March 21, 2020

Taj Finds An Alternative to Trash Talk...Self-Management

Consistency helps Taj develop social-emotional skills.

“Bye, Felicia.”

Eleven-year-old Taj* uses that popular phrase to signal that he’s walking away when his anger starts to rise on the basketball court. He is passionate about sports like basketball and football but struggles not to take every challenge personally. Jeremy, Taj’s professional mentor of three-and-a-half years, has strategized with him to help him manage his aggression.

“[I tell him] the second that you react on the spot [when] someone chuckles across the basketball court, you’re just giving them what they want,” said Jeremy. He and Taj often talk about how to respond by winning the game through skill instead of replying with more trash talk and, if all else fails, walk away.

Through their conversations, Jeremy has helped Taj become aware that there is a better alternative for his behavior. Jeremy recalls a conversation in which Taj shared that he aspires to be a mentor one day, too, so he can help other kids gain the ability to walk away without taking insults personally. As Jeremy helps Taj become more aware of his triggers and responses, he hopes he will improve his self-management throughout all corners of his life–from the basketball court to the classroom.

Like so many of our youth, Taj’s behavioral struggles indicate deeper challenges he’s facing and only tell a small fraction of his story. His mother is currently in a precarious housing situation, so he has to bounce between living with his mom and his dad. He has had to endure long stretches without seeing his mom at all, which is hard because Taj is very close to her. Recently, the family lost most of their belongings because they could not afford a storage unit amid all their transitions. And, as the oldest child, Taj is under pressure to share what little he has and take care of his younger siblings.

A critical part of a professional mentor’s role is to partner with the youth’s family. Knowing how much pressure this situation puts on Taj’s whole family, Jeremy has been able to support Taj’s mom, Priscilla*, as well. Whether it’s by giving her a ride when he’s driving Taj somewhere or just lending a listening ear, Jeremy’s partnership with Priscilla allows the whole family to feel supported by Friends of the Children. By coordinating with Priscilla, Jeremy can better understand Taj’s whole story and support him, so he doesn’t feel like the weight of the world is on his shoulders. Through positive reinforcement and affirmation, this network of support is helping Taj build the confidence not to take things personally and the self-management skills to walk away.

Recently, Taj lost a basketball game at the community center and was berated with trash talk. He felt his temper start to rise, so he walked away. He and Jeremy took a snack break in a nearby park. After an hour, he said, “Can we go back?”

Jeremy responded, “Do you think that’s a good idea? Those kids [that were making fun of you] will still be there.”

“Yeah, it’s good,” said Taj. Just as Jeremy predicted, the same kids started making the same jokes as soon as he walked in.

“He just ignored it,” said Jeremy, impressed. “We played some one-on-one games, and eventually the kids forgot about it. [Then] he was playing basketball with the same kids, and it was totally fine.” They played together for another hour, no “Bye, Felicia” needed.

*Name changed to protect the privacy of our youth and families.