They Call Me “Trouble”: The Peril of not Repairing Relationships
Yet if he [Bruce] should give up what he has begun, and agree to make us or our kingdom subject to the King of England or the English, we should exert ourselves at once to drive him out as our enemy and a subverter of his own rights and ours …
2020 marked the seven hundredth anniversary of Scotland’s most famous letter. The declaration of Arbroath was sent on behalf of the Scottish barons to Pope John in Avignon. It was one of the earliest examples of a contractual monarchy 1. In other words, Robert the Bruce’s claim to be king was only as strong as his commitment to protect the Scottish people. Since then, the notion of utility has inculcated most of our institutions. For example, often the assumption made in schools is that my right to belong to this community is only as good as my performance and my contribution to a common good. But where does that leave vulnerable young people whose behaviour in school is routinely seen as detrimental to others? We may need a radical shift in our thinking, if we are to find a basis for a more relational approach. Nowhere is this more acutely demonstrated than in how we repair relationships.
When I arrived in Michael’s class, I could see his teacher was obviously upset. Michael was characteristically impulsive, found it hard to focus, and he took risks without any thought to his own safety. He was small for his age and had been diagnosed with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. Once I got him out of the classroom, I could see I wasn’t dealing with a defiant kid, but with a boy who just didn’t know how to get things right most of the time.
“Michael, could you say sorry to your teacher if I go with you?” He nodded and we rehearsed what to say.
We tentatively approached the teacher, and I spoke first, “Michael has something to say.”
“I’m sorry miss,” Michael’s voice was barely audible.
There was a moment of silent anticipation, as we waited for her reply.
“I hope you mean it.” Her words sounded menacing.
Instantly, Michael’s head dropped. He looked like an inflatable toy suddenly punctured. I put my hand on his shoulder and guided him out of the classroom.
“That took some courage,” I said but my words sounded hollow. Had I set up Michael to fail? I had assumed that his teacher, although stressed and weary, would accept an apology from a little boy. But I hadn’t checked in with her to see how she was feeling. I learned that day that even adults need time to work things through. It is not always easy to act with compassion, and offering forgiveness carries some risk: What will I do if the same thing happens again? Will others see this as a weakness and take advantage of me? It is hard to sustain personal values when I feel like the institution I am part of defines my competence as a teacher by how well my children perform and my class behaves.
As much as we believe in the value of a relational approach, success can be impeded by our fear of losing control, of disorder, and of being judged incompetent and weak. We need a frame of reference, a set of values, that gives us common ground and helps us understand why and how to repair relationships. This framework should take into account unique aspects of how children develop; children are not just small adults. In addition, how we repair relationships and seek and grant forgiveness will depend on how we see ourselves functioning as a community. We need to consider what kinds of obligations we have toward one another and how those can bind us together and bring a sense of belonging.
I have learned from first-hand experience that repairing relationships requires a shift in my thinking which also leads to a significant change in relationship:
Nicola came out of class with some work from her teacher. In a demanding tone, she asked me to draw an illustration. Nicola is a good artist, and I thought she was being lazy, but when I declined to help, her whole demeanour changed. She frowned, snapped the pencil, ripped the paper, and stormed back into class.
For a moment, I thought, “No skin off my back, I’ll just move on to the next class.” But something held me. I sheepishly approached the classroom teacher, “Could you tell Nicola I will wait for her?”
The teacher looked at me and it felt as though I could read her mind: You are meant to be the expert and even you can’t manage her behaviour.
I waited five minutes and Nicola reappeared. I used those five minutes to think through my response and find some composure.
“Nicola, I got that wrong today. When you came out to see me, you were smiling and chatting.” My voice became more animated as I continued: “I thought to myself, ‘This is just like any other day. You are in a good mood and we can chat.’ But I see now I got that wrong.” My expression changed and my voice was quieter and more plaintive. “I’m sorry.”
Nicola dropped her head into her hands. “My gran said she is going to sell my Xbox today, because I wouldn’t get out of bed.”
