Conventional responses to behaviours of concern, such as reward and punishment strategies, are widely considered to be ineffective in addressing the complex and challenging behaviours exhibited by children and young people who have experienced complex, relational, or early/developmental trauma. This is because a number of the preconditions for reward and punishment strategies to work do not exist among these children.
For example, in order for rewards to work, the child or young people needs to believe, based on prior learning, that you will follow through with the promised reward if they exhibit desired behaviour (or inhibit undesirable behaviour). Children and young people who have experienced grossly inadequate care find it hard to trust that adults will follow through with their promises. Rather, they expect to be let-down and are not motivated to work to achieve a reward, instead believing that that they are unlikely to be successful and you won’t follow through anyway.
Further, children and young people who have experienced abuse and neglect view punishments as further evidence of their inherent badness and of the meanness of adults. Rather than being motivated to comply with behavioural expectations to avoid punishment and maintain positive relatedness, they strongly hold on to their beliefs that they are inherently bad and unlovable and that adults are mean and uncaring. They persist in their behaviour of concern because it satisfies a need, including the need to feel like they can influence what happens in their world. They do so without consideration of the impact of their behaviour on their relationships with others, because they don’t expect to have good relationships, especially with adults in a care and management role, anyway.
Responding to behaviours of concern exhibited by these children and young people requires a different approach. It requires us to acknowledge and accept that all behaviour occurs for a reason. If it did not achieve a desired outcome when it was first exhibited and at-least sometimes thereafter, it would have been dropped in favour of a more successful behaviour. It then requires us to consider what the reason for the behaviour is and respond to that in a way and until the behaviour stops or is exhibited at more normalised frequency, intensity, and duration. This is the therapeutic response to complex and challenging behaviours exhibited by children and young people who are recovering from a tough start to life.