Thursday, Aug. 22, 1991, p. 2A, "All About Kids" special section.
Republished, with slight editing, in The Advocate, Vol. 15, No. 3,
American Mental Health Counselors Association, Oct. 1991, p. 12.
When a child breaks the law
By THOMAS RUE
- Enter your 14-year-old son Willy's bedroom on a Saturday afternoon to empty the trash and you find a municipal road sign fastened to his wall. Lately there has been a rash of missing safety and directional signs in your area and you recognize this as one of them.
- Mother: It's those friends he's been hanging with. They're trouble. I don't think our Willy would steal. Someone must have given it to him. Willy has never been in any trouble before. It couldn't have been his fault!
- Father: I don't know, but I'm going to find out! Some of the guys I play pinochle with at the fire hall work on the town highway crew. This could be embarrassing. Those things are expensive!
- Shortly, Willy enters. Dropping his bat and glove on the couch, he heads for his room.
- Parents: Come back here!
- What comes next?
- Letting something like this slide gives a message to Willy that having stolen property in his room is okay. The fact that he mounted it on his wall, in clear sight, suggests that he may have even been looking for a parental response.
- To be most effective, such a confrontation must be based in genuine concern and love. The above initial reaction of Willy's parents suggest something different.
- Willy's mom responded with denial, which will make it easy for him to externalize responsibility by blaming his friends. Perhaps it is painful for his mother to think her son might have done something illegal. This may be related to over-identification with the boy, or shame and fear that the community will view Willy's actions as reflecting his upbringing.
- Dad seems to be coming from a similar place, concerned primarily about the effects on his wallet or the reaction of his friends. This type of adolescent hyper-concern with peer pressure may have contributed to Willy taking the sign in the first place.
- A more constructive approach would entail being acutely aware of his or her feelings at the time of initiating the confrontation. It is important Willy see his parents' words and actions as consequences of his own behavior, based in parental concern. Motivations like embarrassment, fear of the law, or arbitrary authoritarianism will be transparent to an intelligent teenager. Hopefully, Willy will also perceive the confrontation as congruent with his parents' personal ethics and behavior.
- A rational explanation -- such as the responsibility of members of society to respect rules in order to live together -- might be a starting point. Willy's parents could calmly point out that signs are placed along the highways for reasons of public safety and order. Taking them for personal use undermines these purposes. However, it is particularly critical not only that Willy sense this correction is based in love, but that on important matters, he hear both parents speak with one united voice.
- Restitution (returning or paying for the sign), perhaps some hours of community service with a highway crew, and making an apology to appropriate public officials might be appropriate behavioral consequences for Willy as well. But to be most effective, Willy's parents would need to be involved with these actions in some way, or at least vie approval and support their carrying out.
- "Willy" is fictional and it is not meaningful to draw specific conclusions about hypothetical characters. But we know that family members do not operate in a vacuum. Willy is not only influenced by his friends' behavior. Relationships with parents and siblings exert a much more powerful force -- not always recognized or acknowledge by family members. We start with a presumption that all children want and deserve to be loved by their parents.
- Stealing or other acting out by a child is very often only one facet of a larger dysfunctional cycle of behavior in the family system. In Willy's case, perhaps he is seeking attention from an under-involved father who spends much of his spare time playing cards at the firehouse.
- Willy may experience his mother as overly protective or close, not giving him enough privacy or personal space. This perception is common at Willy's age. In response to his misbehavior, Mother increases her emotional distance. Father draws closer. Though the attention Dad gives Willy under these circumstances may be unfavorable or negative, it is "closeness" nevertheless.
- It is also possible that emotional distance has formed in the parents' marital relationship. Willy's acting out may create a necessity for Mom and Dad to unify in response to this crisis. Willy may be acting -- aware or not -- to rescue and preserve the family system. Children know when parents are not getting along, and the prospect of separation or divorce can be intensely frightening.
- Stealing can also be a symbolic act indicative of more severe pathology. But with adolescents, family counseling is recommended as the first choice of treatment.
Counseling and juvenile justice
- Let's change the above scenario to say that Willy is known to have been caught stealing on several prior occasions, or more serious offenses have been committed. Other problems may also be present, such as disrespect to adults, truancy, running away or substance abuse.
- Sometimes a child does not seem to respond to any interventions the parents can come up with. A parent who feels they are nearing the end of their rope with a child might contact human service professionals for counseling or other "preventive services."
- In New York State parents can call the local Department of Social Services and ask for the children's services unit. In Pennsylvania preventive services are offered by the county's Children and Youth Services. Agency workers will often make a home visit, conduct face-to-face casework services themselves, or refer the family for specialized types of counseling elsewhere. There is often no charge for these services, or fees are minimal and assessed on a sliding scale based on the family's ability to pay.
- Some cases may reach a point that the caseworker or other professional feels court involvement is necessary, perhaps to mandate compliance with specific treatment or services. Procedures for juvenile petitions differ substantially between New York and Pennsylvania. In both states, a juvenile who commits an act which would constitute a crime if committed by an adult can be held accountable in a "delinquency" proceeding.
- New York is a bit more liberal than Pennsylvania in offering court supervision of juvenile "status offenders" -- youths who have committed no crime, but have been adjudged to be a "person in need of supervision." A petition to initiate such a proceeding is usually initiated by a parent or school official. Such juveniles are sometimes placed on probation supervision to monitor compliance with special conditions.
- In Pennsylvania, public policy seems to lean more in the directions of the system helping families to resolve their problems without resorting to the legal system. Youth can still be adjudicated as "dependent" but not as readily as a PINS may be in New York.
- If services in the community are unsuccessful in resolving the problem, while keeping the family together, courts sometimes consider it necessary to place children in foster care or residential facilities. When this occurs, counseling continues with the child and natural family. Almost always, the goal is to return the child to his or her home.
- Parents and families are the first line of defense when it comes to children, though community support is sometimes needed.
- [A contributing editor to The River Reporter, Thomas Rue is a national certified counselor who lives in Monticello.]