Saturday, March 7, 2009

Using Choice Theory with Your Teen

Good Afternoon! March 7, 2009

It occurred to me today that I have been gifted with the opportunity to teach at a very unique school, where students, teachers, administration, and parents are valued as community members, respected as learners, and loved as friends. Often, students and parents say to me, "Why aren't all schools like this one?" There are no easy answers to that question, and I applaud anyone who is working to figure out how to improve the quality of our schools, especially to help them become welcoming places our kids love to go every day.

I decided to keep a blog where I am going to record some of the amazing transformational stories that continue to happen, year after year, at Murray High School, the world's first Glasser Quality Public High School, based on the ideas of Dr. William Glasser (internationally published psychiatrist, educator, and speaker --

I hope that by reading these stories(names and situations changed, of course), and by paying close attention to the way we speak to one another at our school, anyone working with (or living with) at-risk teens can see how Choice Theory, Reality Therapy, and Lead Management can help improve the way you talk to your teen and to everyone else you value, so you can improve the quality of your important relationships.

In this, my first blog entry, I thought I would tell the story of Mike, a seventeen-year-old male, who joined us in August of his junior year (Students at Murray have to apply to get in. The requirements for admission are simple: students have to WANT to come to a new school and try something different to improve their lives.).

Mike had been at Murray about three days and he came roaring out of his P.E. class, telling everyone where to go, cursing up one side and down the other at the top of his lungs. He charged into the office, where they took his name down and directed him to me. I am the Choices Teacher for the school and it's my job to help people calm down and make some choices to get what they really want.

When Mike arrived in my room, his face was blazing red and he was still speaking in a seemingly angry, annoyed, elevated tone of voice. He couldn't sit down at first, pacing back and forth in my room, flinging his arms around and kicking at chairs and tables. He wasn't really listening to me yet, and I let him fume for awhile. A few minutes later, he turned to me and said, "Are you going to let me go on like this forever?"

I smiled and said, "Nope. You've got about five more minutes to get it out of your system if you need it before we go to any further steps. It looks to me like you need a bit of time to dump some anger and I appreciate it that you're confining yourself to this room and you're taking care of your excess energy by pacing and doing some arm and leg exercises. That's fine. Let me know when you're ready to talk a bit. I can wait. I'm busy here."

He stood and stared at me. I knew he had not expected my response and I had him thinking it all over. He said, "Do you think this kind of anger is okay at a school?"

I said, "You're asking some really thoughtful questions. I think this level of anger is inevitable in a school because schools are filled with humans and once in awhile most humans that I've met need some time to get some anger off their chests. Do you think this level of anger is okay in a school?"

He shook his head and said, "Every school I've been to would have thrown me out by now. The principal would have yelled at me and threatened me with the police. I would have told him where to go and stomped out. You're just sitting here, working. What are you planning to do with me?"

"I'm not planning to do anything 'with you,' if you mean punish you in some way. Do you think you need punishing?"

"Hey! A lot of people have tried punishing me! Everyone I know has, especially my parents! I've even been locked up for six months for taking a sledgehammer to the inside of our trailer. I've been put on every medication they've got for anger issues and I've even done this!" At this point, he pulled up his shirtsleeve and showed me a deep cut that went almost completely around his arm. It was just beginning to heal and looked red, swollen, and very painful. "Do you want to know how this happened?" he demanded. "I did it to myself! I have a terrible anger problem and you're probably going to get to know me really well in here, because I am always in trouble in school." He glared at me, as if daring me to disagree with him. I think he believed that he was thoroughly scaring me and trying to manage me somehow.

"Mike, that's a pretty bad cut. How did you do it? What was happening that led you to make such a huge cut on your arm?"

He said, "My father was beating my mother up in the kitchen and I ran in there and told him not to touch her. He knocked her on the floor and came at me and I saw a big old butcher knife on the kitchen counter and grabbed it and I realized that I basically had two choices -- to stab my father with it, or to cut my own arm. I figured that if my arm was really cut bad they'd have to stop fighting and take me to the emergency room, so I cut the knife all around my arm and blood went everywhere and my father slapped me and called me an idiot, but he wrapped my arm in a towel and drove me to the emergency room. Fight over."

