Hope for Kids Who Go Wrong
by Franklin Cameron, Psy.D., LPC, CAC III
As children we are called upon to learn many things. Some of the things we learn arent taught to us directly. We learn them not by what people tell us, but solely by virtue of what we experience. One of these things is trust. Our parents dont instill a sense of trust in us merely by telling us repeatedly that we can trust them. We trust them because in our day-to-day experience they reliably and predictably deliver the goods. Goods are, of course, all the good things we human beings value. Among these are love, food, consideration, comfort, respect, companionship and protection. We particularly value consistency. We like to know in our bones that the good things we enjoy today will be there to be enjoyed tomorrow. When we experience this as children, what we can develop is not only trust in our caregivers, but hope for a future that will be as good as our present and past have been.
Clearly, there are a lot of things that can go wrong in life. But for our development into self-reliant human beings, it seems critical that as infants we have the good fortune to experience a steady flow of good things, at least for a while. When farmers plant their fields, they hope against heavy downpours or hail storms until the new plants have had a chance to take firm root. If farmers could, they would construct a bubble of ideal weather over their farms. Such bubbles of ideal conditions are created and maintained everyday by most mothers of helpless newborns. If not the mother, then some other person who is committed to consistently fulfilling that function.
D.W. Winnicott was a doctor during the first half of the 20th century. He had been a pediatrician for 15 years before becoming a psychoanalyst specializing in children and adolescents. He was very interested in how infants develop into children, children develop into adolescents, and adolescents develop into young adults. His remarkable insights into the subtleties of the developmental process still impress and inform the field of child psychology.
Juvenile delinquency was as much a social concern in Winnicotts time as it is in ours. Today we are more prone to use the term Conduct Disorder. Both terms essentially describe kids who violate the rights of others and scorn societal rules and values. If such conduct persists into young adulthood, the diagnosis is upgraded to Antisocial Personality Disorder. Not all kids with Conduct Disorders go on to become full-blown antisocial personalities. Some do get back on track. What getting back on track means is a discussion unto itself. But for brevitys sake, I would like to propose it means actively choosing constructive behaviors over aggressively destructive and self-destructive behaviors. Because some kids get back on track, there is reason to hope that even more such kids can be brought back if we fully understood how this is accomplished.
Someone put this very question to D.W. Winnicott. He was asked when is there most hope for salvaging a juvenile delinquent? His answer may surprise you. He said the most hope exists at the very moment a kid starts to act out aggressively.1 Aggression could take any number of forms such as lying, stealing, defiance, destruction of property, disobedience, verbal insolence, fightingor the works.
This is not the answer most people expect. Yet its based on some very interesting premises, which we began to explore in the preceding article, Bearing Unbearable Kids. In this article I would like to expand those premises a bit and introduce yet another concept: continuity of being. 2
To capture the essence of the family environment into which children are born and raised, Winnicott coined a phrase. He called it the holding environment.3 (I also like to refer to it as the container.) By this he meant to describe an environment that lovingly holds children in its embrace, makes them feel safe and secure, yet knows how to loosen its hold as they grow older and need to develop more independence. A holding environment is created and maintained by parents or guardians. As an environment created by and for human beings, it therefore implies more than physical holding. In such an environment, a child is also witnessed, valued, and shown (even more than told) what constitutes proper social behavior.
The first holding environment a newborn experiences is within the arms and against the breast of an adoring, albeit weary, mother. All the good things a newborn could ever want or need can be found right there. As the infant discovers them, something very wonderful starts to happen. A new human is beckoned into being. As the good things continue, what Winnicott calls a continuity of being plots forward through time. In this continuity of being is the unfolding of the infants genetic potential as well as something else uniquely important--its sense of self. As this budding sense of self twines in and out of the good things the child is experiencing, what blossoms forth within the child is what could be described as trust in the magnetic power of its own being. The child is learning to believe that he or she is capable of attracting good things. Whats more, he or she can do this simply by virtue of being him or herself.
Without that certainty, a newborn does not really begin its own personal existence. It may grow physically, but emotionally its mostly a collection of negative reactions against a lot of environmental breaks and impingements. As children, such kids often end up in social services or a psychiatrists office; as adults, they frequently fail to emancipate into independent or productive lives. Most kids dont fall prey to this because, as Winnicott observed, most mothers do a good-enough job of providing their children with a bubble of ideal conditions.
The children I would like to focus on here are kids who began life under acceptable conditions. They were developing normally. Then, at some point, they began to act out destructively. As a therapist, Id sit down with them and their families and ask, When were things okay? Usually, its the mother wholl wrinkle her forehead and recall: He did pretty well in school until the 5th grade (or some such time). And Ill ask, What happened around that time?
