Why punishment doesn’t work…

And what we should do instead...

It’s all about behaviour, right?

Photo courtesy of ©123rf/gordond (adapted)

Photo courtesy of ©123rf/gordond (adapted)

Think about it, most of us spend our time dealing with the things troubled children and young people do.

I want to unpick this a little, because I think we might be barking up the wrong tree…

So how should we understand the things kids do?

The kids we deal with have not had the right start in life. They’ve missed the care, safety and consistent parenting that most of us had – and all of us need if we’re to develop normally.

These kinds of experiences lead to ways of behaving that make sense in the bad situation. But they cause no end of problems anywhere else.

Dealing with this behaviour is the key to helping these kids lead more stable, productive and contented lives.

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So, right at the outset, I want to be clear that I’m addressing the needs of very troubled kids here – not the average teenager.

Behaviours as symptoms…

The problem is this, if we focus on the behaviour, we miss the point.

Badly.

Let’s look at it another way:

If a fella can usually run the 100 metres in around 15 seconds but then breaks his leg, no-one expects him to run at all, let alone maintain his time for the 100. It would be even more nuts to make him try and then yell at him when he limps or collapses!

There are two issues here:

  1. His leg is broken – this is the cause
  2. He runs with a limp – this is the symptom

Now lets apply this principle to troubled children and young people…

Troubled kids have a limp – their behaviour. This means that they don’t perform to the standard we usually expect. They fall short of the ideal and short of what they are capable of.

But, like the runner, the limp – the behaviour – isn’t the real problem. It’s the symptom.

The real problem, the cause, is their experiences and the effect this has had on their development.

Development as the cause…and the solution…

If this argument stacks up – and I think it does – maybe we need to re-think our approach. May be we need to re-think the things we do in response to children.

For example:

  • Suspending or expelling them from school

    Photo courtesy of ©123rf/Nigel Spooner

  • Arresting, charging and prosecuting them
  • Banning them, sanctioning them, punishing them, etc.

In light of abusive developmental experiences, such actions make as much sense as shouting at our runner for his rubbish 100 metre time after he broke his leg.

What he really needs is a plaster cast, lots of rest, some physiotherapy and, eventually, some crutches. Then later, much later, he might be ready to get back to something like his normal functioning.

But it’ll take a while.

May be this is the challenge. Time. It usually takes a good few years living in damaging circumstances to really mess up a child’s development. So surely it’ll take a while to sort out?

Again, this makes a mockery of the assumption that punishment will change behaviour. It won’t. It doesn’t. Not for these kids.

So, what does our troubled child need instead?

Like our runner, lots of care; for example:

  • Safety – children who’ve grown up in profound problems have often lacked this basic requirement. They need a place where they can feel safe, rest, relax and just be.
  • Patience – troubled kids tend to screen for threat a lot. They live expecting things to get angry or scary. Or both. We help them when we get beyond this and they realise we’re in it with them for the long haul.
  • Calming – when you grow up with anger, fear, sadness and distress, you don’t learn to calm yourself. So, like a baby or a toddler these kids need us to help them back to calmness. Only then will they learn to do it themselves.
  • Encouragement – life can get pretty bleak when it feels like everything is against you. But someone building you up, believing in you and saying so – that’s food for the soul! Most of these kids have had very few kind words spoken about them…

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In short, they need time to catch up on some of those missed developmental opportunities. Time to explore, time to grow in confidence, time to learn – and a safe place to do it all in.

This is why I feel so strongly about the contribution foster care can make to recovery for the most troubled young people.

But what about boundaries?…

I left this off the above list. I didn’t want it to distract from the main point of this post – that troubled kids need something other than the enforcement of unrealistic expectations.

But they do need boundaries! So here it is:

  • Clear boundaries – this is what people often confuse with punishment. It isn’t. This is about giving kids clear tracks to run on. When they de-rail – and they will – the consequences should be ones that help and are applied in the context of safety, patience, calmness and encouragement. But they definitely need the tracks!

Final word…

A friend and colleague of mine, Kevin Creeden, once likened the punishment of such children to yelling at someone who can’t play Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, when we know full well that they never took piano lessons.

No amount of sanction, punishment, humiliation and guilded reprisals will change these kids.

Kindness, patience, safety and therapy though? That’s a different matter…

Watch a video summary of this post here.

What do you think?…

  • Please let me know your thoughts about the use of punishment with troubled children and young people…   Leave a comment below or click here.

Book recommendation:IMG_0929

  • Putting attachment theory into practice – I’m proud to have contributed a chapter to this new book. It’s the work of colleagues from the Attachment Network Wales and is published by Jessica Kingsley and was launched at the Network conference this year.

Related previous posts:

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© Jonny Matthew 2015

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  • Daniel Scholes

    Hi Jonny, what you have written makes sense. We recently started fostering and our experience so far backs up your radical writing! Keep it up please.

    • jonnymatthew

      Hi Dan – good to hear from you man! Well done for starting to foster – it’s a vital role. Glad the blog is proving useful – thanks for the encouragement! Cheers, J.

  • Hakan Pettersson

    Hello Jonny,
    I work for a youth offending team in the specialist court team. I spend a lot of time looking at new legislation One thing that I discovered in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 was “the purpose of sentencing young people” in section 9. It does acknowledge section 37 of Crime and Disorder Act 1998 (to prevent re-offending) and section 44 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 (welfare of the offender). It then goes on to list a number of issues and first on the list is…the punishment of offenders. Maybe I am making to much of it but magistrates that read this section may well be confused.