Sunday, November 30, 2008

Does Our Discipline Threaten Our Relationships?

In a recent training we were talking about relationships, as we often do. A therapist asked the following question:

"I am often called onto the floor to intervene with a kid who is acting up. I take on the role of the child care workers. I end up giving him consequences. When that happens how can I preserve my relationship with him, and not seem to him like just one more person trying to manage his behavior?"

 I was struck by what I see as dangerous assumptions beneath that question, which I will exaggerate for purposes of discussion. I think in fact these assumptions often do underlie our thinking and actions in treatment programs.

This question assumes that the therapist has a special healing relationship with the child, which would be threatened by the therapist addressing the boy’s behavior in the normal way of the program. The child care workers, on the other hand, are expected to address behavior routinely and so whatever relationship they have with the child is expendable. They are those people who are just trying to manage behavior.

I would propose that there should be no people in a treatment program "just trying to manage behavior". The first priority of every person who interacts with the child should be to form, maintain and strengthen their relationship with the child. Every relationship can be healing. Every relationship is important.

I would also suggest that none of us, whatever our role, should ever be just managing behavior. Of course, in a crisis one has to direct traffic to restore safety. But with regard to any individual child, our constant focus should be to understand the meaning and adaptive function of every symptom, and teach the child more positive ways to meet those same needs. Our programs, and all our staff, should in every way promote a sense of safety and caring. We do not ignore behavior or remain paralyzed as the child becomes increasingly upset and out of control. We intervene actively and constantly from our base of relationship to help the child calm down, and, when he is calm, to figure out how to get what he needs. Our goal is not to control his behavior. It is to help him to feel calm and safe enough to try new ways of meeting his needs.

I seriously believe that everyone in the program should be thinking this way- every child care worker, every therapist, and every teacher. Everyone should be engaged with the child from a carefully formed relationship. Naturally, the child may be angry, unappreciative, nasty, upset and uncooperative with any one of the many people on his team. Any one should then acknowledge and validate his feelings, and (when he is calm enough to hear) share their experience of whatever happened from their heart.

When we acknowledge the central importance of all the relationships between the child and the team members; when we truly believe that the child is doing the best he can; when we see symptoms as adaptive; when we react by helping the child to learn better ways to meet his needs: then we can all do all parts of the job of treating and raising these children, and we can all enrich our relationships as we do them.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I believe most child care workers, become increasingly upset when a child or children are repeatedly acting out. The belief is to “take control over their behaviors” by inserting consequences verses sitting down with them and having a discussion. When people believe they are truly being listened to they gain a sense of security, this doesn’t mean that the adult is to respond with a solution to the problem. Relationships are formed differently, what works between one child care worker and child may not work for another individual that is having issues with that same child. The adult truly needs to look at their expectations of the relationship, remembering that we as the adult are the responsible party. Even though my techniques aren’t 100% effective, I choose not to let the child evoke negative feeling within me. Guaranteed there is always that one child that pushes everyone to their limits. However, again the “adult” should always take notice as to how they are feeling when the child/children are acting out. By stepping back and managing their feelings and staying in control of themselves, they take away the power struggle. Adults need to be the role models and sometimes stating that they are upset and need to cool down and advise the child that they will talk about the situation later, is okay…

When a child is acting out and it is determined that it is behavioral, it almost seems that adults place different expectations on the child; the belief is that the child should behave appropriately “normal.” Behaviors are learned through experiences, just because the child appears to have the resources it doesn’t mean that they know how to implement them appropriately. I find that as a restorative program we still rely on consequences in managing behaviors. I am not an expert in the restorative approach by any means. However, I do consider this approach to be more civilized rather than the points system which puts the emphasis on consequences for every negative action. Also, consequences teach an individual what not to do and are usually a temporary solution.