Is Short Term 12 a realistic portrayal of care in group homes, counseling relationships between adolescents and live-in caregivers, and relational styles in teens who have experienced psychological trauma?

This paper was written as part of a graduate level course in counseling children and adolescents and addresses the relational styles, non-verbal communication, and therapeutic use of self-disclosure between main characters Grace and Jayden in the 2013 film Short Term 12.

Film Response: Short Term 12

Short Term 12 is a 2013 film written and directed by Destin Daniel Cretton. The film chronicles the relationship between Grace (played by Brie Larson), a staff member in a residential youth home, and Jayden (played by Kaitlyn Dever), who is a fifteen-year-old girl new to the house. Throughout the film, Jayden is shown using various methods (primarily creative expression and behavioral acting out) to communicate truth about her world, and Grace is shown using varying degrees of self-disclosure to encourage Jayden to communicate verbally. Much of how Grace responds, interprets, and advocates for Jayden (in both healthy and less healthy ways) seems to be informed by Grace’s own, largely unprocessed, experience of abuse. This viewing was my second time to see Short Term 12, and was no less impactful than the first.

In this film the younger female lead, Jayden, primarily communicates non-verbally. Jayden uses both behavioral acting out and creative expression to disclose information about her internal world long before she begins to speak about the trauma and loss she has experienced. Some of her reported behaviors include: risk-taking behavior (“in and out of group homes for dangerous behavior”), and violence ( “last week she bit her therapist’s nose”). During the movie Jayden is shown behaving sullen and dismissive to staff in the housing unit, isolating from other teens, running away from the group home to return to her father’s house, self-harming, and experiencing intense, dysregulated emotions. All of these behaviors communicate the trauma and loss Jayden has experienced. Jayden’s isolating behavior  and unwillingness to engage others may be indicative of the interpersonal loss she has experienced- after a significant loss, like that of a parent, the openness to attach to new people might be difficult. This issue is no doubt exacerbated by movement between previous group homes. This behavior may also be a result of the shame generated by the abuse she has experienced. Because of her previous abuse, not to mention normal adolescent development which includes testing authority figures, Jayden is particularly distrustful and dismissing of Grace and Grace’s attempts to engage her. Jayden’s desperation for and, ambivalently, contempt of her father may result in her emotional volatility, her heartbreak at being abandoned by him on her birthday, and her choice to pursue his attention when she runs away from the group home to his house.

Jayden, like many creative individuals, expresses her experience of reality though creativity. If Grace had not engaged Jayden in her creative expression, Grace might have missed the opportunity to form connection and rapport with Jayden. When possible and appropriate, Grace seems to choose not to engage in Jayden’s acting out (like when Jayden uses language she’s been told not to). Instead Grace chooses to be playful (“I’m going to let that one slide, only ‘cause it was clever”), countering her testing remark with a playful compliment of Jayden’s intelligence and, in doing so, beginning to build safety and positive regard into their relationship. In more volatile circumstances when the behavior cannot be ignored, like when Jayden runs away or when, storming to her room after her father fails to show up on her birthday, Jayden hits Grace with a cupcake. Even in the latter moment of explosive other-centered contempt and physical restraint, Grace is able to choose not to react, but to hold the space well. I think no line in this film captures this better than when Jayden screams “I fucking hate you!” and Grace responds “That’s fine, you don’t have to like me right now.” and maintains consequences for the behavior (physical restraint and time in the “cool-down” room) while simultaneously showing acceptance and respect. Grace moves towards Jayden in how she stays physically and emotionally present for Jayden, psychically containing the range of Jayden’s emotions with her stability, and inviting deeper communication when she discloses her own history of self-harm as they sit together in the cool down room.

Grace uses this type of self-disclosure throughout her interaction with Jayden and this self-disclosure has complex results.  As a staff member of a residential house, not a therapist, Grace is able to engage with Jayden with a high degree of self disclosure. Initially, Grace navigates this well. However as Grace finds her own trauma history triggered through her pregnancy, her father’s upcoming release from prison, and her relationship with Jayden, Grace crosses boundaries with Jayden that, although end well in the film, in real life could result in lost trust with her young charge or, in a therapist-client scenario, significant legal consequences. Initially, Grace’s bonding with Jayden through art is a form of self disclosure- the two drawing together and revealing what they’ve drawn is a movement towards mutual vulnerability. Later, Grace reveals scars and stories from her own self harm. As the film reaches the archetypal-hollywood hyper-dramatic climax, Grace discloses to Jayden, during a break-in to Jayden’s father’s home and subsequent vandalization of his car, her own story of sexual abuse by her father. In the film, as it might in real life, Grace’s courage to tell her story seems to impart to Jayden the courage to report her own father’s abuse.

Grace’s own experience of harm impacts how she cares for Jayden.  I think it is because of Grace’s own trauma history that she knows before any of Jayden’s other caregivers that Jayden is experiencing abuse. Although Grace’s trauma is depicted as being unworked through, I think Grace’s ability to be in relationship kindly with Jayden speaks to Grace’s maturity and some degree of internal processing. Other caregivers with unprocessed trauma might experience that kind of counter-transference and react to the teen with hostility or contempt, out of the caregiver’s own contempt for the victimized part of themselves. Grace’s ability to use the insight her story has given her to move towards Jayden with kindness, sensitivity, and creativity speaks to a high degree of maturity. Grace also demonstrates an ability to compartmentalize her own trauma when dealing with Jayden- her ability to remain calm during Jayden’s violent and emotional outburst proved to be a turning point for their relationship. To me, Grace demonstrates, for most of the movie, a high level of competency in how she uses the sensitivities of her own story to hear and help Jayden, while not letting it interfere at times when that interference would not be helpful to her young charge.

Jayden also impacts Grace. I believe Grace’s relationship with Jayden allows Grace to respond with more care to the part of her own self that was once, and in some ways still may be, a young victim of abuse. When Grace argues with the social worker on Jayden’s behalf, screaming, “Jack, in her mind, he is always right behind her… he is right there, watching her, ready to pounce.” She is using Jayden’s story to give voice to her own reality. This is very likely exactly what Grace felt when she reported her abuse, and probably what she is again feeling at the knowledge that her father is soon to be released from prison. In that regard, fighting for Jayden appears to be very much the same as fighting for her own self. When Jayden refuses to name her father as an abuser and then returns home with him, the film shows Grace struggling with Jayden’s choice depicted through Grace’s own acting out: first breaking a lamp, then nearly taking out her violence on Jayden’s father (in what we never clearly know is violence on behalf of Jayden or a result a Grace’s own projection of her own father onto Jayden’s father). In the end, I believe they deeply affect each other. Grace gifts to Jayden the courage to report her abuse, and Jayden’s courage gives Grace the empowerment to step forward into motherhood and face more head on her own psychological trauma and the impact of her father’s impending release from prison.

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