I don’t know if you follow me on twitter. If you do, then you’ve probably seen me tweet numerous times about how much I dislike the phrase “difficult client.” If you haven’t seen it, well, now you know. I really, really, really wish the phrase would go away. Poof! Just like that. Gone. Thank you.
Contrary to what you might expect, I am not going to launch in to a discussion about “difficult situations” versus “difficult clients.” I am going to launch in to something, though.
When I first meet a client who presents as though the world is against them, I know there is a challenge ahead and how tough that path can be. Sometimes I even get caught up in the first-day-tension and forget the reward that can come when I venture down that path. The projective identification and/or countertransference overtake me. Suddenly the client’s fear and anger seem to fill the room and permeate my thoughts and my body. I may have to steady my hands when I write. And when I’m alone, I find myself asking what if they are right? What if I won’t be able to help? What if they will feel this shitty forever? What if this isn’t the best thing for them?
I assume this is the kind of space where “difficult clients” are born.
But oh, wait. While the client’s logic may be sound and their intelligence apparent, the reasoning only adds up if the world is viewed from their perspective, which is to say that the world is truly out to get them. I do not doubt that the world has proven its shittiness to them so far, but here I remind myself: I am not out to get them. My goal is not to hold them back. I have no plans to buy in to that perspective. It seems obvious to say that now, but in the moment, it’s easy for me to forget.
Inside many of these clients I imagine a small, scared child who doesn’t trust that their parent(s) or guardian(s) will keep them safe. From behind the aggression, I picture this tinier client saying Now you know how I feel. Now you know what it’s like to never know what might come next.
I am incredibly lucky at my new job to be part of a classroom team where each member is open-minded, empathic, patient, full of good-intentions and best of all: hilarious. (It’s a new program, so let’s just hope they don’t change this on me.) Working in a day treatment school means our job is to work with youth who were deemed too “difficult” by someone else and so far, we are having a much easier time than some of the other classrooms (which is saying something because it hasn’t been easy). Only time will tell, but my guess is that one of the reasons it is going well is that no one on our team talks about our students as “difficult.”
We’ve all read through their files. Enough people have labeled them as difficult already. Obviously that view didn’t help or these students wouldn’t be in our day treatment program instead of their base schools. Amirite?
So when I walk down the hall and one of the other teachers is angrily telling a younger student’s mom that her son has been “raising hell all afternoon,” even if I know it was an extremely challenging afternoon for that child, I wonder if that was really the best way to say it. Who is benefiting from that? No one. Except maybe the venting teacher.
I am thinking about it like this: we expect students to come in and follow our rules. We call this a fresh start or suggest they might turn over a new leaf, but if they make a mistake along the way, is exasperation the right response? It’s been a week since school started. Is that the extent of our patience? After all, some of these students have dealt with disappointment their whole lives: inconsistent parents, trauma, abuse, neglect, etc. Does anyone really believe that a few days at day treatment is going to change expectations rooted in lifelong (and sometimes intergenerational) patterns? I sure hope not.
If the world has been an unsafe, terrifying and unpredictable place so far, why should any child or teen believe that our environment will be any different? Their behavior patterns weren’t established in a day, so the ability to trust won’t be built in a day either.