A few years ago I had a chance to visit a juvenile detention center as a part of my clinical requirements.

The main focus of the visit was to find out the role these centers play in reforming and rehabilitating kids/teenagers that have committed crimes.

Coincidentally, on the day of the visit there happened to have been a suicide attempt by one kid, 14 year old Gerald. I got interested to know why and most importantly, the events that led to him being sent to the detention center.

I was directed to a lean dark skinned lad seated alone in the middle of the field under the scorching sun, head between his legs. He was shirtless, with some black shorts so it was easy to see how dusky, almost grey, his complexion was.

But it was the blank stare in his eyes.

The stare of despair…

And the tears once I started talking to him… a picture I still have in my mind to date.

He had been sent to the detention center by his father and step mother for supposedly being “unmanageable” at home. His mother had died when he was about four years and he had been living with his father and step mother. He had been at the center for about two weeks.

Now, I know some of you will be like “poor thing, probably it was the ‘evil’ step mothers intention to land him in juvenile just to get rid of him.”  OR “It serves him right to be detained if he can’t act right and be responsible…” but these assumptions are far from the point I want to make.

See, many times when referring to a child that acts or behaves in ways we consider unacceptable what we see and focus on is mostly WHAT they have done.

But the 64 million dollar question is WHY do they behave like this?

I know, the question why brings in the aspect of justifying their behavior but this is far from the point.

My point here is to create an understanding behind some of the behaviors we see in kids. In fact, the point is creating awareness necessary to ensure we reduce cases of kids that grow up with behavioral, emotional, and psychological problems. And of course employ measures that won’t land them in a worse mental, emotional, psychological even physical state.

Like in the case of Gerald, we see a young teenager who feels alone and lost in a world where he feels the best way out is death.

Does employing punishments, detentions without really addressing the reasons behind these kids’ behaviors really help their end outcome?

Imagine your source of drinking water is infected. As a result, you end up with typhoid fever. You go to the hospital, are given drugs, but go home and drink the same infected water.

What happens?


Not just that, if this repeats for a number of times, there is a chance this fresh strain of infection could develop resistance to available treatment methods.

What could have been the best approach here?

Addressing the source of the typhoid infection to ensure you are completely safe from the danger of it.

Look at this post I came across on Facebook in one women’s group:

“Women of God, I have been fasting and praying for my marriage and my son but I feel like God has turned His back on me. I give my son everything; I mean everything as a mother would love to give a child. The thing is he does nothing at school. He gets punished but it still doesn’t work. He always throws his books and bag and comes home empty handed. For the last three months he has not written anything and he lies all the time. He is in grade 3. I feel like taking him to a juvenile for a month. Sometimes I feel like doing horrible things to him.”

Unsurprisingly, going through the comments a lot of focus was drawn on how the kid was acting more than why he was acting out.

Understandably so

As you could guess, the advice ranged from praying for the child, talking to the child and disciplining or punishing the kid to elicit appropriate behavior.

Appropriate, Right?

Maybe not so much


Looking at that post, the information given doesn’t explain everything, as is the case with many social media dilemmas. But there are always one or two subtexts that if given a chance to talk to the person posting, could lead you to the real problem at hand.

I picked out two that I would like to use to pass my message today:

  • “…I have been fasting and praying for my marriage…”
  • “I give my son everything; I mean everything a mother would wish to give a son.”

Let me use these two subtexts to address something that every parent needs to be aware of.

The first subtext tells us one thing: That marriage  that this grade 3 child is being raised in has some issues that this mother has been trying to fast and pray away…like many women are doing right now.

Chances are the problem is linked to abusive actions from either or both partners to each other or/and to the kids.

When I talk about abuse, I don’t just mean physical violence.

Abuse is any behavior posing a danger to or causing physical, emotional, psychological, economical, or sexual harm to a partner aiming at gaining control and power over them


Home environment has profound effect on any child’s wellbeing.

From birth, how parents interact with each other establishes the home environment for the child. Relationship between a father and a mother has long lasting effects on the child/children.

According to Dr. Nicholas Zill’s Psychology research, problems in parental relationships often lead to child’s problems in school and their social life. This is how you get behaviors like avoiding school, lying, being aggressive with peers…

Urban Child institute puts it this way; a problematic home environment can disrupt a child’s brain stress response system, interfere with the quality of caregiving a child receives eventually tampering with their healthy development.

This can lead to the following developmental problems:

  • Poor language development
  • Behavioral problems; they start acting out, withdraw to themselves
  • Short attention span leading to poor school performances and attendance
  •  They resort to using manipulation to get what they want or get away with things for example lying or throwing tantrums
  • Deficits in school readiness
  • They may use violence and aggression to express themselves
  • They develop anxiety, depression, fear, guilt, shame, sleep disturbances, sadness, low self-esteem…

As parents, how you interact with each other and love and respect each other is extremely vital for the social, psychological, emotional even physical development of your child.

It is also important to note that when parents aren’t in good terms it indirectly projects on the kids.

This is why

  • Parents will more often than they care to admit respond to the negativity in their relationship by acting negatively towards the children.
  • Parents experiencing marital problems spend more of their mental and emotional energy and time pondering about fixing the marriage while devoting less mental and emotional energy on their kids

Here is the thing, children are born innocent, empty slates ready to learn and take shape.

The environment that they are raised in plays a vital role in their thinking, talking and behavior. 

Basically, the environment shapes these tiny individuals into humans that we see around us.

As we have seen, parents form the major part of the environment that nurtures a child. Their relationship is what plays the biggest role in shaping how these kids behave and think.

When you see a child act out the first thing you need to heavily evaluate is; how is the environment back at home? Are you and your partner creating a conducive environment for this child to develop by loving and respecting each other? Are your actions especially towards each other sending the right vibe to the environment this child is supposed to grow up in?

Punishing your child is okay, but will that help if the reason your child is having problems is not immediately addressed and straightened out? Will it help if they are still swimming in the same toxins that are feeding their character and motivation?


The second thing I picked out was the fact that this lady said she had given her child everything she thinks a son could need from a mother.

Question is, what exactly do children need?

When a parent says they have given a child everything, what do they mean?

Material things?

A good school?

A good comfortable house that they can run around riding their expensive bikes?

What do children really need in order to develop into individuals that behave right, are motivated, and are emotionally and mentally stable?

Top on that list is:

  • A healthy and safe haven to grow and develop. Safety and sanity at home is the most important thing a child needs. This has nothing to do with the size or the luxury of a house, nothing to do with money and expensive food, everything to do with the tone the relationship of the mother and father set at home. Create an environment that doesn’t evoke fear, anxiety and shame in the child.
  • Parents that walk the talk. You want respectful, loving and caring children, act respectfully and loving and caring to each other, to the kids and to other people.
  • Children need you to be mentally, emotionally and physically present for them. Note that with things like abuse in the marriage, for example one parent is emotionally draining the other, physically abuses the other, puts the mental and psychological wellbeing of the other at risk, it is extremely hard to be totally available for your own child mentally or emotionally.



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