Before you judge Nicola, you should know that she has very few possessions and even fewer friends. She lives with her disabled aunt, and she is bullied because she wears old clothes that smell of cat pee.
I paused and replied with empathy, “That must be really hard. I know your Xbox means a lot to you.” I didn’t offer advice or challenge her. We began to work together, sitting side by side. I drew the outline of a picture and she added details to it. There was a completely different emotional tone between us. In fact, I can mark an enduring change in our relationship from that morning.
Since then, Nicola has been more open about her needs and more trusting of me to help her, and yet I nearly missed that opportunity. When she stormed off, my first reaction was to be annoyed and then embarrassed. I felt disrespected and I wanted people to see that she was to blame. I wanted to justify myself, but I had misattributed her intentions. Her behaviour wasn’t personal. It would have been so easy to walk away and nurse my wounded pride and save some face.
If we slow down that encounter and examine it frame by frame, what actually happened?
- First, there was a shift in my thinking from, “I feel wronged, and I need to justify myself,” to, “She is the child and I’m the adult, and I should take the initiative and show compassion,” and, “This relationship matters more right now than what another teacher thinks about me.”
- There was a moment of risk for me. Nicola could easily have chosen not to come back, and then I would have looked even more incompetent and felt more powerless, but I had a hunch that actually she wanted things to be fixed between us, and I was willing to take that risk.
- There was an unconditionality in my apology. I wasn’t saying sorry because I wanted her to like me, and it wasn’t, “I’m sorry, if you are sorry.” I didn’t attempt to correct or challenge her. It was her time to talk and my time to listen. She needed her experience of wrongdoing validated even if I wasn’t the primary cause.
- I carefully matched her expressed affect, especially her sense of outrage at losing her Xbox. This game was one of the only ways she connected to her peers, and it was a really big deal to her. I needed to think what it is like to be a teenager in her world. Compassion opened a way for me to experience empathy, and that helped restore our connection.
Looking at how children need adults to help them repair relationships shows how powerful these kinds of encounters can be. Ed Tronick, Professor of Psychology at University of Massachusetts, has studied in minute detail how mothers (caregivers) and infants attune to one another. His conclusion is somewhat startling. Mother and infant interaction is not characterised by a perfect synchrony. Most of the time there is mismatching and interactive repair.
Mother and infant do not dance like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, but rather dance in and out of loving attunement. When most of us dance, we bump into one another, apologise, and then get back to dancing together. The dancing is messy. Finding loving attunement again –the reparation of misattunements – builds love and trust; reparatory failure builds insecurity and distrust 2:562.
In other words, this messy kind of dance is normal. “Reparation … is the social-interactive mechanism that drives and modifies infants’ development” 2:564. It may be something we do as adults with infants without even being conscious of what we are doing, but when it comes to teenagers we seem to have forgotten how to dance.
The rupture and repair of relationships allows children to learn at a deep level who they are by how they are understood by an adult 3. They also learn that adults can be reliable and trustworthy, and that there are ways of communicating that can resolve interpersonal difficulties. Children may gain confidence that enables them to approach new situations being hopeful about the stability of future relationships.
However, the how and why of repairing relationships raises questions that go beyond a purely developmental or therapeutic perspective. There are moral concerns at work here: people ask questions about a young person’s moral responsibility and about the impact of a young person’s behaviours on the wider community. We may be on a slippery slope if we bypass the importance of our collective moral conscience, but at the same time we need to consider the consequences of not repairing relationships.
At the beginning of this article, I referred to the way utility is used in society to bring cohesion: schools believe that individuals find a sense of belonging by working together toward a common good. In Scottish education, the common good is defined broadly by eight indicators of wellbeing: safety, health, achieving, nurtured, active, respected, responsible, and included 4. Some of those indicators, like respect and responsibility, may sound aspirational, but can they transform behaviour? Such a vision runs into difficulties when young people believe that their right to belong in community is based primarily on their performance.
