The Anger Balancing Act: sanctions vs relationship?

After an anger outburst, whether it was a performance or out-of-control rage, comes the fallout. The ‘bomb’ has hit, the consequences and repercussions now come into play. Depending on the amount of explosive and the amount of damage inflicted, the level of control you have over the subsequent sanctions will vary. One thing you can massively influence, however, is the extent of collateral damage that is done to your relationship with a young person and their progress down the road of positive change.

The challenge when dealing with the fallout of an anger outburst is that we need to teach angry teens that destructive anger outbursts are unacceptable, while at the same time preserving a good working relationship with them so that we can still effectively work with them and make progress. But surely discipline and sanctions rather mess up the relationship? Surely it’s choosing one over the other? If we dish out sanctions they’re going to get the ‘hump’ and disengage aren’t they?

Well not necessarily. It is true that anger outbursts mishandled by professionals often lead to the further disengagement of young people, making them more angry and less likely to make the necessary positive changes in their lives. They often end up feeling that they haven’t been listened to, that no-one cares and that they have been rejected (again). They go right back to the beginning of their recovery process, if not further back than that.

However, as we will see, if we apply appropriate sanctions and explain the rationale for applying them then the relationship and progress may not only survive but even thrive. Through careful handling, they can come to realise that you reject their behaviour and not them and that their behaviour and subsequent sanctions do not have to result in an irreparably damaged relationship. Sanctions and relationships can be balanced and balanced well.


From the start, let’s be clear- sanctions for inappropriate behaviour are very important. They are a part of life for everyone, so to let a young person get away with poor behaviour, even if there are huge mitigating factors, isn’t actually doing them a favour. They need to learn to live in a school, a home and ultimately a society where behaviour deemed socially unacceptable incurs social sanctions such as the restriction of freedom in the form of a detention, a grounding, or a prison term. You might not necessarily agree with some of the social sanctions applied, but the reality is that they exist. We have to live with those restrictions, and so do they.

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While it may be tempting to go ‘soft’ with them on the basis of their troubled life and in order to preserve your relationship with them, it really is not going to help them. Teens need clear, consistent boundaries and if you don’t give them that, then they won’t know where they stand with you and this will unsettle them. This will limit their ability to feel secure in your presence and consequently their ability to allow you ‘in’ to help them.

If you are consistent but consistently ‘soft’ with them then they are bound to ‘play you’ and they will not respect you for it. End result is that they won’t listen to what you have to say. Do you listen to the advice of someone you don’t respect? I know I don’t. What you’ll get is lip service and no more.

So there is no point trying to preserve your relationship with a young person by bending the rules or being soft in your application of sanctions. Yes, you might get on well, but real positive change needs more than just ‘nice’ chats. It needs respect, it needs both parties to listen and it needs supportive challenge of inappropriate behaviour. Anything else and you are just enabling and indirectly collaborating in their behaviour. You may be well liked but change does not come from this place. (Just because you are liked does not necessarily mean you are an enabler, but you should always watch out for this as it can keep creep in so easily).


Pace yourself & scale your sanctions

Don’t go from zero to sixty miles an hour in no time at all. If you wheel out your biggest sanction first, then you have nowhere left to go. Obviously sometimes the first exhibited behaviour is so serious that it does warrant going to 60 immediately, but usually this is not the case.

The temptation to go to 60 in break-neck time even for a minor dismeanour is that you will ‘show them who’s boss’. ‘They won’t mess with me’. This might work with your more well-adjusted teens, but your more emotionally vulnerable and volatile ones will not respond well. They will perceive you as unfair and will show you what they can do in break-neck time: blow up in your face.

Chances are they will have experienced someone significant in their life do this to them on a regular basis- going from 0 to 60 with no warning, often unfounded and often with emotional and/or physical damage to show for it at the end. In their eyes, you then become that person.

Immediately any respect for you goes out the window, any desire to co-operate with you, any ability to trust you and your judgement, let alone any advice you might offer. You make them feel unsafe and this will make them either fight or take flight. To undo this response will be hellishly difficult. It is better not to go there. Yes, offer discipline and sanctions, but you have to do it fairly and in moderation. Troubled teens ‘fairness radar’ is finely honed. Life has often been very unfair to them so they will have a keen eye for it and won’t co-operate if they detect it.

