"Sealing off the
by David A. Crenshaw, Ph.D., ABPP,
One of the most poignant metaphors for understanding extremely
aggressive children comes not from the field of psychology but from
literature. C.S. Lewis in his book, The Four Loves (1965) uses
this metaphor in an entirely different context but I find succinctly
captures the heart of the pain of many aggressive children. Lewis
states, “they seal off the very fountain from which they thirst to
drink” (p.65). How sad, how true this is for children who adopt the
strategy of keeping others at a distance by their aggressive behavior,
thereby protecting from further hurt but “sealing off the very fountain
from which they thirst to drink.” They ensure their isolation, their
disconnection, thus depriving themselves of what makes life
endurable—meaningful closeness with others. James Garbarino (1999) in
the Lost Boys observes that so often we do not get close enough
to notice the “traumatized child within.” Bruce Perry (2006) observes in
his book, The Boy Who was Raised as Dog, that “by conservative
estimates, about 40 percent of American children will have at least one
potentially traumatizing experience by age eighteen: this includes the
death of a parent or a sibling, ongoing physical abuse and/or neglect,
sexual abuse, or the experience of a serious accident, natural disaster
or domestic violence or other violent crime” (pp. 2-3). Kenneth Hardy
and Tracy Laszloffy (2005) in Teens Who Hurt discuss the
“invisible wounds” and profound losses aggressive and sometimes violent
teens suffer. While violence is never a solution, we must appreciate the
complex dimensions to these problems if we wish to address adequately
the issue of youth aggression.
Sometimes we don’t see the
“traumatized child within”, “the invisible wounds” or the “fawn in the
gorilla suit” because we become inducted as parents, teachers, and
therapists in the overly punitive climate that permeates our culture.
The German poet and philosopher Goethe once said, “We see in the world,
what we carry in our heart.” How is it that we don’t notice the inner
pain that drives the acting-out behavior of our children? The notion
that more punitive approaches, harsher punishment, and longer periods of
incarceration will resolve the problem of youth violence ignores the
reality pointed out by Anna Freud more than 60 years ago that these
approaches are hardly novel. When these children are already broken down
in spirit does it make sense to subject them to even harsher and more
punitive correctional methods? As Kenneth V. Hardy, Director of the
Eikenberg Institute for Relationships in New York City, has stated,
“Children need less correction, and more connection. They need less
confrontation, and more validation.” Raffi Cavoukian (Cavoukian & Olfman,
2006) writes, “Children who feel seen, loved, and honored are far more
able to become loving parents and productive citizens. Children who do
not feel valued are disproportionately represented on welfare roles and
police records. Much of the criminal justice system deals with the
results of childhood wounding (the vast majority of sexual offenders,
for example, were themselves violated as children), and much of the
social service sector represents an attempt to rectify or moderate this
damage, which comes at an enormous cost to society. Most of the
correctional work is too little, too late” (pp. xi-xx).
One of the most effective ways to validate children is to recognize and
honor what they have to give, to highlight their strengths and talents,
to find in them what Robert Brooks describes as “islands of competence”
and to build on them. In support of Hardy’s and Brook’s views,
sociologist Roger Curry (2004) in his book The Road to Whatever,
reported on his interviews with today’s youth. He discovered that a
crucial turning point in the lives of these young people was learning or
relearning how to care about themselves—to view themselves as people who
mattered. Clearly, these
turning points are facilitated when “charismatic adults” (a term coined
by the late Dr. Julius Segal) are available to the adolescents (Brooks
and Goldstein, 2004). Brooks and Goldstein explain that a charismatic
adult “is an adult from whom a child can gather strength.” In studies of
resilience, the presence of at least one charismatic adult is one of the
key factors enabling youth to overcome adversity in their lives.
While our culture is oriented toward punishment and correctional
approaches, the research consistently shows that it is meaningful
connections between youth and the key adults in their lives that enable
young people to turn their lives around in a positive way. In the
absence of healing relationships with committed adults today’s lonely
and alienated youth will continue in their desperate attempts to protect
from further hurt, to “seal off the very fountain from which they thirst
Currie, E. (2004). The road to
whatever: Middle-Class culture and the crisis of adolescence. New
York: Metropolitan Books.
Garbarino, J. (1999). Lost boys: Why
our sons turn violent and how we can save them. New York: Anchor
Books, A Division of Random House.
Hardy, K. V., & Laszloffy, T. (2005).
Teens who hurt: Clinical interventions to break the cycle of adolescent
violence. New York: Guilford Press.
Lewis, C. S. (1960). The four loves.
New York: Harcourt Brace.
Perry, B. D. (with Szalavitz, M.).
(2006). The boy who was raised as a dog and other stories from a
child psychiatrist’s notebook: What traumatized children can teach us
about loss, love, and healing. New York: Basic Books.
Copyright © 2007 by David A.
Crenshaw, Ph.D., ABPP. All rights reserved.