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124 JUNE 2009
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Reversing the cycle of despair

Mark Kennedy

The author proposes an alternative to violence focused responses to troubled youth. He believes that caring adults can intervene long before a young person falls into the “cycle of despair” that often precedes dangerous behavior.

Mike was a hard case. At age 16 he was a violent gang member, classified by police as a severe habitual offender. Tough, on probation, with tattoos and a shaved head, Mike seemed a lost cause. But I was convinced that he wanted to change. He was likeable, he had a big heart, and I told him so. “What do you want to do with your life?” I asked in his interactive journal. “I don’t want to do nothing bad anymore,” he wrote.

Inviting insanity
From teasing to bullying to fistfights to gang wars and deadly attacks “we have all seen evidence of school violence, if not firsthand, then played out in shocking detail on television. Frightened, we focus on the violence itself. assigning blame, imposing penalties, and beefing up security. But how effective is this focus? We need only look at some of the measures being adopted in our schools to find the answer. Under zero-tolerance regulations, for example, elementary school children have been expelled for bringing nail clippers or aspirin to school. Metal detectors are another popular response. Schools depend on them as a surefire way to eliminate guns and knives, ignoring the fact that violence can just as easily occur on the steps outside.

Surely there must be a better approach to stopping violence. Many approaches have been proposed recently, but they are rarely new. We remember the old tongue-in-cheek definition of insanity: Doing the same things but expecting different results. It seems clear that we who work with youth may be inviting insanity by trying to address the problem of violence in the same old ways. If we want different results, we are going to have to invent new approaches. We need to replace the old ways (impersonal, bureaucratic) with alternative approaches (personal, human interaction and intervention). We need to work and connect with young people long before they become violent, long before they reach the point of despair.

This is not an article about school violence. This is an article about adolescents living in pain “some of whom may come to feel so hopeless that they eventually commit acts of desperation “and about how those of us who work with them might be able to help. The intervention of a youth worker or teacher as surrogate parent “one human being to another “in a youth’s self-concept is exponentially more beneficial than any bureaucratic program. This seems to be a sane approach, and in this day of metal detectors and zero-tolerance policies, an alternative therapy.

Youth workers as surrogate parents
As an educator of children in late adolescence who are at extreme risk of failure in school and society, I consider myself to be in the business of raising adults. Teachers and other youth workers function in loco parentis “we have a legal responsibility to stand in the place of parents for part of the day. As surrogate parents, teachers and other youth workers are prone to the same mistakes as any parent. But they are also in a unique position to act alongside parents, or even to counteract them, if necessary. A child who comes from a dysfunctional household may find that the support of a concerned teacher or other youth worker can work to turn his or her life around.

Surrogate parenting is not just one more responsibility in working with youth “it is the central responsibility. It is, however, a responsibility easily overlooked in schools. Right now the attention of many educators is claimed by worries about standards, assessment, and accountability. Perhaps some assume students to be similarly obsessed. But we could probably agree that none of those youngsters who committed the most violent of crimes were driven to action because they were distraught over grades or test scores. Problems for these young people usually begin outside of school. “In my life things have never been OK,” said Luke Woodham, the teen who on October 1, 1997 stabbed his mother and then took a rifle to his Pearl, Mississippi, high school, killing two and wounding seven others (Pelley, 2000). This statement is a hallmark of what I call the cycle of adolescent despair. Luke felt that “it never seemed like anybody cared” (Pelley, 2000). Perhaps Luke has identified the crucial element in dealing with troubled youth: caring.

Entering the cycle of despair
Figure 1 shows that the cycle of adolescent despair begins when a child forms a negative plot line (Sheehy, 1995), or social map (Garbarino,1995), often rooted in one or more of the four common mistakes of a parent/surrogate parent: neglect, criticism, smothering, and abuse (Ryan and Ryan, 1992). The term plot line suggests a life script to which we all contribute, developing a story as we go. Unfortunately, for many children labeled at-risk this plot line has become negative, often because of overtly abusive or traumatic circumstances (Hay, 1984/1987) and sometimes because of less overtly abusive but nonetheless damaging treatment.