A far better approach is to have a scale of sanctions relating to the seriousness or the number of occurrences of the behaviour, that you are clear about in your head, and they are clear about in their heads. The benefits are that you are far more likely to be perceived as being reasonable and fair, not hot-headed. You will always get the ‘oh, but that’s unfair’ knee-jerk response but an overall deeper view of you as fair is far more likely to prevail this way.

The relationship preservation credentials of this approach speak for themselves. If you’re unfair you’re a ‘nob’ or ‘bitch’ and not worth listening to, if you’re fair then maybe there is something in what you have to say and they will keep on engaging, even after the sanction.

A scale of sanctions also has an important role in fostering a sense of responsibility, of self-control and choice in the minds of teens. If they don’t know what your scale of sanctions is, then they don’t know where their behaviour could lead them. You are consequently in charge of where their behaviour takes them. But it should be the case that they are in control of where their behaviour takes them. If they know in advance what the particular consequence will be of certain behaviours then you are putting the choice firmly in their hands. It’s their choice and their responsibility as to how far they want to push it- they go into their behaviour with their eyes wide open. Just like we know that we will likely get a caution from the police for stealing a sweet, community service or a fine for persisting in this behaviour, and a definite prison sentence if we rob the sweet shop with a sawn-off shotgun- they should know the scales too.

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As a result, it is then much easier to deliver sanctions later on in the process as they should know what is coming. Then they can never accuse you of not being clear with them, of shifting the boundaries or ‘oh I wouldn’t have done that if I’d known’ excuses. The responsibility for their behaviour and the consequences is then firmly at their feet. The upshot is that your sanctions then become less personal, and potentially less damaging to your relationship with them. You are just moving along a scale. The sanction then is about the scale, not directly about their relationship with you and your relationship with them.

When using a referral sanction, remember you still have work to do.

Sometimes however behaviour escalates to such a point that heavy duty sanctions are required. In these cases they may need to be referred to someone more senior for more ‘biting’ sanctions, be it senior management, the police or the courts. However when doing this you must remember that you still have some vital work to do if you and the angry young person before you are not to take very many steps backwards in your relationship and your endeavours to help them.

Make it clear to them that their behaviour has left you with no choice.

Make it clear that you would do this with anyone and that you are not singling them out. This is particularly important as their skewed paranoid view of the world will probably lead them to think that they are being unfairly treated and you are making too big a deal of the situation. Your sanctions scale will greatly assist in this.

Make it clear that you are interested in hearing why they felt they had to kick-off.

Explain that the outward behaviour needs to be dealt with by someone more senior, or by the police, or the court if they are now in breach of an order, but that you are still interested in helping them to get to grips with their anger. All is not lost.

Make it clear that you are disappointed within the context of progress made, but all progress is not ruined. Keep looking forward.

Teens are very ‘all or nothing’, and the same applies to how they judge themselves. If they slip up slightly, they think that everything is ruined. This can really hinder them from continuing to make progress. They experience deep shame and a sense of uselessness and will disengage. Their anger at themselves adds to their anger pot, which will soon bubble over again.

The frustrating thing is that often everything is ruined when they slip up, but only because they thought it was and disengaged, rather than because it really was. This is yet another classic teen self-fulfilling prophecy.

So it is very important to keep them motivated to change and to see that they can still move forward. Often keeping the motivation alive can be achieved by exploring with them how their behaviour made them feel and how it made you (or any other ‘victims’) feel. By highlighting how the experience was a negative one for all concerned, you can then recommit to helping them address their issues. You can then explain to them how all is not lost, and that you can continue to make progress.

Clearly the reality sometimes is that no progress will have been made prior to the outburst. In this case your emphasis should be on exploring with them how their outburst made all concerned feel as a way to try and get them to the mental place where they will contemplate trying to change their behaviour.

Cultivating a sense of ‘all is not lost’ is obviously much easier to demonstrate when your working relationship with them will continue after the incident. However when a sanction involves a permanent exclusion from school say, then the relationship is most likely over. However, if you have previously made progress with them, then explain to them that although you will not be able to work with them again, that they have made progress and that they can continue this, even if you are not there. Explain that efforts will be made to find someone to further support them in this but they are the captain of their ship, always have been and always will be. Anyone working with them is there as an assistant navigator and the direction they steer their ship is up to them.

Due to their attachment difficulties it is important that they also realise that they have not been rejected, but that their behaviour makes it impossible for them to stay. They can still make progress.

