The phrase “she has to learn to take responsibility for her behavior” can block a more complex understanding of the role of shame and hopelessness in determining the youth’s actions.

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Martha, a therapist, asked: “I know we are not supposed to blame the kids for their behaviors. However I am a firm believer in the kids needing to take responsibility for what they do. So what do you do when a kid just will not take responsibility for what she did and keeps blaming others?”

Martha explained that 15-year-old Malina was on a plan that she had to earn her weekend pass with her mother by maintaining good behavior in school. Last week, Malina had a major outburst in school, tipping over tables and completely disrupting the classroom. So, she lost her pass. When Martha attempted to talk with her about this incident, Malina would not admit that it was her own behavior that caused the pass to be withdrawn. She blamed her therapist, her teachers, everyone else.

What’s wrong with this (very common) picture?

First, nowhere in this approach is it stated that “treaters should not blame the kids for their behaviors.” Practitioners believe and practice the idea that blame is not a useful concept here. Treaters can help the children understand their behaviors, and teach them the skills they need to act in new, more helpful ways.

Second, children do not have to “earn” their home passes. If the home situation and the child are safe, they go. The ties between the child and her family are essential for both recovery and the child’s future. Staff will do everything possible to enhance them, and nothing to interfere. If the child is actually unsafe (such as suicidal) the family will be welcome at the agency and, when possible, transportation provided for them. Home passes are not part of a reward system.

The third point is that Malina was on this plan, and she blew it. What is her therapist asking of her when she asks her to “take responsibility for her behavior?” She is asking Malina to admit that she did the one thing she did not want to do, and in the process disappointed herself and her family once again. She is, in Malina’s mind, asking her to admit she is a no-good, worthless person who will never change. How can Malina possibly do such a thing?

Finally, we must ask, “Why does the therapist think that ‘taking responsibility’ is so necessary?” It may be because she feels a person needs to admit something before they can change it, and as long as the client is blaming others they will not try to change themselves. There is some truth to this concept. Yet, there are many gentle, face-saving, non-shaming ways to discuss an incident and the factors that contributed to it.

Most importantly, we need to think about what will help Malina to stop turning tables over when she gets upset. It is not enough to provide mere increases in motivation. The “earn your home pass” plan is designed to make Malina want to behave better, and it did, she wanted to earn the pass. But the problem is, she does not know how. She is not able to be different yet; she has not been taught the skills she needs to deal with her emotions in a more socially acceptable way.

So what can the program do? Treaters can look carefully at the incident in school with Malina in any way she can participate: not in a blaming way – let’s discuss this and get you to admit you were wrong – instead, to understand what happened. What upset Malina? Where did the incident start? What did she first feel? What were the warning signs that she was getting upset? What alternatives did she have then? What help could staff have given her at that point? This discussion is a search for better understanding, looking for patterns. It is a path to interventions that both staff and Malina can use next time to avert a meltdown. Was Malina frustrated by work she didn’t understand? Did another girl make fun of her? Was she agitated because she hadn’t heard from her mother in several days?

These possibilities are not excuses for her behavior. They help staff and Malina understand the skills she needs to handle such events in the future without making things worse. What can the teacher do to make it easier for Malina to ask when she needs help? What skills and sense of self-worth does Malina need to withstand peer teasing, and how can staff help her build them? How can her therapist teach Malina techniques to get through anxious situations? These are things she has never learned in her disrupted upbringing, and staff is here to discover what skills are missing and to teach them to her.

This thinking will actually bring the team forward in their treatment. Making Malina earn her home pass undermines the only fragile support she has and increases her anxiety. Forcing Malina to admit that what she did was wrong will leave her feeling more shamed, more stupid, and in fact more likely to do the same thing again. Working with her to determine how she came to act this way, and to teach her other alternatives, will (after many repetitions) create real and lasting change.

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