Worse than our shame at doing something wrong, is the knowledge that someone we care about is unhappy with us.

This is the case with young people too. They know full well that they’ve done something they shouldn’t have.

But they also know that we, and others, are unhappy about it.

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Why our unhappiness is crucial (& dangerous)…

I hate being in trouble. It’s not so much the “thing” that I did (though this can be difficult). The main thing for me is knowing that someone else is unhappy as a result of my actions.

Putting the “thing” right is important. But it’s usually quite easy. The tough bit is healing the breach with the person or people involved.

This is a key moment in any relationship. We have to deal with the problem behaviour. But we must also address the rift in the relationship this brings with it.

Back to basics: attachment is key…

We’ve talked before about attachment and about how crucial it is in child development. This is all the more that case when we are trying to help troubled young people.

For them, attachment has gone wrong. Working with them is our opportunity to build a relationship that will help them to experience positive, functional attachments.

Staff working with troubled young people in residential or kinship/foster care have a unique opportunity to work this way. But this is threatened when the child’s behaviour goes awry.

In a matter of seconds, what was a fairly minor (or major!) episode of behaviour can become a potentially traumatic loss of relationship and trust.

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From the point of view of a child who has few people they can rely on, trust and be open with, such a loss could be almost unbearable – particularly if we repeatedly deal with behaviour negatively and forget to be reconciled quickly afterwards.

Here are some things to bear in mind when a young person’s behaviour goes wrong:

– The behaviour has a function – it’s easy to get distracted into “dealing with” the behaviour. This usually means letting the child know we’re not happy, that their behaviour is wrong and meting out some kind of sanction, where appropriate. But we need to be mindful that behaviour is functional for troubled young people. It springs out of some need or another. Remembering this will help us to think things through in a more informed and constructive way.

– Kids feel it when they upset others – Like us, young people feel the pinch of other people’s anger or unhappiness when they’re in trouble. This is particularly the case when the person affected is important to them – a parent, kinship carer, foster carer, a residential key worker, case manager, support worker, YOT or social worker, etc. That’s because these are, to a greater or lesser degree, attachment relationships.

– The priority is to heal the breach – the breach or break in the relationship, caused by the aberrant behaviour, must be a key goal of our response. The security kids get from these attachments must be preserved. Where there has been a breach, there must be a reconnection. So, in helping them to understand the behaviour and in meting out whatever consequences are necessary (more on this in another post soon) we must keep in mind that kids need to know things are still “OK” between us. The relationship isn’t lost.

So, the principle to remember is that where there has been a break in the relationship, there must be a reconnection:


Wag your finger if you must. But whatever you do, you must mend the breach!

“When there is a conflict between the parent and child that causes a break in the relationship, safety is enhanced when the parent actively facilitates a repair of the break as soon as possible. To maintain a sense of safety, the parent should not use “relationship withdrawal,” as a consequence of behaviour. Such withdrawal generates fear of separation or even abandonment, which is likely to undermine a child’s sense of safety.” – Daniel Hughes – Attachment-Focused Parenting, p.25-6

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Final thought…

I’m not saying that we should ignore behaviour or duck the need for some kind of appropriate consequence to follow.

My focus here is the impact of problem behaviour on the relationship. In dealing with the trouble, we must ensure that we heal the breach in relations, too.

Otherwise, relatively minor behavioural issues can become something more akin to catastrophic, from the child’s perspective – they’ve lost the trust of someone to whom they are attached.

What do you think?…

What are your views on disciplining bad behaviour and the impact on relationships this can bring?

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…

– Troubled youth: re-writing the ending…

Pass it on…

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© Jonny Matthew 2014

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