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What's Their Story?

Recently I attended a monthly Youth Court session where juvenile offenders are offered a second chance through receiving a “diversion” sentence. The convicted juvenile has an opportunity to make restitution (pay), make amends (apology letter), make corrections (accountability), and make better choices (counseling) next time in order to avoid harsher sentencing options.

I was sitting in the galley (audience) listening to high school age kids present the case both for and in defense of the juvenile defendant. I was listening for the “back story” which might have landed the child in this situation in the first place. I seldom see the problem as being solely the juvenile offender, and as a therapist, I look first at the family dynamic which might be creating opportunity for misbehavior. I see the “criminal” behavior as a cry for help and look for ways in which change in the family might affect change in the child. I heard their crimes (stealing, drug/alcohol use), and little pieces of their life story raised a therapist’s red flags; the loss of a parent, an adoption, a football hero, the child of a single parent.

Not every family has identifiable “problems” and even “good parents” can find behavioral problems from children. But let’s look at one possible cause of juvenile delinquency: Unrealistic Expectations.

Every child has a story, just like every adult does. The problem is most adults don’t take the time to get to know their child’s story. Once the child enters school a large chunk of time together is eliminated. The parent “sees” their children through their own limited experiences. If the child meets their expectations (clean your room, get good grades, play nice, etc.) then the parent sees the child is doing “good.” But for the child who does not meet their parent’s expectations, (messy, poor grades, argumentative, etc.) they are seen by their parent as being “bad.” Once a child is labeled by a parent as “bad,” it’s nearly impossible for that child to be “good” again in that parent’s eyes.

When a child feels defeated and that they will “never be good enough” they quit trying. They look for ways to kill the painful feelings of rejection and failure as their love cup goes unfulfilled. These feelings get pressed down (denial), but the feel