicate respect and support toward the other person.
#3) Speak (if at all) in directives and statements, not in questions. Questions are the worst. Seriously. Stop asking questions when people are noticeably agitated. For example, I might say, “I’m going to give your shoulders some deep pressure. Tell me if you want me to stop,” rather than, “Would you like some deep pressure?” I don’t know why the brain works this way, but it really does.
#4) Use writing or pictures as a replacement for speaking. When I’m agitated, I feel much calmer when I can communicate through writing. Many of my toughest students have used writing or drawing when words failed them. Further, it’s easier on many of the kids when I pass them a note, rather than try to dump a bunch of verbiage into their ears.
#5) Reestablish positive communication after an incident. Right now, I’m feeling guilty about how I’ve been with my family. I don’t want to be that way. It’s the same for anyone. Those kids, no matter how ugly their behavior, need love and compassion. Even a friendly greeting, a smile, a pat on the back, or a high five the next time you see them can go a long way to letting them know that you still care about them, and that you’ll still be there with them. And remember, it is only before and after these incidents-not during- that it is appropriate to try to teach new skills and strategies.
Sadly, I’ve heard so many adults write off these kids as being “bad”, “little assholes”, “horrible creatures”, or “jerks in need of a good whooping.” I feel like I’m all those things right now, but I know that’s not the core of who I am. I know my cortisol and adrenaline and testosterone levels are out of whack for the time-being. These children are the same way; for them it’s this way all the time.
I was fortunate to work with many of these tough individuals for several years. Over long periods of time, and in going through hell and back together (I suffered some concussions and bone bruises along the way, while they suffered self-loathing, police involvement, and exasperated adults), we really saw the beauty inside of each other. Trust developed. Love, compassion, and vulnerability were mutually expressed. An exceptionally high proportion of my former students are still in school and on a path to graduation (or an equivalent) and hopefully a decent life afterward. It’s worth the effort. If violence is the language of those in our care, it is incumbent upon us to learn and teach other ways of communicating.
Unlike those kids in my life, I’m only going through this physical, mental, and emotional garbage on a short term basis. While I feel bad for what my family is going through, I try to find something positive in this as well. I thank the universe for, if nothing else, giving me a little more insight into how certain people feel all the time, and what I can do to be a better service provider and ally to those little humans.
A parting thought: I don’t know how in the hell people can voluntarily use steroids on a regular basis and stay sane. This stuff is whack.
Empathy by Shelter: