New years’ resolutions and other goals for teens in care

Jan 2023

Written by Billy Black

When I was a teen in care, I found the (well-intentioned) focus on my progress from case workers and other adults exhausting. If I tried hard, I made “progress”, but then those goal behaviours became expected, and I couldn’t keep it up.

“Did you make any New Year’s resolutions?” is a common polite chit-chat question that adults roll out in January to give kids a break from “How is school going?”, and while that’s a relief, I usually answered, “Resolutions are for people who want to go to the gym for a day. Just make one up about homework or something if you need one for my file.”

While I might tell my younger self that people trying to connect with you is a treasure that becomes rarer as you age, I still think I nailed the problem with resolutions. I do use resolutions and goal-setting fruitfully now, but they required one caveat to the definition: the goal is an incremental change in behavioural direction, rather than a behavioural destination.

The Bush-Bashing Strategist and the Autopilot Toddler

Your brain is puppeteered by two Yous.

The Bush-Bashing Strategist You uses your logic and knowledge to plan a course to bush-bash through the foresty unknown adventure of your life.

The Autopilot Toddler You runs on autopilot, zooming down the clearest paths you’ve already travelled before, occasionally taking an unfamiliar path only if it looks like more fun.

This is the best way to run a brain, because your Bush-Bashing Strategist requires tremendous energy that would be wasted on merely getting dressed, while your Autopilot Toddler has fantastic energy but no capacity to understand long-term consequences. Your Bush-Bashing Strategist double-checks the spelling of “cordially” for a business email, your Autopilot Toddler sneaks lollies from the desk drawer while your Strategist is emailing.

You may have heard of this as the “thinking brain” (or neocortex), and the “feeling brain” (or limbic system), but I find it helpful and more memorable to imagine a muscular glasses-wearing version of myself battling against my inner toddler for the controls whenever I walk past the cookie jar.

Kids in out-of-home care have the same Strategist and Toddler as you do, but their forest has historically been a scary and dangerous place. For these children, it’s only sensible to leave the Autopilot Toddler in charge, with the reflexes and energy to zoom away from danger down the clearest path. Adults who automatically pick up a dropped cup find it surprising or confusing when a child automatically screams and runs away in response.

Behavioural destinations vs behaviour direction changes

The problem with resolutions is that the goal is often too energy-consuming for the Strategist long-term and can’t be delegated to the Toddler quickly. Unless distracted by fun, the Autopilot Toddler always takes the clearest, least overgrown path.

That leaves you with two options:

  1. Spend incredible energy on forcing yourself to bush-bash the new path consistently until it becomes a clearer easier path than the old overgrowing route, at which point your Toddler finally takes over. For example, a resolution to get your first gym membership and go three times a week from now on, hopefully becoming part of your automatic routine by next year.
  2. Use the old route, but strategically set up a single trigger point that you can easily spend some small energy on bush-bashing every time you happen to pass, eventually building it into the automatic routine that clears the path for your Toddler. For example, a resolution to take the stairs instead of the escalator at the train station every morning, becoming a part of your automatic routine within a week or so.

Option 1’s big problem is that it requires you to be a better version of yourself, someone who has more “discipline” and who “tries” harder. When you fail a behavioural destination goal, it feels bad because you judge yourself as a “lazy” person who just didn’t “want” to change enough and does not “try”.

Option 2 only asks you to take an extra second to think “oh right – the stairs” when you reach the train station, then let your Toddler take over your feet. It’s a change in direction towards extra activity, and once it’s truly unconsciously in your routine, your Toddler does it on autopilot every day without your Strategist lifting a finger. Your physical activity improves over time, and eventually, your Toddler might not even argue when your Strategist suggests taking the fire stairs instead of the lift, or walking 15 minutes instead of ordering an uber.

Goals that can set young people up to fail

Goals that are lofty behavioural destinations instead of incremental behavioural direction changes are unfair for young people in care, who often already believe they are bad people to deserve the neglect and abuse they’ve experienced.

Additionally, being in care seems to invite constant thinly veiled judgement from adults in every direction. Adults can’t see inside young people’s brains, and forget they are (wisely) overprepared for threatening situations. The Toddler always ready to react, the Strategist underexperienced with an unimpressive record of safe exploration.

Teen goals that I can recall from case meetings were things like an 80% school attendance rate, or completing my homework on time. I did agree to them, so they weren’t entirely someone else’s goals imposed on me, but they reinforced my default status as a “lazy” person who doesn’t “want” to change and doesn’t “try” hard enough. In retrospect, very unfair considering the extra chaos I had to manage living in residential care.

Converting these behavioural destinations to behavioural directional changes, my goals could have been to leave the house at the trigger of 8am for an hour (ideally resulting in school attendance but not forcing a miracle), or to text homework tasks to my youth worker at the trigger of a teacher giving them (which doesn’t complete them but at least writes them down).

Of course, while these examples would have been the perfect 5% direction change for me, they would be too small or large a directional change for nearly all other young people in care. Unfortunately, every solution only works for a handful of children. Part of what makes caring so challenging and rewarding is the need to closely tailor your care to each individual child.

Helping children find the next step towards a positive direction

I think many modern care plans and behavioural support plans try to offer incremental change, but aren’t tailoring well to what each child can really do in a threatening situation where their Strategist is offline. What’s a 5% directional change for a child who resorts to explosive violence too quickly? Suggestions such as “go to the office”, “count to ten”, or “ring your carer” fall apart when children “forget” to use them. I put “forget” in quotes because children used to danger cannot use their Strategist to make planned, rational choices when they feel threatened.

It’s not fair to say children forget, or don’t try hard enough, or just want attention. Like all children, young people in care are good, and do want to change automatic responses that don’t benefit them. All children want to be safe and liked as much as you and I do. They need plenty of support, encouragement, praise, and confidence to find the first step towards a more positive behavioural direction.

If you’ve ever found a resolution hard to stick to and depressing to fail, remember that young people in out-of-home care have similar experiences with care goals. If you’re working with someone who’s struggling with a care goal, maybe this can help you find something outside the box that would fit their abilities better. A goal that is a trivially easy behavioural direction change rather than a behavioural destination puts less pressure on kids to be “better” and offers an avenue for slower and more permanent progress, with more opportunities to enjoy success.

 

 

 

You may be interested in: Behaviours that challenge Care teams Lived experience

Creating positive social climates and home-like environments in therapeutic care - Practice guide
Creating positive social climates and home-like environments in therapeutic care - Practice guide
This guide has been developed to support the implementation of Essential Element: Physical Environments from the Ten Essential Elements of Therapeutic Care. It explores how to create therapeutic care contexts...
Read more
Isaac's story: Having a voice in out-of-home care
Isaac's story: Having a voice in out-of-home care
Isaac is 15 years old, about 6ft tall, and you know when he is in the room. Isaac lives in his house with one other young person. Isaac experiences the...
Read more
Making sense of complex and challenging behaviours
Making sense of complex and challenging behaviours
An inability to understand trauma-based behaviours often sees young people 'labelled' in ways that can create a 'spiral of negativity'. A trauma-informed approach orients us to be curious about what...
Read more
Tahlia’s story: Having a voice in out-of-home care
Tahlia’s story: Having a voice in out-of-home care
Tahlia is a 16-year-old young woman who likes to be in complete control of her world at all times. She is as strong, articulate and as sassy as they come....
Read more
Care teams - Collaborative processes for creating healing and change - Practice guide
Care teams - Collaborative processes for creating healing and change - Practice guide
A care team approach is an essential element of therapeutic care. This guide has been developed to support the practice of collaboration and participation through Care Team processes of which...
Read more
Understanding and supporting young people who self-harm in residential care
Understanding and supporting young people who self-harm in residential care
Some of the young people we care for in the ITC programs deal with emotional distress and pain by hurting themselves physically. Young people hurting themselves is distressing to them...
Read more
Karen's story: Culture
Karen's story: Culture
Recently I had the privilege of being invited to the 50th Birthday party for twins, Karen and Sharon Lovett who initially came into care at 4 months.  I was fortunate...
Read more
Preventing self-harm among young people in out-of-home care - Research brief
Preventing self-harm among young people in out-of-home care - Research brief
Many young people in out-of-home care are at an elevated risk of self-harm and suicidality. The reasons range from early exposure to abuse, disconnection from family, instability of their living...
Read more
“It wasn't just listening to your ideas, it was following through”
“It wasn't just listening to your ideas, it was following through”
In 2019 and 2020, a group of young people with firsthand experience in out-of-home care joined PhD candidate Meaghan Vosz to research the practices associated with ‘giving due weight’ to...
Read more
Exploring the meaning that lies beneath young people’s behaviour and supporting change - Practice tool
Exploring the meaning that lies beneath young people’s behaviour and supporting change - Practice tool
This resource has been developed to support professionals to unpack and plan how to respond to identified behaviours that are concerning, challenging and disruptive for young people in their search...
Read more
What works? Promising practices to support young people who self-harm
What works? Promising practices to support young people who self-harm
Why do young people in out of home care self-harm? What are the best predictors of suicide and self-harm? What really works when supporting young people who self-harm in out-of-home...
Read more
A story you may recognise
A story you may recognise
Peta had worked in residential care for 18 months. She took the position because she had had a difficult childhood and she felt that she had a lot to offer...
Read more
Behaviours that challenge: What has happened to you?
Behaviours that challenge: What has happened to you?
Children and young people living in Therapeutic Residential Care in Australia often present with a range of behaviours that challenge us. The complexity and difficulty in working with these challenging...
Read more
Applying polyvagal theory to relationship-based therapeutic care - Practice tool
Applying polyvagal theory to relationship-based therapeutic care - Practice tool
Relationship-based practice is at the core of effective therapeutic care. Key to understanding how to build effective relationships with young people who have experienced trauma is to understand how the...
Read more
Book review: What happened to you? Conversations on trauma, resilience and recovery by Dr Perry and Oprah Winfrey
Book review: What happened to you? Conversations on trauma, resilience and recovery by Dr Perry and Oprah Winfrey
Dr Perry and Oprah Winfrey recently released What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience and Recovery. The book tells the story of how adverse childhood experiences cause deep emotional...
Read more
The wisdom of lived experience: Learning from adults who were once children in care
The wisdom of lived experience: Learning from adults who were once children in care
The wisdom of lived experience: Learning from adults who were once children in care Lisa Cherry is an author, researcher and leading international trainer and consultant, specialising in assisting schools,...
Read more
Belonging as an intervention: An opportunity to consider the adult that the child will become
Belonging as an intervention: An opportunity to consider the adult that the child will become
This blog is written by Lisa Cherry. Lisa is an author and a leading international trainer and consultant, specialising in assisting those in Education, Social Care and Adoption and Fostering...
Read more
Responding to behaviours that challenge - practice guide
Responding to behaviours that challenge - practice guide
