Child first, offender second…

Why it matters...

Boy in handcuffs upset...

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto/AlexRaths

Having worked with “young offenders” for well over 20 years, I have one unshakeable conviction:

They are “young” first, and “offenders” second.

Why does this matter?

Because who we‘re dealing with, will impact on how we deal with them.

As those who work to aid recovery in troubled young people, how we view them is key to everything else we do…

Why does “child first, offender second”, matter?

How we conceive the young person influences everything:

  • Our attitudes
  • The language we use 
  • The hope and effort we bring to the work, and in particular…
  • The strength of our advocacy

All these are affected directly by our inner concept of them. Before you dismiss this as flakey nonsense, hear me out.

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Word association…

Let’s think about word association for a minute. I’ll suggest a word and you see what comes into your mind. Ready? Here goes:

  • “Offender” – I thought of crime, offence, court, prison, victims…
  • “Child” – I thought of parent, small, vulnerable, help, dependent…

Fascinating difference, isn’t it? May be your thoughts were different in specifics, but I wouldn’t mind betting they were similar in kind and general tone.

If our immediate thoughts can be so varied, dependent on what we have as the driving concept, I wonder how our working ethos and emphasis are affected…

Be radical about “teenagers’…

The word “teenager” has it’s own PR problems. The things that come to mind for me are:

  • “Teenager” – hoody, angry, awkward, moody, spots…

Recently I’ve started to use the term “child” to describe the adolescents I deal with.

Not when I’m with them, of course. That would be credibility suicide!

What I’ve found is that in doing so, the term has focussed me much more on the reasons for young people ending up in the criminal justice system.

It shifts the focus from behaviour (symptoms) to development (causes). From what they did, on to why…

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Cause and effect…

I’ve written before about cause and effect. I outlined there the kinds of things that lie behind offending behaviour.

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto/

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto/imgorthand

The basic idea is this: most kids don’t get caught up in the criminal justice system. Those who do have often suffered some pretty horrendous experiences.

Their start in life hasn’t been good. So, they need every chance they can get to work through these things. Given this chance-in some cases numerous chances-they can turn things around.

The ending can be better than the start.

Final thought…

Seeing the child behind the behaviour is, in my view, the key way of ensuring our practice properly recognises this…

What do you think?…

  • Please let me know your thoughts…   Leave a comment below or click here.

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© Jonny Matthew 2014

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  • Amanda Swan Bridgland

    I so agree with the way that you work Jonny. Children are children, as the law and society defines them, however we don’t always treat them as such. There lies the problem. Policy and practice are not always joined up and I believe, as someone has a 15 year old and having worked with young people along with an academic back ground that with understanding, communication, tolerance and a psychological awareness of their development, particularly in terms of their neuropsychological development, we have much to change culturally. When I say culturally I mean the embedded attitudes of society. Unfortunately attitudes take so long to change. We need to come down to the young persons level, not belittle them or make them feel belittled; it’s understanding them. To understand them is to appreciate their lack of life experience and demonstrate and lead by example. Young people are often so misunderstood, firstly because they become labelled and secondly because their reaction to that label is an immature one (to be expected, and to be understood by us as literally just a reaction by them), also because their lack of life experience (i.e. not always knowing the consequences of their actions) can cause their behaviour to be defensive (aggressive) as a technique of survival. It is us as practitioners that must know this and take the lead on this when it comes to interpreting young peoples behaviour.

    • jonnymatthew

      Couldn’t agree more Amanda! Most of us have too much distance between our lives now and when we were teenagers – we literally can’t relate to it any longer. Add to that the vulnerabilities of being a bit older, not “understanding” current teen trends, fashions, music and habits and the scene is set for more dissonance, not less. The neurological functioning of children due to maltreatment and trauma histories,as well as poor attachment experiences, often means that they are hard-wired for over-sensitive reactions that look for all the world (and might actually be) “anti-social.” Only when we understand that many are impaired in their capability to be pro-social, will we find the patience needed to win their trust and really help them. As you say, if we can only understand them better, we can design interventions that better target the real problems and allow kids to be kids again.

      You might find this previous post useful in relation to all this…Cheers, J.

      http://jonnymatthew.com/2013/07/12/no-24-crime-punishment-3-give-a-damn/#more-1774

  • Patsy Riley

    I was always taught to ignore a child when they were misbehaving or attention seeking , reading this has change my mind and being a kinship carer will put this into practice , as our children have bigger issues attention seeking is a regular occurrence .

    • jonnymatthew

      Hi Patsy – I think you’ve posted your comment on a different page Here’s the link to the attention-seeking piece: http://jonnymatthew.com/2014/07/03/dealing-with-attention-seeking-behaviour/ You might be interested to read a comment there by Etta, who deals with getting the balance right between correcting inappropriate behaviour and giving attention where it’s really needed. Thanks for commenting, Patsy! J.

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  • Tina

    Thanx Jonny, often professional in the field of youth offending become so focused on the offending that they cant see the wood for the trees, as you said previously, many offenders were victims first, ,,,that seem to get lost, we must raise awareness of why attachment matters and the impact of disrupted attachment on development, many have studied lots academically but still dont “get it”,,,,,,keeping it real as you do helps people “get it”, poor outcomes are not inevitable for our children #seethechildnotthebehaviour

    • jonnymatthew

      Hi Tina, Apologies for the delayed response – your email went to my junk folder!) I agree – the issue of attachment is key in criminal justice, but rarely understood and even more rarely applied in practice. I’m hoping that our Trauma Recovery Model will help to rectify this a little. Here’s a link: http://jonnymatthew.com/2015/08/03/a-model-for-helping-troubled-kids-to-recover/ Thanks for your encouragement, Tina! Cheers, J.