Sounding Off: Shetland youngsters behaving badly

Sandy Peterson argues that many of our standard responses to young people’s behavioural problems simply do not work. Here he offers some suggestions on how we should begin to rethink these responses, and improve our success in dealing with troubled youngsters.

“Bairns nooadays. Dunna git me started! Nae respect. Drugs, drink, violence. No safe for aulder folk to go oot at night. No laek it wis in my young day. Somebody needs to do somethin’ aboot them.”

Maybe the anger of older people towards youngsters is nothing new. But, at the same time, we can’t afford to be complacent. Some Shetland youngsters do behave badly. And we should do something about their behaviour. But what?

Into this important debate, with its many contrasting and strongly held opinions, I throw the following ideas about the methods we should abandon and those we should adopt.

Firstly, we need to lose our obsession with physical punishment

“They want a good hiding . . . bring back the belt an’ the birch.”
Sounds attractively easy, doesn’t it? But never mind the moral arguments, physical punishment simply does not work. I was teaching in the sixties in an Edinburgh school where the belt was in frequent use. It did frighten the good bairns: the tough bairns laughed at it.

The truth is that you can’t scare difficult youngsters into stopping their bad behaviour. The experience of their young lives has made them immune to the things which frighten the rest of us. I’ve worked with young people who don’t even fear death. They believe they have no future, no prospects, no hope. So they live for the moment, doing dangerous things for short-term thrills – regardless of consequences. We may want to hammer them into submission; it might release our anger and frustration. It will only make them worse.

Locking them up won’t work either

“Lock ‘em up an throw awa’ the key”.
There are youngsters who, for the safety of other people, need to be locked up. But locking them up seldom makes them behave better. Often the very opposite. We are familiar with the notion that prisons are academies of crime, teaching anti-social attitudes and criminal skills. What seems less credible is that disturbed youngsters actually like prison. It removes the daily complications, the need to make decisions, the worries about money. Imprisonment is like physical punishment. It would deter us: it won’t deter them.

The law cannot do the job for us

“Slap them wi’ an ASBO or clamp a tag on them!”
Angry older people look to the law and the court to punish and control deviant youngsters. ASBOs, tags, supervision and probation orders – tactics to restrict the freedom and therefore change the behaviour of young people who seem to be out of control. These measures all have their place, giving communities some temporary respite from the destructive actions of individuals. But evidence suggests that they don’t change behaviour. This isn’t surprising. Control alone won’t work. Youngsters see it as a challenge, part of the game of “them against the law”. The only way such methods would work would be if the period of control was used as an opportunity for intensive work with the offending youngsters, filling their lives with useful activities.

Speaking to somebody once a week won’t make a difference

Don’t get me wrong. It is important for troubled youngsters, many of whom have had little help from adults, to have somebody to listen to them and talk to them.

But we have to be realistic about the effectiveness of “the weekly chat”. It’s often very pleasant, with issues discussed and promises made. But can it really make a difference? I doubt it. If troubled youngsters were able to convert such promises into action they wouldn’t have a behaviour problem in the first place. Speaking is good – but only if it leads to action.

Education and information are not enough

The theory is that, if they are given accurate information about drink, drugs, sex and violence, young people will make sensible decisions. For the stable and secure youngsters this is true: for the unstable and insecure it is not. Young people are not “dying of ignorance” or getting into trouble because they don’t know consequences.

The evidence from several decades of social education is that information does not ensure good decision-making. Human behaviour is more complicated than that. Thrill-seeking, risk-taking, teenage rebellion, peer pressure, causing annoyance to adults – all are more important to some youngsters than being careful or sensible. Of course, good social education is important: it just doesn’t guarantee good behaviour.

There is no magic pill or quick fix

I hesitate to enter the controversy about the medications which are designed to improve behaviour. I don’t have the medical knowledge to comment with any authority. I have only my observation of young people who are subject to such programmes. It seems to me that some, not all, are helped by taking medication, but that any long-term benefit will be gained only if the medication is a part of a thorough and comprehensive inter-agency strategy. The same applies to other “quick fixes” – anger management courses, art and music therapies, outdoor and sport projects, drug and drink programmes – all are excellent if they are part, not the whole, of a behaviour plan.

“Boring” routine is important

There are young people who find it difficult to go to school and then go to work. They lie in bed till dinner-time, hang about the street, then party all night. We may condemn them as skivers and benefit junkies. We may, on the other hand, excuse them because we recognise that their upbringing has destroyed their confidence and weakened their will. Perhaps both these attitudes are unhelpful. Rejection will simply drive them further into the shadowy world of drugs, drink and crime; sympathy will justify their retreat into that same world. We are fortunate in Shetland that we have agencies which bring troubled and difficult youngsters back into education, and projects which prepare them for work. This is so important. School and work may be “boring” – but they put necessary structure into our lives.

We have to get up close and personal

I don’t believe it is possible to help troubled youngsters if we’re not prepared to offer a close and trusting relationship. This isn’t a popular concept among today’s professional workers. “Keep your distance. You aren’t their friend. Don’t get involved.” I agree that we shouldn’t become “friends” with our clients; we need to maintain a professional relationship. But I think we do have to “get involved” and “get close” – perhaps, for us, uncomfortably close. Many disturbed and deprived children have never had people they could really trust. Workers who keep their distance may have an illusion of success; youngsters will play the game and say all the right things. But only by taking the time and effort to develop a deep relationship will we be able to reach the hidden truths, and influence the attitudes, which cause the bad behaviour – to be tough as well as tender.

We have to cross into their territory

The easiest, safest and most comfortable place to meet problem youngsters is in our own office. It is also the least effective place. They don’t misbehave in offices; they misbehave in their homes and in their communities. So that’s where we need to meet them, if we want to tackle the truth, rather than the version of the truth which they bring to our offices.

Troublesome children live in an alien country, with different standards and different ways of living. Only by crossing the border into that country will we force them to compare the way of life which we offer with that which is offered by their troublesome pals.


I don’t want to criticise those who undertake the thankless job of working with troublesome youngsters. In my experience, Shetland workers take their responsibilities and carry out their individual tasks with total dedication and complete integrity. My concern is that we don’t ask whether the methods and strategies we use are really effective. We continue to do things which look good but don’t work. We fail to do things which would make a difference. We seem to expect to transform seriously damaged people by dipping occasionally into their shambolic lives, in ways and at times which suit our way of working – but don’t suit their real needs. I realise that many people will disagree with my belief that we should tackle our badly behaving youngsters by intervening, strongly and persistently, in all parts of their lives. I’ve just found that it’s the only thing that works.

Sandy Peterson


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