Neglect. While we would all recognize and condemn blatant child abuse, we might not so readily identify the four mistakes mentioned above, which can often pass for good parenting or, at the worst, socially acceptable quirks (Hemfelt, Minirth and Meier, 1991). For example, a parent who is working 11-hour days, with a long commute and periodic business trips, may believe and even have others tell him that he is doing so for his family. In reality, however, the children in this situation will get the message from the missed soccer games and school events that they deserve this neglect, and so are uninteresting and unimportant (Ryan and Ryan, 1992). Like outright abandonment (another all-too-common problem), such an experience can exacerbate adolescent despair.

Criticism. A parent who is critical may claim to want only that the child be the best she can be, but in reality such a parent may be more concerned about how the child reflects upon him or her. Will the child embarrass her parents around family or friends? At school? In dance class? In a soccer or little league game? Or will she shine, reflecting glory upon her parents? Criticism in such a case is somewhat veiled, although other parents may practice outright condemnation of their children. The result of criticism, even when well-meaning, is that youths will come to believe that they are valuable only if they can achieve perfection (Ryan and Ryan, 1992).

Smothering. In its extreme manifestation, smothering is connected with a fanatically domineering parent or surrogate. But even a parent deemed merely “overbearing,” or “overprotective” can do some damage. Emotional smothering of children will lead them to believe they are incompetent (Ryan and Ryan, 1992). Children need the space to make some mistakes and to deal with the consequences on their own. If all decisions are made for them, they will naturally come to believe that they are incapable of making good decisions on their own. They will doubt their own abilities and perhaps feel hopeless.

Abuse. The disastrous effects of direct physical, sexual, or emotional abuse are well known, and are established causes of adolescent despair. Less obvious but just as real is the impact of such abuse on any siblings in the house. This ambient abuse of the “uninvolved” child is equally destructive. “Remember, a child who grows up in a dysfunctional family intuitively over-personalizes negative feelings and messages. The person claims them as his or her own, even if they are directed towards someone else” (Hemfelt, Minirth and Meier, 1991, p. 146). Whether it is direct or indirect, abuse causes children to conclude that they are powerless, and that something is terribly wrong with them (Ryan and Ryan, 1992).

Painful experiences, however they are caused, often lead young people into the cycle of adolescent despair (Figure 1). The alternative therapy I propose involves reversing this cycle, so an understanding of its operation is essential.

Understanding the cycle of despair
It is all too easy for a child to form a negative self-image (Branden, 1983; Garbarino, 1995). As the negative plot line builds, it is reinforced by other adults and also by children, who, as we all know, often draw attention to whatever imperfection one of their peers is most self-conscious about. Given the amount of emotional pain that can be experienced at home and at school, and given that many of us seem to have a natural tendency toward damaged self-esteem, it is not surprising that a vulnerable adolescent’s negative plot line is quickly reinforced and expanded.

The result is a lot of pain. Over time there is an insidious development: the negative plot line becomes self-talk, a loop of negative comment that is sometimes called a “parent tape” (Hay, 1984/1987), often heard in the words and voices of those who first or most powerfully introduced the negative ideas. (–[My mother] always told me that I wouldn’t amount to anything,” Luke Woodham told reporters for Time magazine. “She always told me that I was fat and stupid and lazy” [Cloud, 1998].) Eventually this negative voice is “chattering away at two hundred words per minute” (Sheehy, 1995, p. 169). Often by preadolescence this self-lacerating pain has taken on a life of its own, exacerbated by the exceedingly potent peer-consciousness of this developmental stage (Biehler & Snowman, 1990).

To ameliorate the pain, many adolescents begin to experiment with “solutions” “numbing agents of various kinds (see Figure 1 for a depiction of this sub-cycle). For example, if childhood neglect has caused a preadolescent to suffer from a chronic sense of abandonment or loneliness, he or she may seek relief through sexual promiscuity (–I’m interesting and important to someone who wants to know me as I am–), or through isolation (–I don’t need anyone–). Or, to consider another example, a plot line that has made a child feel neglected may lead him to conclude that achieving “success,” in whatever terms, will earn him the attention he craves. Such a child seeks achievement at all costs, perhaps in academics or sports. Because the neglect is not his own doing, however, he can never achieve enough to solve the problem, so the striving may become open-ended and habitual, turning the child into a chronic overachiever.

