Shoulder to Shoulder

Often when people are introduced to Restitution, I hear them say “I can totally see how this would work with some kids, but I’m not convinced it will work with the really tough ones.”  I find this a bit ironic, because the truth is that with the “easy” kids, lots of different strategies can change their behaviour.  “Easy” kids will behave because they like you, or to earn a pizza party.  Don’t get me wrong – I still use Restitution with these kids too, because I’d rather that they choose their behaviour because they know it’s the right thing to do, and not just to please me or get a reward.  But it’s with the “tough” kids that I’ve found that Restitution is the only thing that works.  What makes kids “tough” is that they often don’t have a strong relationship with someone, and couldn’t care less about earning a reward.

I was recently introduced to a student that has been labelled oppositional defiant.  Her teachers informed me that whenever there is a conflict, she never takes responsibility and will just shut down and refuse to participate in seeking any kind of resolution.

During my time at the school, an incident occurred between her and another student.  When the teacher tried talking to the students, neither one of them would listen to the other’s story, and both kids were just getting more and more upset.  We really needed to concentrate on stabilizing the identity, the first side of the triangle (see the link on the sidebar if you aren’t familiar with how the Restitution Triangle works).  So, we separated the kids, to give them some time to cool off and think.

Once alone, I said to this young lady that I knew something pretty big must have happened to make her that upset.  I told her that I really wanted to understand what had happened, and asked if she would tell me about it.  First off, she corrected me, and said that she wasn’t upset, she was disappointed.  She felt that her friend had betrayed her, and as a result, she had slapped him.

This is the point where I think things often go wrong in the conversation.  It’s very tempting to respond to this by saying “What do you believe about slapping”, but I was pretty sure that she did not truly feel validated and understood by me yet.  I imagined that if I moved to talking about her actions, that she would simply get angry with me and shut down, as her teachers reported that she does on a regular basis.

In the conversation that ensued, I spend a lot of time going back and forth between the first and second side of the triangle.  I told her that when people have betrayed me before, that I got pretty upset too.  (She corrected me again, with some disdain, that she was not upset, she was disappointed!)   I asked her if this has happened to her before.   I asked her to tell me about how these situations had worked out for her.   I kept asking questions to keep her talking, and to help her see that I was not her enemy, but that I truly understood and cared about what had happened to her.

Many times, we validate kids on a surface level, and don’t spend enough time demonstrating to them that we are interested in going shoulder to shoulder with them, helping them deal with a difficult situation, instead of toe to toe with them, telling them that their actions were wrong.   Especially with oppositional kids, their default position is that adults are generally not on their side.  We have to overcome this before we are going to be able to problem-solve together.

I finally asked her how she wanted things to work out in this situation.  She initially said she was done with this friend.  I validated that this was certainly an option, but expressed concern that when I’d witnessed the two of them together before, it looked like they were pretty good friends and have a lot of fun together.  I asked her if there was a way to fix this, and have her friend understand how he had betrayed her, if that would be better for her than ending the relationship.   She agreed this would be better.

Now we were in a place where we could work together to fix the problem.  I didn’t need to challenge her that hitting was wrong.  When we talked about how to fix this situation, she was well aware that she needed to take responsibility for hitting if the relationship was going to continue.   As she talked about her plan, her energy and motivation seemed to increase – she really wanted to do the right thing.  I wondered how often in her life she’s felt that people see her as just a bad kid.

Often people think that coming up with a plan to fix things is the hardest part, but for many kids, the biggest roadblock is that they don’t really believe that we truly understand and want to help them.


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