Luke and Jason ran away last night. But they didn’t go far- they broke into the school and destroyed the kitchen. They broke several appliances, wrote mean things on the walls, and dirtied the place.
As staff discussed this incident one question that came up was: were the boys in control of their actions?
This often seems to be a key question for staff. It has many ramifications as to how they feel the incident should be handled. Although people do not articulate their assumptions, I think that they are:
The more we decide that a kid is "in control" the more we feel we should respond with punishment.
The more we think the kid is not in control, the more we can be understanding and respond in a more "helping" or "treatment" way.
Our sense of how "in control" they are is based on factors like whether they generally are psychotic, whether they appear emotionally dysregulated, whether the act is an impulse or planned, etc.
I think this is a false dichotomy.
First of all, I think we can all identify acts which require planning, but in which the person is not in control- compulsive sexual or other addictive behavior for example.
There is also a moral component here. The "in control" side includes elements of being deliberate, doing this on purpose to hurt others, and slides rapidly into labeling the boy a bad kid.
But most importantly- I don’t think that saying a child is "in control" answers any questions or even changes the questions.
Let’s postulate that those two boys had total control of their actions, planned this event for weeks (although in fact they didn’t), and were not apparently dysregulated at any time.
The question still remains: why?
With all that control, why did they choose this particular action? How was it adaptive to them? What needs was it meeting? What message was it expressing? What kept them from meeting those needs or expressing that message in a more positive way?
I would still assume that their attachment disruptions, lack of consistent positive parenting and early trauma is relevant to the needs they are meeting and to their inability to meet those needs in other ways.
And, I would assert that the response does not change. What would make a child be less likely to consider trashing a kitchen? After all, most kids don’t. Why not?
I think that this behavior would be less likely if the child:
Cared about some people and did not want to disappoint them
Knew that others expected the best from him
Expected that adults would most often meet his needs
Cared about the people who would suffer from his actions
Even knew that people would suffer
Had a sense of a future, of goals and a trajectory towards them that seemed possible
Had some skills to manage sad, disappointed, scared and hopeless feelings
Felt that he was a good person who doesn’t do things like this
Had a sense of belonging to a community and being responsible to that community
How can we increase these things? Mostly in day-to-day life, before and after the behavior, through all our treatment strategies which honor and build relationships, help children internalize relationships, increase self worth, and create feelings management skills.
But in response to the behavior? Will punishment increase or decrease these feelings and life assumptions?
Restorative tasks, making amends, working with people to fix the damage, and looking at what was going on will increase the above protective attitudes.
And the question of whether or not the boys were in control will fade into insignificance.
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