Those of us who work with youths with challenging behaviors know that overachieving is not represented just by the straightA report card, the highest-in-the-class test score, or the winning touchdown. Achievement may also be measured in terms of publicly acknowledged sexual prowess, belonging to the right party crew, putting up the most graffiti (–putting in work–), or even spending time in jail. But such achievement, intended for the public eye, will provide only temporary relief, and this stage will be followed by negative consequences: receding satisfaction after the accomplishment and failure of the achievement to reverse parental and peer-group messages. At this point the striving becomes an attachment, or addiction. According to Hemfelt, Minirth, and Meier (1991), attachment has an observable pattern: when the previous level of action no longer is enough (tolerance), and when denial of the numbing agent is painful (withdrawal), then these combine to produce a need for more of the agent (craving).

As the cycle for numbing the pain repeats, the temporary relief will last a shorter time, causing the cycle to accelerate, and addiction is established. This adds to the pain of the original plot line, helping convince the child that he or she is now even worse than the original narrative contributors (usually parents) would recognize, especially if the attachment is something, such as sexual promiscuity or gang membership, that is not likely to inspire parental pride. The child may think, “If my parents (guardians, teacher, clergy) knew how bad I am, they would really reject me.” This results in further alienation and isolation from significant adults and from society.

As this process increases in intensity and frequency, the numbing cycle may eventually bring the child to the point of desperation. The child may cry out, as did one gang member, “This is not me!” (Vigil, 1988, p. 52). This is a critical point in the child's life. Without intervention, the momentum will carry such a youth into repeating the entire cycle, as I suspect it did for Luke Woodham and others like him. As the negative experience recycles, it will intensify. But with intervention the cycle can begin to be slowed and then reversed, without the need for metal detectors and personal searches.

Reversing the cycle of despair
The approach I’m talking about is a person-to-person intervention. Not to be confused with professional therapy, this alternative can be practiced by those of us who are merely de facto therapists “friends, really “that is, by all of us who work with youth. There are four steps to reversing the cycle of despair (see Figure 2).

1. Checking your own plot line. The first step in intervention is for those of us who stand in loco parentis to check our own plot lines. This may be a natural action anyway: “People often revise their personal narratives in adolescence and again in middle age,” writes Gail Sheehy (1995, p. 171 [emphasis mine]). Whatever our ages, if we want to help youth revise their self-narratives “those things they most fundamentally believe about themselves, and which determine many of their decisions “then we must be sure our own self-narratives are healthy (Lauer and Lauer, 1988). After all, we can’t give what we don’t have. This is what it means to say that we teach who we are (Ayers, 1989). The guiding question I use for this work is: Am I the youth worker (educator, counselor, probation officer, social worker, priest/rabbi/minister, coach) I would want to have?

2. Intervening in the youth plot line. Once you believe you’re on the right road, you can begin to think about helping a youth to take that first step. The good news is that even the youngsters most at risk can often still be hopeful. We know that adolescence is a time of idealism (or a time of being what Biehler and Snowman [ 1990] call “unrealistically theoretical–). A corollary to idealism, after all, is optimism.

This natural optimism can work to the advantage of the youth worker who wants to change negative plot lines. The question I use to guide this phase of intervention is: What pains the youth about himself or herself? Accepting youths in spite of painful “flaws” will begin to slow the despair they feel in contemplating the state of their lives. A youth may think, “If a knowing, caring adult accepts me as I am (even if he or she doesn’t like my “solution–), then maybe the negative things I’ve believed about myself and told myself are wrong.” This is the heart of my alternative therapy.

3. Breaking the attachment. To begin the healing in earnest, draw from past dialogues with the youth to determine what he or she is using to numb the pain (promiscuiry, substance abuse, violent behavior, over-achieving, materialism). Then try to act as a clearinghouse, offering phone numbers and referrals to agencies and professionals who may be able to help the youth break the hold of attachments. This is a stage when a trained professional is needed. It is important to note, however, that Step 3 usually does not work without Step 2. Professional help may be court-ordered, parent-demanded, or school-recommended, but without the one-to-one human involvement first offered by an adult who is willing to work with the child on his or her plot line, such efforts to break the attachment will not work.