Often what emerges are stories involving breaks in the holding environment. Obvious breaks would be loss of either parent; divorce and the splitting of the home; the rise of chemical addiction in a parent; or remarriage and the entrance of a problematic stepparent. What rarely gets addressed is how these may have broken the childs continuity of being.
Imagine a kids sense of being flowing along like a river. Then, imagine a huge train wreck suddenly piling up in the streambed. Train wrecks can and do occur at all times during the course of a human life. What makes them so traumatic for children is a childs state of dependence. A five year old is more dependent than a 14 year old. However, a 14 year old is more dependent than he or she will be at 18. Each of them, to varying degrees, must rely upon adults to help them cope, remove the wreckage, and get the river flowing again. Even so, we humans can be incredibly resilient. Sometimes a train wreck will just wash away and not destroy the streambed or permanently disrupt the rivers flow. What were focusing on here is when it does create a disruption.
The river is blocked. Water backs up and floods the surrounding fields. Unlike rivers, however, we humans must continue our journey forward through time even if part of us gets stuck behind a big wreck. Part of us will remain behind the wreck, while part of us will split off and flow into the future. We are gloriously multifaceted creatures. We can indeed split and divide ourselves among several streams.
This is what is thought to happen with kids who start stealing and lying. Stream B splits off from the Stream A. In Stream A is the part of themselves that used to flow through the former holding environment, but is now stuck behind the train wreck. That part took for granted its ability to attract good things, because the container was providing them.
In Stream B, flowing onward into a very different future, is another part of them that seems to have lost its magnetism, because the container is no longer providing the good things they need and want. Consequently, the only way kids in Stream B can get good things is to steal them. But its not the stolen items they really want. It is to bridge the gap between themselves now and themselves as they were. And where is this lost self? Back in the memory of the environment that formerly held, loved, nurtured and protected them.
So, the question arises: How do you heal such a kid? Obviously, Im not exhaustively examining every scenario and situation that could possibly exist. Remember, were focusing on a single, fundamental concept that has proven useful when other interventions, like punishment and moral education, or even medication, seem to have failed. Its an intervention that, in my experience, sometimes creates an ah-ha! experience for exasperated caregivers. That intervention is: How about seeing if you can repair the former holding environment? If thats not possible, how about creatively reconstituting a new one that can offer more, rather than less, good things?
As the family tries to do this, it may be important to allow children to grieve for what was originally lost, and come to some conscious understanding of what they were trying to accomplish by lying, stealing and behaving so aggressively. At the same time, the family as it exists now can be assisted in identifying its present strengths and potentials so a new container can be created. Finally, and most importantly, the child must then be able to experience being within the embrace of the new holding environment. Be aware, however: Once kids are ejected from a container, it can require a lot of patience to ease them back into one, and get them to trust it. Expect to be tested.
Believe it or not, sometimes spoiling kids a bit, just loving them up for a while, can settle them back into the container if the disruption was not too severe. The goal is to nurture a kid back to where he or she can safely take his parents or guardians for granted again. This is very different than creating a sense of entitlement, which is a situation unto itself and will be discussed in another article.
This process is most effective if begun early enough. If antisocial behavior is allowed to go on too long, secondary gains (such as peer status and monetary benefits derived from stolen items), can seriously complicate matters and take the condition to a whole new level.
One common intervention is moral or religious education. I would like to second Winnicotts observation that such education has little chance of taking root unless the child already has a deeply felt sense of being loved and cared for. The holding environment and continuity of being must come first. It is in our very human experiences of being loved and loving others that moral education takes root. In such soil, the capacity for morality and spiritual consciousness can be seen to blossom forth naturally in childrenwith a bit of cultivation by ethical and spiritually minded adults.
© 2002 by Franklin Cameron. All Rights Reserved.
1 Winnicott, D.W. 1986. Delinquency as a Sign of Hope: A talk given at King Alfreds College, Winchester, England, 1967. Home is where we start from: Essays by a psychoanalyst. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.
2 Winnicott, D.W. 1965. Morals and Education: Lecture given in a series at University of London Institute of Education, 1963, and first published under the title The Young Child at Home and at School.
The maturational processes and the facilitating environment. New York: International Universities Press, Inc.
3 ibid. The Theory of the Parent-Infant Relationship: This paper was the subject of a discussion at the 22nd International Psycho-Analytical Congress at Edinburgh, 1961.