Belonging: Powerful Alliances
By the standard of Francis Bacon, many contemporary youth come up short on joy and long on grief. We are frequently asked if modern youth are different from those of decades past. Our response is that today there are many more young people who are unclaimed by adults but are virtually chained to their peers. When adults give up on youth, cultural values are no longer passed on by elders but are relegated to peers.
Bonds between people are communicated by claiming behaviors. These are signs that mark who belongs and who is an outsider. (Fahlberg, 1991) For example, one might use a kinship term or nicknames to signal friendship. Physical signs such as clothing, tattoos, and gang identifiers can also signal belonging. Ceremonies and rituals are used to induct a person into a group, honor achievements, and manage separation as a celebration. Distinctive schools are rich with such traditions. In building positive environments, one can creatively institute such traditions.
Michael Williams, as director of the Hannah Neil Center for young troubled children in Columbus, invented a "Hannah Neil Handshake." As hokey as it sounds, the adolescents loved it as they flocked around him waiting for their greeting. A summer camp in the western United States climaxes each session with a rodeo where every rider is a winner. Then, as all the young wranglers sit on the corral fence, the camp director gallops his horse down the fence line, giving farewell high fives to all with outstretched hands. At the Black Hills Children's Home, special ceremonies are used to say farewell to students who are departing, complete with stories, lighting of candles, and refrains of "friends are friends forever."
A critical factor in socializing children is to replace disruption with engagement. Adults who engage youth foster trust, build self-worth, and offer positive models. Unfortunately, many conflicts and disruptions alienate children from adults. This leads to noncompliant behavior and further contamination of relationships. (Garmezy, 1994) This downward spiral of maladaptive behavior must be reversed by new experiences and unions. It is essential to build positive bonds with youth and to repair ruptures in relationships.
A positive relationship has been described as the red thread that runs through all effective helping interventions. (Perlman, 1979). This concept was a dominant theme in early education and youth work programs. Then, competing notions of "professional distance" and "boundaries" began to put caregivers and troubled kids at arm's length. Many former youth in care have written powerful critiques of this philosophy of detachment. (Brown, 1983. Seita and Brendtro, 2001). Keeping a distance from students is not supported by research. For example, some assume that creating dependency interferes with self-reliance. In fact, the most independent youth are those who have been securely connected to caring adults. Some believe youth prefer to develop close ties to peers instead of adults. Youth want peers for friends but don't trust their advice; they want guidance from a wise adult whom they trust. Some contend that social distance is necessary for maintaining authority. In reality, youth are much more responsive to adults they like than those about whom they couldn't care less.
Research on effective helping shows that relationships are more powerful than technique. Half or more of the successful outcomes in many treatment studies can be attributed to an "alliance" between the mentor and the person being helped. This is also true of teaching. Yet, instead of an alliance, many youth and adults are in hostile encounters as shown below. (Safran and Muran, 2000).
Distrustful youth are skillful in resisting relationships with the helping adult. Adolescents erect barriers to communication so they are unable to learn from adults. They don't respond to the adult as a social reinforcer so they are indifferent to criticism or praise. Finally, they reject adult models and become prisoners of peers. (Trieschman, Whittaker and Brendtro, 1967).
Building trust with relationship-resistant students is an endurance event. For example, once a youth starts to form an attachment, he or she may need to temporarily test the adult's commitment by an act of purposeful defiance. One student skipped several appointments with his new mentor just to see if the adult would give up on him. A person who cannot decode this behavior will not connect to such individuals. (Brendtro and Ness, 1983) Even after a bond has been built, there will be times when conflicts erupt. The adult is responsible for preventing relationship meltdown.
The helping alliance between adult and child is part of a broader set of relationships which are essential to successful outcomes. (Brendtro, 1998). Children need close connections within family, school, and peer group. Adults sharing responsibility for a child also need to work as a team. These interlocking relationships can either create a climate of conflict or cooperation.
LARRY BRENDTRO, ARLIN NESS and MARTIN
Brendtro, L.K., Ness, A. and Mitchell, M. (2001). No Disposable Kids. Longmont, Colorado: Sopris West. 217-219
Brendtro, Larry. 1998. Synergistic relationships: The powerful ‘S-R’ of Re-education. Residential Treatment for Children and Youth, 15(3): 25-35.
Brown, W. 1983. The other side of delinquency. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.
Fahlberg, V. 1991. A child’s journey through placement. Indianapolis, IN: Perspectives Press
Garmezy, Norman, 1994. In R.J. Haggerty, L. Sherod, Norman Garmezy and M. Rutter. Stress, risk and resilience in children and adolescents. New York: Cambridge,
Safran, J.D. and J.C. Muran. 2000. Negotiating the therapeutic alliance: A relational treatment guide. New York: Guilford Press.
Seita, John. and Brendtro, Larry (2001). Kids who outwit adults. Longmont CO: Sopris West.
Trieschman, A., Whittaker, J. and Brendtro, L. 1967. The other 23 hours. Chicago: Aldine.