By Bruce T. Anderson, LCSW
I'm not sure if it was really late at night or really early in the morning when I got the call. The police had just picked Annie up and were returning her. She was frantic and on the verge of losing complete control. They had placed her in handcuffs, which seemed to control her aggression, but they were not able to stop the profanities and threats flowing from her mouth.
Annie couldn't remember how old she was when her father abandoned the family. Actually, she couldn't remember much about him at all. What she did remember was raising her four siblings. As an alcoholic, her mother seemed incapable of even taking care of herself. Annie did what was needed. She always had. She promised herself that her brothers and sister would be safe even if she hadn't always.
Eventually, when a perceptive teacher began questioning the bruises that Annie had worn to school an investigation followed. Annie and her siblings were taken out of the home and placed in a series of group homes. However, for reasons she didn't understand she was never placed in the same group home as they were. She continually feared for their safety, but she would not reveal the secrets that only the family knew. As a result she seemed to live in a near constant state of anxiety that was seldom understood by those around her.
Word came to her, delivered by her social worker, that her mother had entered a rehabilitation program in an effort to have her kids returned to her. At least that's how it was explained to Annie. The anxiety in Annie didn't ease.Â
To demonstrate her commitment to her kids, or maybe just to ease the humiliation of having the State prying into her affairs, Annie's mother relocated to Hagerstown after successfully completing the treatment program. She was now only ten miles from Annie and in proximity to demonstrate her new dedication to motherhood.
Several months later Annie was not surprised that her mother had not contacted her. She understood. What she did not understand was why her brothers and sister had been returned to her mother's new home. Annie had been the parent and she feared for the safety of her family. Her anxiety could no longer be contained.
Her plan was to go to her mother's home. She ran alone. It was late at night and the roads were empty. When she found a bicycle in a yard she took it. Seven miles later the tires were flat. She abandoned it along the side of the road and continued on foot. A short time later the police found her walking along the same road. She was trying to get to her mother's home, but traveling the entire time in the wrong direction. She was going nowhere.
When I walked in the front door I was greeted with a cacophony of shouting. It was coming from Annie, and a rather distraught police officer. Surrounding them were several other police officers and two staff, none of whom seemed to be celebrating her return at the moment. As I approached I noticed the plastic cuffs she was wearing.
In many ways Annie is very much like everyone else. She has a need to be treated with respect. It is a big deal, especially when it is absent. I realized that Annie, like most youth today, held a belief that respect is a reciprocal value. That is to say, as long as a person treated her with respect she was obligated to treat them somewhat respectfully, or at least not disrespectfully. However, if a person were to behave towards her in a disrespectful manner the rules all changed. She would no longer be under any obligation whatsoever to show them respect in return. All respect is conditional and circumstantial.
Reciprocal respect feels right. We respect those who are worthy based upon their demonstrated behaviors. We have all heard the expression; "If you want respect you will get it just as soon as you start showing some!" It just makes sense!
. . . Or, does it?
Growing up Annie had never known respect at home. It was unrealistic to expect her to initiate such attitudes and behaviors under stress when the reality of respect was foreign to her. We could just as easily expect her to speak to us in Russian.
When I approached Annie she was still screaming obscenities. I stood directly in front of her and very quietly asked her if it was all right to remove the cuffs. She kept yelling at one officer with whom she was particularly upset. I stood between the two of them and looked her directly in the eyes. Again, almost in a whisper, I asked,
"Annie, why are you disrespecting me like this? Have I ever disrespected you?"
If someone would have slapped her in the face it could not have had a more dramatic impact on her. In an instant she stopped and looked at me. Clearly, she was processing what I had said to her. Had she disrespected me? She knew how painful it was to be disrespected. She explained, "I wasn't talking to you. I was talking to him." She looked directly at the officer. Certainly that made it ok.
"Annie," I spoke her name. Using a girl's name in a calm manner in the midst of a crisis can help to de-escalate a situation. "I don't like seeing you in these cuffs. Are you able to control yourself so that we can remove them?"
I realized that removing the cuffs at the moment might not be wise, but I could see her regaining control of her emotions as we spoke.
"Just tell him that . . ."
"Annie, I'm talking to you. Are you able to take control of yourself so we can take these off of you?"
She became quiet, and then told me, "Yes. You can take them off."
The officers weren't quite convinced, but complied when I asked to remove them. I lead Annie by the hand into the dining room and asked her to sit at a table while I went back and spoke with the officers.
If a youth has never known respect in her own home isn't it understandable when she fails to act in a respectful manner at those times when I think she should? It is also true that if I apply her own belief to her (i.e.: you will get respect when you show respect.) it may be a long time before I am obligated to respect anything she does.
It seems as if that is where the problem lies! A belief that grants respect when it has been earned is based on the actions of the individual. Instead, we need to look at the person herself.
In the first chapter of the bible in the book of Genesis we are told that God created mankind in His own image. If we can accept that as true then we realize that having been created in the image of the Creator Himself each person comes into the world with an inherent value to their being.
If that child then grows up with nurture and support she begins to realize over time the truth of her inherent value and learns to act and dream accordingly. However, if nurture and support are absent and in their stead is scorn, and abuse, a different set of actions and beliefs result.
If I presuppose that a person is created in the image of God, and therefore has inherent value then I must take the next step and choose to view that person as worthy of respect. Such a belief, or action (How powerful it is when respect becomes a verb!) is based not on the learned behaviors of the individual, which are often woefully lacking, but on the person they were created to be.
The problem is that when respect must first be earned it places complete focus on behavior. A person is deemed to be worthy of respect when they behave in a proper manner. That becomes quite confusing when different groups have differing standards as to what is acceptable for inclusion.
A teen's peers will often present standards different from the adults in her life. Youth are valued who: are attractive and slim, get good grades, are good athletes; or do drugs, don't care about grades and are willing to stand in opposition to authority; and the list goes on and on. It all becomes subjective unless we accept the truth of being created in the image of an unchanging God. It is easy to see why so many youth struggle with their own self worth when that worth is conditional and based on their ability to earn it on a daily basis according to changing standards.
Does the recognition of each individual as having inherent worth and value suggest then that we should be accepting and tolerant of behaviors that are clearly inappropriate? Should we just overlook the negatives in an attempt to make up for the nurturing the girl may have missed in earlier years?
We could do that, however, to do so misses the point of the true value of the individual. If a person has value and worth then it follows that what they do really does matter. Self is no longer the center of the universe. Accountability to others becomes important to help the individual grow from selfishness into selflessness. Correction of the individual youth helps her gain control of her own life. Whereas, punishment tends to flow from the feelings of an adult correction is the application of accountability that enables a youth to grow into a healthy adult.
As for Annie, she really was able to calm down that night and eventually went to bed. She never did return to her mother's home but managed to graduate from high school then went on to become a paramedic. After several years she joined the military where she served as a medic in Iraq. As of this writing she has completed her military service and along with her husband is raising her two children in Florida.
 Genesis 1:27