issue 2 MARCH 1999 / BACK
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Swearing, aggression and temper outbursts

F. G. Lennhoff

One of the pioneers of residential treatment with troubled children during the 1950s and 1960s was F.G. Lennhoff of Shotton Hall in Shropshire, UK. He was a disciple of August Aichhorn (author of the seminal book Wayward Youth), a common ancestor of all of us who do this work. This is a short excerpt from one of F.G. Lennhoff's many books, Exceptional Children

A child who has had too much safety and protection and who has not been allowed to widen out the horizons of his own personality, rarely has a patient outlook when things go wrong. Neither has the child who has known neither safety nor security.

As the immature adult, frustrated by the non co-operation of a material object (a door that sticks, or a car that will not start), may lash out and kick to express his frustration, so these children will swear and act aggressively.

Some of them swear and act violently in order to find out whether this sort of thing frightens the adults they are in contact with. The typical adult reaction is to shy away from manifestations we cannot understand in our children, and they are then able to take advantage of our natural uneasiness and turn the situation against us by doing the very thing which upsets us even more.

We adults at Shotton Hall see these signs of frustration, but respond by apparently taking very little notice of them. We simply let the children live through the early stages of development that they missed: let them grow up to their actual age, experiencing anew, storing positive experiences and taking happiness and fun from the process of growing up securely and warmly.

When they find that swearing and aggression produce no visible effect on us and that feelings of frustration can be more effectively cleared up by cuddling an animal or by working on a tough task bigger than themselves and therefore needing not only all their energy, but also very special extra efforts these symptoms soon fade away. For the new outlets they find are more satisfying and healthy, and do not incur feelings of guilt.

* * *

One of our children, Patrick, whose mother had been sent to prison for neglecting him and starving his small sister to death, went in turn to many different foster parents and children's homes, where he was generally found hostile, unapproachabe and unco-operative, and made no progress. For nearly two years after he came to us he was quite solitary, and his only declared ambition in life was to be a tramp; life had no stimulus, though he was a well-built, pleasant-faced child. He could not bear kindness, for life had been too harsh to him for him to believe that there was anything to look forward to or any one person in whom he could trust.

One day, another boy had a parcel from home. His mother had sent him a sweater, of which he was extremely proud and which everyone admired. Patrick found a knife and slashed that much-prized sweater into ribbons while the boy was wearing it. Outside a therapeutic environment, this would have been viewed with great alarm, but we understood and the boys understood also, that for Pat the sweater was a symbol of all the warmth and tenderness which he had missed so much in life. There was great tolerance towards him, and the others came to grasp that such outbursts were symptoms of his loneliness and rootlessness.

* * *

Another of our boys, Brian, whose father had died, believed that he was responsible for this. During his father's illness he had often been told: 'If you are naughty, you'll kill your father!' and he ultimately believed that he had done precisely what had been threatened. At the age of twelve (when father died) he was told by his mother and other people in the family that he had to be a good boy because he had reponsibilities now that he, instead of his father, was the head of the family.

This was entirely too big an idea for him in his guilt-loaded state; he felt so inadequate and desperate that he threatened his mother with violence, used filthy and abusive language to her and also refused to learn in school. How many of us take the same course, becoming aggressive and hostile whenever we feel frightened and inadequate? Few of us have not been at some time guilty of behaviour just like this overloaded small boy.

We can only help a child to grow out of aggressive urges by helping him to develop maturity and insight. If he knows that he is accepted and valued, surrounded with safety, and given sensible guidance towards accepting responsibility himself, he no longer feels inadequate and is less in need of a demonstration of self-defence. As he gradually becomes a full member of his own social group, so his aggressions eventually fade.

Acknowledgements: George Allen & Unwin Ltd

The International Child and Youth Care Network

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