"Whoa! I said. I am really impressed with your ability to control your anger in one of life's toughest situations."

He shook his head like I was crazy and said, "You don't get it. I did that because I was completely out of control. Only a crazy person would cut himself like that."

I said, "That's not what the evidence shows me. I see someone who cared so much about his mother and his father that rather than stabbing his father, he took the pain on himself. I'm not sure that I could have had that much presence of mind to think through the situation and to choose that option. I think you showed quite a bit of restraint and courage and possibly stopped something much worse from happening. That's impressive to me. I don't know that I could have done it. There were only two choices you could think of and you took what I also would consider to be the best one. Amazing."

He didn't say anything for a second or two and just stared down at the healing wound on his arm. Then he looked up at me and said, "Where did you learn to talk to people like this?"

I smiled at him and said, "I'm just talking to you using Choice Theory, which is an idea that this school is based on. I'm noticing the strength of will that you have and realizing that you are capable of making very tough choices in tough situations and that a lot of people could learn a great deal from listening to how you've handled things in your life."

I could tell that he liked what I was saying to him because he could see the truth in it. Rather than continuing to think of himself as out of control and a victim of his huge anger problems, which couldn't even be helped with brain medications, he was beginning to think of himself as someone with exceptional abilities to make good choices in difficult situations, a much stronger type of thinking.

Mike and I became good friends, over time. He was right. I got to see him often because he continued to explode in anger and we continued to work through the anger, coming up with plans to straighten out what he had done and get back to work.

He had predicted he wouldn't last a week at our school, but he made it through an entire year. I wish we could have gotten hold of him earlier, but he decided to get his GED and join the military, rather than finishing up another year in high school.

A couple of years later, I ran into him, shopping with his mother in a local grocery store. He was all dressed up in his military uniform and looked fabulous. He came over and practically lifted me off the floor in a huge hug and told me that he was doing exceptionally well and he apologized for not graduating.

I told him it did my heart proud to see him so happy and that graduation was not something to ever worry about again. He had made that decision and moved on. The trick was to create happiness for himself and his loved ones, using the skills he had picked up in his life so far. He said, "Choice Theory!" and laughed.

"Do you find Choice Theory useful in the military?" I wondered.

"Hah! Do I ever! Everything I learned at Murray about dealing with anger kept me from getting thrown in the brig. Well, I did get thrown in the brig, but only once. I figured out how to make a better choice before opening my big mouth to an officer." His eyes gleamed with amusement. "Who would ever have thought that I'd make it in the military where everyone is telling me what to do all the time and no one talks nice? I remember I was so angry at the P.E. teacher's 'attitude.' My drill sergeant made her look like the sweetest person on earth."

"Sounds like you've got a lot of things figured out, sir."

"I'm working on it, Ms. Wellen. I'm working on it, aren't I Mom?" His mother beamed over at him and said, "I hardly recognize you, all grown up in that uniform and treating all of us to groceries. You know I'm proud of you."

The two of them headed for the checkout stand and I haven't seen him since, but I believe he's got the skills now to handle most situations life has to offer without losing his temper, and especially without believing that he is helpless to deal with his anger. He's taken ownership of his emotional outbursts and is learning to manage them to bring himself more and more happiness.

Charlotte Wellen

P.S. I welcome comments and would be happy to discuss any problems you may be facing with teens. I am not a psychologist or a counselor. But I am certified to teach Choice Theory, Reality Therapy, and Lead Management and I would be glad to help if I can.


1 comment:

  1. Hey Char,
    This is an awesome idea--I have been moved by stories like this one for the past 30 years (well they don't always have happy endings) and I am so excited to have you "publish" them for all to see!! I know you & America's engaged & reluctant kids will not disappoint!! I look forward to having this neat format to talk about it with others & hear all sorts of wonderful stories!! Thanks for all the GREAT work you do & for your devotion & insight--you are a JEM!! (and I'm not just saying that because you're my sister!!! KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK!!!