This is where the role of a mentor external to your organisation can be so vital. Your teen can hopefully form an attachment with someone who is not tied to a school, a youth club etc. This means that if they have to leave your organisation that they are not completely cast adrift, as it often seems to them, as they will have their mentor who will follow them wherever they go in life. So if you have a young person who is sailing close to the ‘exclusion wind’ try and find a mentor before and not after an exclusion. This way the damage of the exclusion to the young person’s progress will be significantly reduced.

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By choosing and delivering sanctions appropriately and openly with teens and seeking to help them understand the process and why you have to use them, any potentially negative relationship effects of sanctions can be minimised. Yes, they may go off in a ‘huff’ but if you give them time and if they have the opportunity they will likely eventually return. Even if they do not physically return, it is still likely that they will take a great deal from the sanctions process if delivered well and will reflect on it in the future.

Why? Because although they didn’t treat you fairly and well when they got angry, you treated them fairly and well. Although they didn’t communicate with you and others well when they got angry, you communicated well with them. Although they didn’t stick to the rules and the ‘system’ when they got angry and they made everything unpredictable, you stuck to the sanction scale and the system and made everything predictable. Although they got behaviourally lost, you were still there as their signpost. Although they chose to make the wrong choice, you always chose to help them make the right choice. Although they tried to reject you with their behaviour, you didn’t reject them, even if they did have to leave. Although they thought all hope was lost and everything was ruined, you showed them hope and how to rebuild.

You were the adult in all this. You gave them the stability, the security, the clarity and the guidance that they needed. And you showed them all this, not only in the good times, but in the bad, when you needed to dish up sanctions.

We therefore should not overly worry about sanctions damaging working relationships. Sanctions well applied can show young people how to live within limitations, to behave honorably, fairly and to have hope for positive change. It shows them how to have a relationship of respect based on measured calm actions rather than hot-headed knee-jerk angry reactions. Often the biggest lesson for them is in how sanctions are delivered rather than what the sanction is.

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4 comments On The Anger Balancing Act: sanctions vs relationship?

  • Stephan Friedrich

    Firstly, great blog!
    Whilst I agree with what you have written about the importance of sanctions, youth workers often work with children and young people who are experiencing the traumatic aftermath and abuse. In this case deliberate consequences may aggravate existing damage, as their behaviour may not actually be in their control but an after effect of complex traumatic triggers. Its not an easy job but attention needs to be paid to the possibility of trauma-related inappropriate behaviours. there is a related article on this, and the difference between a consequence and a punishment here:

  • Hi Stephan,
    Thanks for commenting and drawing my attention to your great blog!
    I completely agree that we do need to be really careful and sanctions / punishments blindly applied can be completely counterproductive. My ‘big thing’ is that we always need to try and understand where their behaviour is coming from so that we can appropriately deal with it in an individualised way and so hopefully the inappropriate applications of sanction / punishments can be avoided. This possibly wasn’t as clear as it could have been in this post, but is an underlying thread that runs through my posts. So thank you for emphasising this as an issue for others to consider.

  • Stephan Friedrich

    I really like what you say about sanctions and working relationships. I think I agree that once we build a strong and safe relationship with a young person, that sanctions are seen less as an attack and more as an act genuine caring, something that is often absent from a young person who has a traumatic history. Well said! Connection and relationship creates the conduit for better behaviour and self worth.

  • I enjoyed your post on empathy. This post reminds me of an ADHD pdoc who said that if you have a good relationship with your kids , rewards and consequences will be more effective. I responded – if there is a good relationship and communication parents and teens can solve problems collaboratively and engage in restitution in an autonomous way

    The most that imposed sanctions and consequences teach a teen is to ask what will happen to me if …. so better not get caught next time etc . Teens should be helped to ask ‘ what type of person do I want to be and how do my actions impact on others. The question is not about being soft, tough or fair but dealing with the issues. sanctions don’t teach lagging skills, compassion or empathy. Instead we should be trying to solve problems in a collaborative way addressing both the concerns of adults and the teen and come up with a better plan. Once a teen has a vision of the future – his basic needs of autonomy, relatedness and competence are being met he is in the position to address the past. Instead of imposed sanctions we should allow the teen to engage in an autonomous way in the moral act of restitution . Sanctions take the responsibility from the kid and the adult is now responsible for behavior.The need for sanctions stems from how people view ‘ accountability ‘ -paying the price, fine, jail sentence or engaging in restitution and creating a different vison for the future – a better plan. Restorative justice is a move in the right direction

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