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Non-violent resistance to help aggression in young people

The principle of non-violent resistance is being applied to challenge children with conduct problems. Peter Jakob explains how it works

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The principle of non-violent resistance is being applied to challenge children with conduct problems. Peter Jakob explains how it works

We know non-violent resistance as a form of political activism. Mahatma Gandhi was the most famous exponent, and more recently in Egypt, protesters have used their own bodies in a peaceful struggle for rights. However, over the past 15 years non-violent resistance (NVR) has also been developed as a psychological intervention for aggression and self-destructive behavior in young people. It has now spread throughout much of Europe and has been introduced to the UK. The approach is being used in children’s homes, foster care and children’s social work.

Interactions between adults and a child with serious conduct problems are usually characterized by both sides being locked in a struggle for control of the other. Adults are often unaware of the way they use the language of control and obedience when describing their relationship with a young person who shows violent or risk-taking behavior. It is common for “he won’t let me” or “I have to” to preface their accounts of daily recurring conflict.

Psychological therapy will not help if the young person does not engage. In fact, therapy may even reinforce a young person’s negative view of themselves and others, and exclude carers, social workers and teachers from the process. Instead, NVR works with the adults who are caring for a young person so, even if a child does not engage, these adults are not rendered helpless.

Although we are accustomed to talking about the child in looked-after children reviews and core groups, acting together in a mutually supportive manner adds a new dimension to partnership working between professionals, parents and carers.

NVR is designed to help parents and carers to:

● De-escalate, reduce anger and aggression in the interaction with the child.

● Stop giving in to demanding and controlling behavior.

● Build a support network between home, school and community.

● Raise their personal presence, determination and persistence by carefully planning and carrying out forms of action with the help of other adults.

● Take action aimed at promoting negotiation, reconciliation and restoration of fractured relationships.

It begins with the “announcement” that sets the scene – letting the child know what types of behavior the adults will resist “from now on”. It is delivered differently from the many previous “discussions” of his or her behavior. Instead of a long “sermon”, which would escalate conflict, the announcement is brief. Adults declare their own intentions. “We are concerned about your violence, and will do everything we can to resist this behavior, because we care about you and your family,” they will say, rather than speak about the child or helplessly try to elicit co-operation.

Instead of attempting to deal with the problem in isolation – “What happens at school stays at school”, “What happens at home stays at home” – the adults share responsibility. A single mother may, for example, deliver the announcement in the presence of the social worker, who acts as a quiet witness, deterring the child from assaulting her. The social worker may then tell the child that he or she will call the parent on their mobile every so often, to make sure they are both OK. In this way, the parent raises her own presence with the child, while the social worker raises her presence in the family.

Gesture of reconciliation

From this stage parents and carers have a range of actions open to them, including “refusal of services”, when a young person has been abusive, to the “sit-in”, where carers, teachers or parents calmly sit down in the young person’s room to protest against a violent act or other problem behavior. In the Campaign of Concern, as it is known, a number of adults will contact the young person to express concern, thus supporting the child’s parents, carers or teachers.

Methods used when young people play truant, return home late or abscond include the “telephone round” and “tailing”. Throughout, the adults’ are supported to be self-controlled and concerned, rather than attempting to control the child. Any action by adults is also followed by a gesture of reconciliation – not a reward, but an unconditional act of care and love.

Although research has already shown the effectiveness of this approach with young people, a large-scale outcome study in Belgium is investigating the effects of NVR in foster care. By helping to preserve the family, protect victimized siblings and prevent foster placement breakdown, NVR can be a significant ingredient of social care intervention.

Dr Peter Jakob is a consultant clinical psychologist and lead for complex cases at the East Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust.