I did a therapeutic transport this week, which when all goes well, looks like simply conveying a child (in airport parlance - “accompanying a minor”) from home to program; it's convivial, an informal responsibility. But because students are usually not aligned with the outcome, at all, the therapeutic nature of these transports includes our profound accountability for providing success, despite resistance. These transfers require empathy, respect, caution and flexibility if things go south. I’ve done many, and like any good Scout, transporters hope for the best but plan for the worst. The “worse” situation included preparing to involve the police at the local airport should the young woman scream she’d been abducted, and having mom secreted nearby to convince the police that her daughter wasn’t being kidnapped.
Or, in the very worst case, having to drive the 7 hours to avoid public transport. But this blog isn’t a war-story – our student client didn’t scream, she didn’t run, she didn't physically lash out. After an initial outburst of shock and insolence – in truth, heartbreak - as she realized her predicament, she was almost entirely compliant, and even cooperative.
Parents typically fear and expect the worst. And it makes a cruel logic in their world, as parents have spent months or years dealing with a system that has remained precariously balanced, teetering only by their sacrifice and frequent disappointments. It is perfectly sensible for parents to warn brief visitors to their world of the gloom and turmoil that awaits. And this time, it was over-estimated.
As we all predicted, this girl awoke angry and verbally harangued her mom for the stupid choices Mom had made. We took her phone immediately; we didn’t want her inviting fellow insurgents into the house. She barked out her sense of betrayal and insult, and projected walls of shock at her inability to manage this arbitrary, unfair and insensitive time constraint. She angrily protested our intransigence against her tele-managing her world of relationships and debts and expectations.
We listened, we sincerely empathized and we held firm.
She was offered a shower and to use the bathroom with chaperone, which she simply accepted. Her mother allowed smoking in the house; when we arrived at the airport, we told her she must surrender the cigarettes. She asked if she might have one last one, we told her no and she threw them away unceremoniously.
All of these details do not prove that parents are exaggerating the conflict, or doing their relationships wrong; we did plan for the situation to occur exactly as envisioned. Sometimes adolescents put up quite a struggle and make desperate and detrimental attempts to reassert their dominance. But this particular anecdote is to point out that outsiders start with fresh, less-complicated dynamics. We don’t have years of shared experiences, nor infinite points of debate with the child. We have very simple goals and we work through one primary issue over a whole transport, delivering the child safely and respectfully. And with this permutation of roles and one non-negotiable outcome, transported children are often compliant, or even pleasant with strangers, even authoritative ones. In the best situations, they really do understand that this new situation makes sense, and things were unsustainable at home.
Transporting a child is emotionally agonizing for most parents, as well as children; usually, the words spoken in those last 2 hours can be hurtful and cruel, or hang awkwardly in the air, rejected without consideration. The fact is that transporting a child is the first incontrovertible evidence that things are very, very different from here on. And, therapeutic transport brings another option inside the most human of struggles, granting parents confidence in their child's safe arrival and allowing the child to pour out their sadness (or rebellion) without including Mom and Dad. Therapeutic transporters become somewhat-unbiased umpires, now inside the sanctity of the family system.
Of course, professional transporters like it when things go well, but we still practice and train for the challenges - we’re prepared for disrespect, and we practice showing tremendous patience and empathy and we maintain current intervention and de-escalation training. We make contingencies, we have backup plans, and we communicate every step of the way. Our goal is to assist families in moving toward a healthier dynamic, and while we’re only one small part in the puzzle, and we prepare for the worst, we also enjoy informing you that, quite possibly, it’s going to go a lot better than you think.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Patrick Logan, MS is a former wilderness therapy program manager and is presently IT consulting with programs and websites.