CYC-Online 22 NOVEMBER 2000
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Co-creating positive futures for troubled kids

Peter Powis

An important part of any child care professional's job is to respond to children's behaviour in a way which increases the likelihood of positive behaviour and growth in the child. Frequently this is a very difficult task and we end up responding in a way which perpetuates old negative patterns of behaviour and confirms the child's essentially negative view of himself and others.

In this article I shall illustrate how by changing our own attitudes and behaviour into positive behaviour we can sometimes help change negative behaviour into positive behaviour. We can sometimes actually create positive self-fulfilling prophecies even when the writing on the wall says “This child is doomed!" Let me illustrate this process by means of an example.

The Case of Ron

Ron, a 17-year-old boy arrived at a program with the following background information: he has a bad reputation at school, in the neighbourhood and even with the police because he is a manipulative bully who hangs out with a “bad crowd"; in addition, both he and his father have had an incestuous sexual relationship with his 16-year-old sister. He has told the referring social worker that he has changed and is going to make a new start. Not surprisingly she is sceptical, and feels that the most likely placement will be from our program to a tougher one.

There has been a serious bullying problem on the boys' section at the program and Ron's admission is seen as posing a threat to the tentative progress which the staff have made in eradicating the problem.

When he arrives I call him into my office and we chat for a while, during which he is quite open about the events leading up to his admission. I make a point of telling him that I hear that he used to have certain problems, but that he has decided to leave the past behind and start a fresh future. I tell him that I am impressed by this, and confirm his wish to leave the past behind. I also tell him about the bullying problem and tell him that I am very glad that he, the eldest boy, is an expert on bullying. I ask him to keep an eye on the smaller boys and without being violent himself, to help ensure that victimisation does not occur.

We also decide that in the light of his new determination to change, he is responsible enough to be enrolled at a school in the community where he will have an opportunity of proving to others (including those who doubt his determination) how serious he is about making a success of things. We also acknowledge what a challenge this will be and that there will be times when he'll be tempted to give up. I point out that there are many good reasons why maybe he shouldn't change: by changing he may lose “friends"; he wouldn't provide the school or the police with a ready scapegoat who made other children look good next to his behaviour; he may prove people wrong who said that he didn't have what it took to change; he would have to do a whole lot more schoolwork than he'd been used to; it would be more difficult for his social worker and the place of safety staff to find a school to take him than it would be if he continued his old ways and went straight off to a punitive program.

I said that although I was very impressed by his determination to change, I realised how difficult it would be and if he changed his mind and wanted to screw his life up, I would not try and prevent him as it was his right and he knew the consequences. I said that if he, on the other hand, wanted to discuss difficulties he was experiencing in changing, he was welcome to do so.


Let us now examine the process of this conversation a little more closely. There are numerous ways in which one could have dealt with Ron's arrival, which may have increased or decreased the probability of positive behaviour on his part. Why did I respond as I did?

1. I wanted to co-create with Ron (and later with the staff as well) a system of ideas which increased the likelihood that Ron's possibly superficial intent to change became a more solid reality. Therefore I treated his desire to change as an established fact by (a) accepting it as genuine, (b) framing his past behaviour as something of the past (he used to have certain problems), (c) giving him the credit for wanting to change, thereby increasing the sense of motivation from within and making it more difficult to relapse because he would be failing himself rather than others (adolescents often resist constructive behaviour purely because they see it as being imposed by others). One can easily imagine an alternative scenario in which Ron is received into the program with a stern warning concerning acceptable and non-acceptable behaviour, accompanied by a listing of all his faults and bad behaviours. His stated intent to change could have been derided as manipulative and staff could have been prepared to deal with a severely disturbed adolescent needing very firm and watchful handling. Such an approach may have provided effective containment, but it is unlikely that it would have confirmed any spark of internal motivation to change or changed Ron's view of himself and others.

2. I wanted to use whatever Ron brought with him (including his negative reputation) in as positive a way as possible. So for example, instead of warning him against bullying (and in so doing confirming for him that he is seen as a bully, increasing his chances of acting as such) I make him an expert on bullying. I take the risk of making him feel like a responsible person by asking him to play a role in non violently eliminating victimisation of younger or smaller boys by older, stronger boys.

3. I accept and acknowledge that he will feel some resistance but provoke his resistance in such a way that he is most likely to succeed in what will be a difficult task. Ron is no exception to the rule that all systems (individuals, families, larger groups) in distress covertly send out the paradoxical message: “Please help me to change so that I can stay the same".

However much discomfort it causes, symptomatic or negative behaviour always achieves some positive function for the index patient and those around him. To push too hard for change in many cases ignores the positive function of the symptom, and evokes resistance. This is particularly true when working with rebellious adolescents who strongly resist being coerced by adults who belong to a world which they as adolescents often reject. I therefore like to play openly with ideas about change and non-change.

Thus, in the second part of my conversation with Ron, I anticipate some of the problems which he will face as well as the possibility that he will be tempted to fall back on old behaviour patterns. In doing so I use the fact that a relapse will in some ways make life easier for people in a way that he certainly does not want to see happen. For example, a relapse will make like easier for his social worker and the program staff because his referral to a tougher program will be simple compared to the alternatives which he has in mind for his new future. I also never make his problem my problem, but keep the door open for discussion when he feels that he wants help or support.

Incidentally, Ron went on to establish good relationships with staff and peers. In a rather concrete way, he used staff support and a healthy therapeutic relationship constructively. He decided to give karate classes to the other boys in order to teach them self-defence and self-discipline (no doubt strengthening his self-discipline in the process). After successfully completing his grade 8 year from the program, he returned to the community where he was given a job in a family scrap metal business. During the following year he visited the program from time to time and seemed to be making a positive adjustment.

Some Basic Principles of this Approach

This approach rests on certain assumptions which are listed below:

A Concluding Example

In order to make the point that this kind of intervention does not have to be made by people with post-graduate degrees, I shall briefly describe a case dealt with some years ago by a group of child care workers at a children's home in Pretoria. The child involved was a severely neglected young boy who showed destructive aggression, largely towards small animals and insects. He would, for example, delight in removing the wings and legs of insects. As logical limit-setting had failed, the child care workers opted for a more creative, strategic approach. They labelled this boy the expert on insects, and got him to assemble his victims and study them closely. They took him to the library where he borrowed books on insects, and gradually developed a genuine interest in insects and biology. His aggressive sadistic behaviour eventually disappeared.

Although this intervention was only one of many made by some dedicated care workers, I believe that it was effective for a number of reasons.

I hope that these ideas will stimulate creativity in problem-solving and be useful to both on-line child care staff and auxiliary professionals alike.


Keeney, B.P. Cybernetics of brief family therapy. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy 9(4) 1983, 375-382.

Powis, P.J. Resistance: Who's resisting who? Paper presented at the 4th National Conference of the SA Institute for Marital and Family Therapy, Cape Town, April 1988.

Watzlawick, P. Weakland, J. & Fisch, R. Change: principles of problem formation and problem resolution. W.W. Norton, New York, 1974.

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