2016 Blog Entries

The R in SPIRIT

In 1999, The Board of Directors approved AK Child & Family’s Code of Ethics centered on the acronym SPIRIT which stands for Students, Positive, Integrity, Respect, Innovation and Teamwork. The R stands for Respect and our Code of Ethics says “We recognize individual efforts and contributions to our success. We ensure students, families and staff are treated with dignity and respect.” The theme of respect is also woven into our agency’s treatment principles.

I don’t think anyone would argue with the concept that respect should be a core value but in day to day practice how does respect intersect with trauma informed care, one of the new buzzwords in our field, particularly when it relates to how we interact with “troubled youth”? We’ve all heard “troubled youth” sometimes described as “defiant, manipulative and intentionally rebellious”.

Aside from being judgmental and blaming these descriptions also sometimes lead to these types of thoughts:
“If we’re too soft with these kids they will manipulate us. We need to be tough so they know their place and learn they can’t get away with everything.”
“Shame and humiliation might be what’s needed to help this kid straighten up.”
“Defiant kids don’t deserve respect.”
I’d be the first one to agree that working with youth can be challenging and at times very frustrating but I’d also argue that without respect in the helping relationship, meaningful change is unlikely. I came across an article from the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare Office of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services: Guidelines for Best Practice in Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services that I thought did a great job of addressing this topic. Below are highlights from this article:

The Need to Differentiate Respect from “Being Soft”:
Those who believe that the provision of unconditional respect to youth who are defiant represents a "soft" response to their transgressions need to recognize the distinction between respect and accountability -- e.g., offering respect need not entail abandoning accountability. In fact, one can simultaneously offer respect and also hold a youth accountable.
Another misconception is that unconditional respect means that a youth can never be challenged. On the contrary, a respectful relationship allows for, even demands, challenge at certain times, so long as the challenge is offered constructively. What is essential is that the challenge—whether verbal or non-verbal, direct or indirect, serious or humorous—upholds the dignity of the child. Youth who are angry, defiant and violent cannot be bullied into pro-social behavior.

Former prison psychiatrist, James Gilligan, while discussing adult offenders who are violent, offers advice that applies to children as well. Harshness increases the youth's sense of shame and humiliation, which intensifies his/her need to get even. A vicious cycle is created with individuals. Humiliation and shaming also increases the individuals’ devaluation of human life and the likelihood of future violence: ... the more harshly we punish criminals, or children, the more violent they become; the punishment increases the feelings of shame and simultaneously decreases their capacities for feelings of love for others, and of guilt toward others. Both ethically and pragmatically, the appropriate approach to youth who are defiant includes the unconditional provision of respect. The need for respect can be regarded as a fundamental human need. Youth denied respect may in turn abandon reciprocal, respectful interactions with others. For some youth, behavior becomes deviant in support of activities that may promise respect (e.g., gang membership or drug dealing). For other youth, deviant behavior may be less purposeful and represent primarily a protest against past injustices.

Ethically, it is difficult to reconcile being a helper if one is not committed to provide unconditional respect to youth. Such commitment should be differentiated from moments of frustration, when the adult may fall short. However, when this has occurred, an acknowledgment and an apology to the child becomes appropriate.
In working with children who are angry, defiant, or violent, the goal is not merely to coerce short-term behavioral compliance, nor to require that anger or rage be suppressed. What is essential is that the child experience him/herself treated consistently and respectfully, supported while held to clear standards, given reasonable consequences when indicated, and—perhaps most importantly—listened to and encouraged.