I spent a week talking to young people who were care experienced about their perceptions of belonging in school and their experiences of relational rupture and repair. I was genuinely surprised by some of their comments:
1. Have you ever felt like you don’t belong in this school or in your class? What made you feel that way?
Pupil A. When the head teacher gets me, I am always in trouble. It’s never nice. I am not wanted in this school. He wants me away and never come back. He is nice to parents, but when I was younger, he grabbed my phone. All the time he says the teachers are sick of me. He isn’t mean to everyone.
Pupil B. Uhuh. I just didn’t fit in. I was angry.
Is this something you think about quite a lot?
B: Yes. I think about it. Depute [deputy] head teachers don’t like me. My pupil support teacher hates me.
2. Do you feel that teachers like you? What kind of children do teacher’s like?
A: The ones that behave and if teachers know you are trying. He points at three children from his class. She talks to them more. They stay out of trouble.
B: No. Pause. A lot of girl teachers like me. My nickname with teachers is ‘Trouble.’ He pauses again. They would say they like me, but they don’t mean it.
3. Has a teacher ever said sorry to you? Have they ever said they treat you wrongly?
A: In primary school, I got blamed for starting a fight and I was kept in. It wasn’t me. The teacher came back and apologized. I still didn’t like her; she was crabbit Scots for ill-tempered.
B: No. Long pause. I got in trouble, but it wasn’t me and she said sorry. I was always in trouble in primary school. Teachers ought to be able to say things like that.
4. If I came to you and said I was sorry because I had treated you wrongly …
A: He interrupted me before I can finish the question. I would forgive you. I had not used the word ‘forgiveness’ in our conversation.
B: Again. I was interrupted before I could finish. Would I be friendly with you? Yes. He paused and smiled. Because you take me away from classes I don’t like.
The words of the young people speak for themselves, but something that isn’t apparent is the emotion that came across in their conversations with me. Some sounded outraged, while others came across as more matter of fact or resigned to their situation. I was listening to young people who felt betrayed. Somewhere deep down, they still had the expectation that schools should be places where they are accepted and cared for. I wondered if there was some implicit promise they believed was not being honoured. If my hunch is correct, we may be raising a generation of young people who feel that the very institutions designed for their benefit actually serve someone else’s agenda.
Is there a way to build an institution, like a school, where there is a strong ethos of inclusion, shared life, and common purpose? The way a parent and very young child learn to relate to one another may provide a blueprint. In the relationship between mother and child, one of the parties has greater authority and power and yet they are bound together not by a common interest but by compassion, and ultimately by the character and fidelity of the promise-maker. “I will meet your needs even if it means I am up every night,” is the kind of promise we make to young children and sometimes our teenagers.
It is in the security of this committed relationship that children learn to assert themselves and to yield. The child asserts his need and wants to be in control but also learns to submit to his mother, trusting her to make him feel safe and secure. This dual capacity goes on to produce health and constancy in relationships 5. In this archetypal relationship, there is a covenant, a binding mutual bond, based on certain promises, that appeals to fidelity, and includes provision for repair and forgiveness.
Fundamentally, covenanting does not look at others as a means to an end. The child learns that it is okay for mum to have a life of her own, he can exist without her constant attention. Similarly, the child must learn that he does not exist to make his parents feel better about themselves. Think about how this contrasts to the kinds of relationship many young people have with their school, when it is not clear whose interests are really at the core of our institutions.
I am probably raising more questions than I have answered. There is still the pragmatic what-to-do-in the-moment to be addressed. “How do we respond when Paul sets off the fire alarm for the third time this week?” As with any committed relationship, there are responsibilities and commitments expected of both parties. It is not just one way. However, ask yourself first “Is there an opportunity to repair this relationship in such a way that reinforces my fidelity as a leader? Can this be turned around to invite a young person to trust in the integrity of this relationship and the institution?”
Institutions work relationally by:
- Recognizing the fundamental importance of the promises they make, some formal and declared, but others implicit and lived-out.
