Issue #91, 5/25/2007
Meet Drama Mama
Family Court Philosopher
In juvenile court, many troubled girls are known as "runners." Whatever placement you put them in, they run from it. This is especially true of teenagers involved in prostitution. They obviously come from dysfunctional families and are more victims than perpetrators, but attempts to place them in a better environment are often futile. If you put a girl with a volatile background in a foster home or an unlocked treatment program where her safety is guaranteed, the chances are high that she will take off from it. Sometimes, she runs back to her pimp, but more often she just leaves on the spur of the moment, set off by some trivial conflict and without much idea where she is going.
The question is why. Why would someone run from safety? What is the mechanism inside them that makes them run?
I was reminded of the running phenomenon when I went hiking recently with three adolescent girls from complex backgrounds. "Bonkers" was a 14-year-old who I had known since she was 6. She and I had a certain level of trust. I had only just met the other two, "Drama Mama", age 10 (almost 11), and "K", age 14. We had had a good day already, hunting for frogs at a warm spring, and we were now hiking to Cathedral Rock, an overlook in a wooded area of a National Forest.
I was walking on the trail about 20 feet ahead of the girls when suddenly the youngest one, Drama Mama, took off. She headed off the trail and into the thick woods, miffed by something that another girl said.
It was hard to say what set her off. Whatever had transpired between the girls, it was trivial. D.M. had been carrying my camera—my most valued possession—but she was good enough to turn it over to the others before she headed off. Bonkers tried to run after her to stop her but was ineffective.
My years of observing adolescents in the wild told me exactly what was happening. She was running.
I was nearly a stranger to this girl. You would think she would be on her best behavior, as K was, but Drama Mama was just as her name implied: given to great theatrical gestures. I pretty well understood her personality after only a couple of hours. Every emotion was played to the hilt. For example, when she first encountered a frog at the warm spring, she screamed hysterically (with obvious drama) but had no problem handling frogs thereafter. In fact, she hunted for them with great gusto and seemed to have little fear of anything we encountered. Drama Mama's emotions were mercurial but shallow, and they were often oriented toward making a big impression on others. I sensed that Drama Mama herself might not know when she was really feeling something and when she was acting.
Taking off from the trail was unexpected but not out of character. In this case, however, the gesture could be dangerous and would certainly disrupt our hike.
After a momentary mental calculation of the terrain, personalities and probable outcomes, I determined that the best course of action was for me to chase her down. I told the other girls to wait for me at the trail, and I began the pursuit through the underbrush.
Fortunately, I was bigger and faster than my prey and caught up with her quickly. She seemed determined to head into deep woods she knew nothing about, but she was getting out of range of her audience, which slowed her down considerably. She sped up when she saw me coming, but she was stopped by some brambles. I grabbed her by the back straps of her overalls.
"Let go of me!" she said.
"There's no place to go," I told her. "You're only going to get lost."
"Don't touch me!" she said.
I released my grip.
I was familiar with this kind of drama, having been through it many times with teenage girls (and females of all ages, come to think of it). When I finally caught up with her, the issue was about "rights." According to her, I had no right to touch her and no right to prevent her from running off into the woods. The logic of where she was running to and the danger she was putting herself in had no bearing. (I knew the terrain, but from her point of view, she was heading off into a complete void.)
Fortunately, she was only 10 (Almost 11!), and I was prepared to use any physical force necessary to keep her from going further. (With older ladies, you don't always have this option.) Since my touching her was offensive, I simply lurked directly behind her, and if she started to move in the wrong direction, I would grab the straps. At least I had regained control. In the worst case, I could carry her back to the trail kicking and screaming, but it would be best for her to come on her own.
We were about 200 yards from the other girls and out of their view. I was prepared now for a long seige, and I hoped that the other girls would hold their position for however long it took me to coax this one back to the trail.
Fortunately, fate made things easier. Just ahead of us, beyond the brambles, there appeared three deer, no more than 30 feet in front of us. This was our first up-close deer sighting of the day.
"Ha, ha!" I taunted her. "There's some deer, and you don't even have your camera!"
I knew, then, that I had her at checkmate. We had been together only for a few hours, but she had held my camera most of the time, happily snapping some remarkably good shots of the expedition. Now, the best photo of the day stood before her, and she didn't have the equipment.
"Get me the camera," she demanded.
I told her that I wasn't going to leave her. If she wanted the camera, she would have to come back to the trail with me to get it.
Thus began our slow, grudging movement back to the trail. About halfway there, she sat on a log and pouted. I gently stroked the top of her head. "The deer are going to be gone if we don't move quickly," I said.
"You're not my dad!" she volunteered.
That's when I realized that I was her dad, with all the responsibilities of that position.
This kind of snuck up on me. I was prepared to be a dad to Bonkers, who I was a de facto father to for years. Her biological dad had just gone back to prison on drug charges and wouldn't be out again until she was 19. Her mom had kicked her out of the house two months ago, and she was now living with her grandmother. The grandmother happened to also be the guardian of Drama Mama. I invited D.M. to come along because she and Bonkers were now essentially sisters.
What I didn't anticipate is how quickly I would become a father to Drama Mama. It seemed a natural fit from the start, because there was no one else filling this role and because of how well I understood her personality.
The running almost seemed like a test. I recognized as soon as the episode began that how I responded was going to be critical for both of us. It would set the tone for how we would relate to each other in the future—and ultimately how she would relate to all men. I become the stand-in for all the adults who had hurt her in the past and who she expected to hurt her in the future.
The conventional wisdom is that you should never give in to a temper tantrum. In this case, however, I recognized that I should. She needed to be in control, and I needed to prove how valuable she was by chasing her down.
As D.M. sat on a log and pouted, I had Bonkers bring the camera to us. D.M. and I then went back to the brambles, but of course the deer were gone. The photographer tried to look busy by taking pictures of the empty woods. She then demanded that we go back to the warm spring instead of taking the hike. In spite of her tone, I agreed. We had done enough new things for the day, and the hike really wasn't necessary.
Aborting the hike also solved another problem. Bonkers was demanding cigarettes, having gone without them for several hours. As appalled as I was with a 14-year-old smoking, the habit was beyond my control at the moment. I knew how the quality of the hike would degenerate as the need for nicotine increased. To bring the situation under control, I begrudgingly agreed to buy some cigarettes for her (with her money) on the drive from the woods to the hot spring. This is one of the deals with the devil that you sometimes have to make with teens.
We aborted the hike, took care of our nicotine needs, then went back to the warm spring, where we had a blast! The older girls hunted for more frogs, while D.M. and I played in the water just like a real father and daughter. She abused me mercilessly, throwing rocks at me and standing on me while I was under water.
For a brief moment, I hugged her in the warm water, and she didn't resist. One of the other girls was taking pictures of us at the time, and that shot has become one of my favorites.
The moral of the story is that when they run, you sometimes have to chase 'em down. Running doesn't happen when things are bad. It happens when things are good. If good is a rarity, something in the girl says, "This can't be real."
If you are used to bad things in your life, good things create fear and paranoia. They bring up the risk of rejection. It sometimes seems less painful to make the rejection happen yourself then to wait for it to happen.
By chasing her down and giving in to her demands, I let her know that she was worth fighting for and that rejection was not going to come from me no matter what she did.
In future expeditions, I will be less likely to give in to tantrums, and I expect her behavior to improve.
[See the next essay for more adventures with the girls.]
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Page Started: 5/25/07