4. Creating a positive plot line. Step 4 builds on the ongoing relationship with the youth before, during, and after beginning to work on any attachment(s). It is this relationship over time that allows us as youth workers to help our charges become healthy adults, reversing the cycle of despair in a lasting way. “A child's sense of identity arises out of messages about self received from all quarters “parents, teachers, and culture, as well as from personal introspection. ... Identity is an important resource, a source of strength, a basis for resiliency in coping with the world ... both a product and a cause of behavior and development” (Garbarino, 1995, p. 89).

Practical application
As a teacher I have worked with many young people with challenging behaviors. My students are those who have been kicked out of other classes, other schools, and other districts. They often come from backgrounds of neglect and abuse, not to mention poverty. Many have parents who are serving jail time. These are young people already tightly enmeshed in the cycle of despair. And yet many of them can be reached and even turned around. I run my classroom as a micro-corporation. Students can earn the privilege of acting as CEOs and taking on other positions of authority. They know that I offer these positions on the basis of trust, and they behave accordingly.

I gave Mike, the violent gang member, more and more responsibility in the classroom until eventually he became CEO of the class. Success seemed to build his capacity for more success. His own father is in jail for life, but Mike moved on from our class to adult school, got a good job, and is married now and a father himself.

I invest a lot of time in student leadership. I ask experienced students to work with newer kids, helping them to move up to become leaders themselves. This is a way of changing the plot lines these students are creating for themselves. This experience in the classroom, of being trusted, of being given meaningful responsibility, changes the social maps of the helpers and the helped.

A simple alternative
This alternative therapy proposal is simple, perhaps too simple for some in this age of postmodern complexity. It is perhaps not the method a large, high-profile governmental agency
would have us adopt. But do we really need one more bureaucratic program? It is necessary to get away from the habit of offering more of the same while promising different results, that rusty old formula for insanity. More of the same would be more security measures, more metal detectors and personal searches, less trust. But we don’t need more security in our schools. We need more humanity.

The alternative to institutionalized mistrust, it turns out, is institutionalized trust. A policy of increased interaction between caring, honest adults and youth could reverse the cycle of adolescent despair for those young people. Right now, without the monetary cost, installation concerns, or upkeep problems of new, high-tech equipment, we can begin to make a difference in the lives of many young people in pain. Surely it’s worth a try. Who knows how many potential Luke Woodhams might be turned around before choosing the path of no return.


Ayers, W. (1989). The good preschool teacher. New York. Teachers College Press.

Biehler, R. and Snowman, J. (1990). Psychology applied to teaching. Boston. Houghton Mifflin.

Branden, N. (1983). Honoring the self: Self-esteem and personal transformation. New York. Bantam Books.

Cloud, J. (1998, July 6). Of arms and the boy. Time, 152, 1. [On-line]. Available:,9171,988660-4,00.html

Garbarino, J. (1995). Raising children in a socially toxic environment. San Francisco. Jossey-Bass.

Hay, L. (1984/1987). You can heal your life. Carson, CA. Hay House.

Hemfelt, R., Minirth, E. and Meier, P (1991). We are driven: The compulsive behaviors America applauds. Nashville, TN. Thomas Nelson.

Lauer, R. and Lauer, J. (1988). Watersheds: Mastering life’s unpredictable crises. New York. Ivy Books.

Pelley, S. (Correspondent). (2000, August IS). Secret service studies shootings. In J. Eager (Executive Producer), CBSNews 60 Minutes II. NewYork. CBS. [On-line]. Available:

Ryan, D. and Ryan, J. (1992). Rooted in God's love. Downer’s Grove, IL. Intervarsity Press.

Sheehy, G. (1995). New passages: Mapping your life across time. New York. Random House.

Vigil, J. (1988). Barrio gangs: Street life and identity in Southern California. Austin. University of Texas Press.

This feature: Kennedy, M. (2001). Reversing the cycle of despair. Reaching Today’s Youth, 5, 2. pp. 10-15.

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