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Creating Lasting Change in the Kids we Serve – Brian Farragher, Hanna CEO

October 21, 2019

When I first started learning about trauma from my friend and mentor, Sandy Bloom, we used to talk a lot about how many of us in the helping professions would often overlook or even forget the trauma experienced by the kids we serve.  We were convinced this commonly occurred because these stories were too painful to face, even for seasoned professionals. So, let’s all pretend this stuff did not happen, and if it did, that was then, and this is now. You are safe now, even if you don’t really feel that way.

Young people would come to us with long histories of hurt, betrayal, grief, shame, marginalization and objectification, but we would behave as if those experiences did not matter. We needed to get their behavior under control.  We were nice people; we were well-intentioned.  The young people in our care just needed to follow the rules and do what they were told, and everything would be fine. Unfortunately, kids with these difficult histories need a long time to build relationships with trustworthy adults. It does not happen overnight.

For many years when young people got out of line, there was a menu of punishments that could be applied or privileges that could be taken away. Cooperation and compliance could be coerced.  When kids were following the rules, it meant they were doing better, and we felt better that we were doing a good job. These coercive practices may appear to work for some kids, but I am quite sure they were never effective. They may help control behavior in the short term, but they do not lead to lasting change in young people…and isn’t that really the point of our work?

When young people do what we demand to avoid punishment they do not own the choice, but when they make a positive choice because it’s the right thing to do, the pro-social thing to do, they own their choice, it is theirs and they take that ability with them and they can make that choice again and again, even when the threat of punishment no longer hangs over their head.  That capacity grows out of relationships with caring, loving and compassionate adults not intimidation and coercion.