The Challenge of Anti-Social Behaviour

It appears that there are very opposing views regarding the Government’s proposal to introduce anti-social behaviour orders.  What unites the opponents is the recognition that what lies behind children’s and adolescents’ anti-social behaviours is serious vulnerability.  To his credit, Michael McDowell states that they will not repeat the difficulties experienced by the British model and that ‘in the case of children (I assume he means up to age 18 years) every effort will be made to divert the child from the criminal justice system and there will be parental involvement at all significant points.’  However, his opponents are sticking to their guns that the measures are crude, ineffective, criminalising children and marginalising them even further.  What the opponents of ASBO are not considering is that the lives of people in the community cannot be held to ransom by young (or older) people’s anti-social behaviours.  Certainly, the vulnerability and family circumstances of the perpetrators of anti-social behaviours need to be considered, but so must the threat that the anti-social behaviours pose to the well-being of others.

The anti-social behaviour is definitely a response to trauma which may be temporary and insignificant or severe and continuous.  It is a relatively straightforward task to manage a child whose anti-social behaviour has arisen from a minor deprivation (for example, not allowed out to his friends) in a generally caring setting, but it is a very different matter when the child, adolescent or adult has become anti-social as a defensive way of life.  Extreme anti-social behaviour is always deep-rooted and driven and becomes more frequent and complex the longer it continues.  When a child experiences overwhelming abandonment, the subconscious intention of his destructiveness is to act out the intolerable state of abandonment and the externalisation of his trauma is flown in the hope that somebody out there will contain or hold him in some way or other.  When his externalisation of his trauma does not gain him what he wants, he will escalate his destructiveness in a frantic attempt to find safety.  Persistent delinquency manifests in a young person who is constantly on the edge of unbearable pain and despair.  His stealing and destructiveness offer him some outlet, while challenging society (because family has abandoned him) to impose the control that is not occurring in his home.  At the extreme, acts such as stealing, drug dealing or violence, together with society’s attempted controlling responses, provide some attention to his seemingly impossible situation.  This acting out may become irresistible, especially when there is little opportunity for more wholesome satisfaction.  There is the additional factor that delinquency gives him some sense of esteem from himself and his peers; it offers him a direction, even a career; and it gives him material goods through stealing or an emotional high through excitement and power over others.  With all of the foregoing masking despair and hopelessness of ever being loved, giving up anti-social behaviours is likely to be an unthinkable prospect.  It is in this sense that criminalising anti-social behaviours is unlikely to have any enduring impact.

It appears to me that there are three possible responses to young people’s anti-social behaviours:

  • reactive response which calls for incarceration and revenge
  • management
  • treatment

On its own, the first response repeats the anti-social behaviour of the young person and is unlikely to have any enduring impact.  It is a case of ‘the pot calling the kettle black!’

Management is the attempt to structure the environment in such a way that it responds to the intention of the anti-social behaviour of the young people needing containment and safety.  In mild cases this could be adequate enough to aid in the young person’s recovery of trust and emotional connection.  But, in more severe cases where the child or teenager is screaming out to be contained, the more such control has be to a holding operation rather than a strategy to encourage change of anything deeper than behaviour.  Put in another way, the more the person has been hurt in personal relationships, and is hugely wary of any emotional involvement, the more definite and strict management needs to be.  Within a regimented environment, the young person who has endured severe deprivation may feel sufficiently secure to begin to experience a better quality of life.  With a relaxation of control, the unbearable agony of not having being loved and cherished will erupt again, leading to renewed offending behaviour. This ensures distraction from the internal pressure and darkness and the call for the re-establishment of control from the outside.  Management of anti-social behaviour has been shown to be effective in sending young people who have offended to outdoor and adventure camps where regimentation is the order of the day.  The maintenance of the strong holding environment may eventually lead to the young person being ready for treatment of his chronic inner turmoil.

Treatment of anti-social behaviour tends to be a much longer intervention.  Its aim is to help the young person to express out in a real way his inner pain and to begin to become open to the receiving and giving of love.  Where there are parents, this process needs to involve them as they, too, will need help to connect with themselves and with each other and with their son or daughter.  The therapist would need to possess a very strong holding of self and a thorough knowledge of family dynamics, family therapy and psycho-therapy.

Whatever approach is taken to resolving the deep emotional issues that lie behind anti-social behaviours, sight must not be lost of the needs of those individuals whose well-being has been threatened by these behaviours.  After all, their needs deserve similar recognition and positive responses, as the unmet needs of young people who display anti-social behaviours.

Dr. Tony Humphreys is a clinical psychologist and author of A Different Kind of Discipline.