I’ll never forget my very first case as a youth justice social worker.

My boss called me in, gave me the lad’s name and said I’d be taking over the case from a colleague.

I left his office feeling elated. Fresh out of college, I finally had my first young person to work with.

What struck me even more was when I told my colleagues in the team room which young person it was – they all laughed!

20 plus years later I know why. Others had tried with this lad. Now it was my turn!

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The key to unlocking those tough cases…

Let’s call him Joe. I worked with him for over 2 years. It was a baptism of fire. And a very steep learning curve for me.

At first, I was confident. I had the full arsenal of techniques, work programmes and fresh ideas. And I tried them all.

Inside 6 months I had no ideas left.

It’s not about you… 

That was my problem. I thought I had the answers.

Sure, I had some answers, just not the right ones for Joe! My mistake was in assuming that I understood what was needed. I didn’t.

I was focussed on his offending. On what he was doing wrong. So the question was, “How do I change his behaviour?” Wrong question.

The key question was one step further back than this. It was, “Why was he doing wrong?

First things first…

You see Joe knew he was in trouble. He knew his parents were unhappy with him. He new his life was heading for the rocks. He just didn’t know why.

Worse still, neither did I. Until I figured out the right question to ask: why was he struggling? It’s really about cause and effect.

There are two ways of asking this question:

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto/mtr

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto/mtr

–  Why was Joe offending? Or…

– Why were other kids not offending?

This is a generalisation, but I’m prepared to stand behind it:


OK, so what’s normal? Well, I mean those young people who have the right care, plenty of love, good boundaries, positive role-

models, etc.

Basically they are parented pretty well. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it has to be good enough.

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Development matters…

Recent research into the impact on children of poor attachment, trauma, maltreatment of all kinds, has shed new light on the “Why?” question.

Children without the right start in life struggle to fit in. They struggle to know who they are and how and where they fit in relation to others.

Their social functioning is impaired. They get angry, or withdrawn, or isolated, violent or self-destructive – some offend. Tragically, others kill themselves.

How to help…

To help young people whose start in life has been problematic, we have to know the answers to the “Why?” question.

We must learn about development.

About how things go wrong and the impact it has.

If we understand these things better, we’ll be better equipped to do the right things to help.

Time for action…

– Start by reading. Brush up on your child development. Better still, dive deep into attachment, particularly how and why it goes wrong.

– Get a good book and start working your way through it slowly. I recommend: Attachment-based practice and The Developing Mind.

– Subscribe to this website and read a couple of short blog posts each week – just click here or fill in your name and email in the boxes at the top right of this page.

Final thought…

Some may dismiss this as airy-fairy. Or as shifting responsibility from children to their parents.

Neither is the case. But we have to stop putting sticking plasters on broken legs. Let’s mend the bone!

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto/ISerg

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto/ISerg

If we understand the causes correctly, we can address the effects properly.

I discovered that Joe had suffered asphyxia in the first year of his life. His behaviour was a direct result of the brain damage caused during this incident. He needed psychiatric help, medical care and a completely different way of working.

He didn’t get it in time…

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What do you think?…

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

Related previous posts:

– Attachment – what is it?

Attachment – when it goes wrong…

– Child first, offender second…

– Crime & punishment 2 – cause & effect…

– Crime & punishment 1 – Why punishment isn’t enough…

– Troubled youth: re-writing the ending…

Pass it on…

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© Jonny Matthew 2014

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