- Having leaders who champion those promises and values; for example, showing compassion.
- Consistently seeking opportunities for repair and forgiveness, when relationships are ruptured.
- Appealing to fidelity and trust rather than coercing and shaming others.
- Seeking transformational change: Repairing relationships allows us to understand who we are at a deeper level because we see our value through how the other person sees us and their commitment to the relationship.
- Recognizing what we have in common, especially those special times of joy and sorrow in a community.
- Moving towards others in truth and love.
If you find yourself becoming cynical at this point, consider where your doubts are coming from. Theologian Walter Brueggemann, commenting on how communities can be transformed, warns us, “We have grown so accustomed to the ways in which institutions are self-serving, in which every institution serves primarily its functionaries in order to preserve jobs and enhance personal well-being. This is true of government, court, school, hospital, church. Because the forms of public life are so complex, we despair of change. We expect ourselves and certainly others to be exploited. And we do not imagine it can be otherwise 6.”
Not long after I moved from the States and started teaching in Glasgow, I observed an event and its memory still brings a smile to my face. One morning in January, I was handed a piece of tartan fabric to pin on my jacket and asked to prepare for a Burn’s Night celebration. The whole school was invited, even one ten-year-old who was renowned for fighting and spent more time in the head teacher’s office than any other child. Imagine my surprise when the music began and our stalwart head teacher partnered with this little boy. They danced with gusto, their steps and movement in synchrony. For a short time, it seemed that all rivalries, grievances, and even coolness were cast aside: everyone joined together to celebrate their identity, their Scottish-ness.
I am not naïvely suggesting that all our problems can be solved by an event, but a dance may be worth more than a thousand words. Young people need to see compassion and integrity in the adults who teach and care for them. A leader who authentically demonstrates those values broadcasts a message to staff and students about what that school stands for. Our commitment to find what we have in common, to repair relationships, and to offer forgiveness must be foundational to how we build schools that nurture a morality that does not measure a person’s value and dignity based on their utility or how much they contribute to society. If we get this wrong, we risk raising a generation whose sense of betrayal by those who should care for them will permeate every aspect of their public lives.
Keeping it Real
- Are you able to stand back from the situation and shift your view towards a more compassionate one? Noticing something about a young person that reminds you he or she is still a child might help you feel more protective towards them.
- If you have the role of leader of an institution, how will you demonstrate your personal commitment to those young people who are disenfranchised, and who tend to doubt they are wanted or belong in school?
- Are you taking the initiative in restoring relationships? Showing compassion and humility doesn’t make you look weak or incompetent. Think of the reward of helping a child learn to trust an adult more deeply.
- Are you celebrating what it means to belong to a community? Use special occasions and other tangible reminders to reinforce and reflect on that commitment to one another: lunch with a tutor group, welcoming a new pupil, and saying goodbye to someone who is leaving. Be especially watchful that special occasions don’t also exclude the very young people we want to reach.
1. Scotland’s History: The Declaration of Arbroath. BBC. Available from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/scotland/history/articles/declaration_of_arbroath/
2. Tronick E. The caregiver–infant dyad as a buffer or transducer of resource enhancing or depleting factors that shape psychobiological development. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy. 2017; 38: 561–572.
3. Fonagy P. Mutual regulation, mentalization and therapeutic action: A reflection on the contributions of Ed Tronick to developmental and psychotherapeutic thinking. Psychoanalytical Inquiry. 2015; 35(4): 355-369.
4. Scottish Government. Getting It Right for Every Child (GIRFEC). Available from:
5. Brueggemann, W. The Covenanted Self: Explorations in Law and Covenant. 1999; Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
6. Brueggemann W. Covenant as a subversive paradigm. Christian Century. 1980: 1094-1099. Available from: https://www.religion-online.org/article/covenant-as-a-subversive-paradigm/
© David Woodier 2020. Permission granted to reproduce for personal and educational use only. Copyright notice must remain intact.