Much has been written about understanding and managing the challenging pain-based behaviours of children and young people who have experienced trauma and live in therapeutic or out of home care....
Read more
Creating a balance between empowerment and limit setting in therapeutic care - Practice guide
Creating a balance between empowerment and limit setting in therapeutic care - Practice guide
This guide has been developed to support Therapeutic Care carers and staff to navigate the critical balance between empowering children and young people and setting limits. One of the most...
Read more
What Was I Thinking? Handling the Amygdala Hijack
What Was I Thinking? Handling the Amygdala Hijack
Remember that time when you put the child you care for back to bed for the fourth time? Your thoughts suggested a level of desperation and wishful thinking, hoping that...
Read more
Trauma, loss and parenting – care leavers’ experiences of having their own children during transitions from care
Trauma, loss and parenting – care leavers’ experiences of having their own children during transitions from care
This post is written by Jade Purtell, a multidisciplinary researcher and practitioner focused on out-of-home care and transitions from care experiences and policy. This research is funded by an Australian Government...
Read more
“Powerful children who can control their worlds are happier, secure children,” Q&A with Billy Black
“Powerful children who can control their worlds are happier, secure children,” Q&A with Billy Black
This month, we are thrilled to welcome Billy Black to our team at the CETC as a Care Experience Resource and Training Specialist. Billy has advocated for children in care...
Read more
Fight, flight, freeze, and fibbing: Lying as a trauma-based behaviour
Fight, flight, freeze, and fibbing: Lying as a trauma-based behaviour
In almost every session I have run for foster and kinship carers, someone tells a story about a child or young person in their care who regularly lies. I can feel...
Read more
Living with the Fast and the Furious
Living with the Fast and the Furious
You have opened your homes and your hearts to children who are unable to live with their parents. You want to help them access a better life. To feel safe,...
Read more
The therapeutic power of imaginary storytelling
The therapeutic power of imaginary storytelling
World Care Day is a global event held on the third Friday of February every year to celebrate the voices of children and young people with a care experience. The theme...
Read more
Let’s Talk About the Summer Holiday – a poem about detention
Let’s Talk About the Summer Holiday – a poem about detention
"Let’s talk about the summer holiday, even though I’m in detention in was still fun aye. Because it was so hot, there was no time to use the indoor gym...
Read more
Can we provide trauma-informed care for children without changing our beliefs about their behaviour?
Can we provide trauma-informed care for children without changing our beliefs about their behaviour?
This blog article was written by Noel Macnamara, Executive Manager - Research and Policy and Deputy Director, Centre for Excellence in Therapeutic Care, CETC. There is a growing tendency to...
Read more
Book Review: The Brightness of Stars, Stories from Care Experienced Adults to Inspire Change
Book Review: The Brightness of Stars, Stories from Care Experienced Adults to Inspire Change
Care Home Flickering’s                                                                                                                                                      SearchingFor unconditional love,Away from horrorsOf night time wanderings;Boys and girls lookingfor comfort inall the wrong places.Pushing,Fighting a slow death,One mosaic piece at aTime, wide eyed wonderingIf someone would...
Read more
How are restrictive practices interpreted in therapeutic residential care?
How are restrictive practices interpreted in therapeutic residential care?
This blog article was written by Glenys Bristow,  Senior Specialist, Therapeutic Residential Care, CETC. Restrictive practice in therapeutic care The Royal Commision into Violence, Abuse and Exploitation of People with...
Read more
What do foster carers tell us about their support needs? - Research brief
What do foster carers tell us about their support needs? - Research brief
Foster carers are a crucial human resource in responding to children and young people who have experienced abuse, neglect, and trauma. The design and implementation of foster care programs varies...
Read more
Hard vs soft skills: which are more important in residential care work?
Hard vs soft skills: which are more important in residential care work?
Not everyone is suited to being a therapeutic residential worker. Working in therapeutic care requires special skills and qualities, some that can be taught or mentored, and others that are...
Read more
Untangling the challenges of FASD and trauma
Untangling the challenges of FASD and trauma
In honour of FASD Awareness Month this September, the CETC brought together esteemed thought leaders Dr Julia Shekleton, Prue Walker, and Noel Macnamara to delve into the complex intersection between...
Read more
The most difficult thing about residential care work
The most difficult thing about residential care work
The most difficult aspect of working in residential care is not managing the behavioural challenges of the children and young people, the demanding shifts, or the lack of resources. Rather,...
Read more
Hearts of Gold: Reflecting on Foster Care Week 2023
Hearts of Gold: Reflecting on Foster Care Week 2023
Foster Care Week, observed from September 10-16, is an annual celebration acknowledging the incredible contribution our volunteer foster carers make to the lives of children in out-of-home care. The theme...
Read more
Q&A with the trainer: Trauma-informed supervision
Q&A with the trainer: Trauma-informed supervision
Over the recent decades, we have seen leaps in research and practice promoting the importance of taking a holistic trauma-informed approach to caring for children and young people with trauma....
Read more