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Monday, May 27 2019

Perfectly Imperfect

This is a follow-up Newsletter from ‘The Impact of Abuse’ where I described the different outcomes of unpredictable or predictable abuse.  This article expands on the characteristics of those children who lived in a family where the destructive treatment was always the same.  As pointed out the people from this background felt they had to be better than, invulnerable, good/perfect, independent and totally in control.  In fact, they had to be ‘perfect’ or others would discover just how damaged they were.

Elene Aguiliar, the author of many books on coaching recently wrote about understanding perfectionism.  Despite not linking this need for perfection to an abusive childhood much of what she says helps us understand these children.  She recognizes that at the heart of perfectionism is a belief that, in order to be loved and accepted, we must strive to act and be the best all the time. Our very worth as a human being is tied to our perfection.

This belief has its core in toxic shame (see Newsletter 7th March 2017), the view that if I make a mistake I am a mistake and so to have any sense of worth I have to be mistake free! 

It is prudent to remind ourselves we are dealing with children with a damaged sense of self.  We all know, or should know perfection is unattainable but the striving to achieve perfection is at the heart of all real success.  We don’t want these children to stop trying but we want them to understand the reality of any situation in which they find themselves. 

When talking to students I used to tell them all that I am a perfect human.  Having engaged their cynical attention, they obviously knew how flawed I am.  I went on to explain that no human is perfect, I’m not perfect so I must be a perfect human!  By repeating this catch phrase, it became part of our shorthand communication and understanding that these kids rely on external validation, when they had made a mistake I could remind them that they are perfect.  This is possible when you have developed a genuine relationship with the child, you can correct the work without having them link this with their sense of self.

We all have a real tendency to see ourselves as being imperfect and that is how it should be; this allows us to have humility and compassion, we know we have flaws but still have a sense of worth.  We also can observe the faults of others without dismissing their importance.   The thing is, these kids not only see their acceptance being tied to being faultless they see others as perfect.  They will accept their validation or rejection without question, they have no autonomy.

To change this sense of toxic shame is a long-term project.  This belief is linked into the child’s emotional memory and any cognitive discussion will have limited success.  The secret is to set-up the lessons in such a way that the expectations are realistic, that is the child can achieve the goals at least 70% of the time.  It is a mistake to make the work too easy, kids can see through this but having a success rate that is significant will encourage real participation.

When giving feedback be careful of how you assess their work.  As children mature they need less praise and in fact teenagers are likely to reject those who praise them (see Newsletter Consequences Neither Punishment or Reward, 4th February 2018).  Make your comments about the work and their effort if appropriate, never say well done when you and the student know there has been little effort. 

You need to understand that when presented with new work these children will already be experiencing negative thoughts like:

I can’t do this ….

Everyone will laugh at my ….

I hate ….

They are already set-up for failure.

Too often I have seen teachers, who have little understanding of these dynamics make comments about the resulting poor efforts by the children saying things like:

What do you think you are doing ….?

Is this the best you can do……?

Why did you do that?

Comments like these reinforce the child’s self-perceptions and destroy any chance of developing a working relationship.  At best, the child will agree with the teacher, of course I can’t do this, at worst they will really resent that teacher.

As pointed out above, keep the feedback focused on the work.  When presented with their work acknowledge what has been done and suggest improvement using statements akin to:

How can we make this ….?

What can we do to ….?

What will it look like if ….?

Using this approach is conveying the message that you believe they can see a better way to do things, at least you are being inclusive and that is a sign of acceptance despite their lack of ‘perfection!

As the teacher you have to be aware of the emotional state they come to each task; their natural reaction is to resist ‘having a go’.  Don’t confront this but acknowledge it with the following type of statements:

You hate being told to do this work.

I understand you would much rather be outside.

I get you don’t like doing this type of work.

They still have to do the work, they are students and you have to teach curriculum but by telling them you know they don’t want to, gives them the message you care about them and appreciate the extra effort they have to make.  You can transform a determination to not even try into a feeling of at least being understood.

This Newsletter started addressing the problems those students raised with persistent patterns of abuse and their faulty belief that they have to be ‘perfect’.  The suggestions outlined will support a teacher’s efforts to develop an authentic sense of self in these students.  The same approach will work just as well for those students who think they are totally ‘imperfect’ and failures.  It is all about validating their humanity.

Posted by: AT 11:09 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, May 20 2019

The Impact of Abuse - it depends on how it happens

All abuse is damaging and will lead to life-long dysfunction unless the resultant impairment is addressed.  However, there is difference that will influence the way the dysfunction is expressed; it depends on how the abuse is executed.  For some kids, each episode of abuse will be the same, for others the form of abuse is varied, almost random and for some it is some mixture of the both. 

To understand how the difference caused by the manner in which the abuse is delivered, we need to examine the real behaviour variation as seen at the boundary between the child and others; that is, how the child deals with stressful interactions will reflect the manner in which they were abused.

When a child is raised in an environment where the abuse is predictable, that is there is a repetitive pattern, the child can develop behaviours that address this abuse in an attempt to minimise the impact.  For example, one type of subtle, consistent abuse I have seen during my time as a football coach has been the unreasonable sporting demands of a parent on their child.  For example, a small, immature for their age child has every right to feel scared of the physical contact expected in the sport and when he hesitates or ‘misses a tackle’ the father verbally abuses him in front of his peers.   

The thing is there is a persistent pattern to the abuse and so the child can learn a behaviour that either avoids the abuse or minimises the damage.  In the example of the football parent, I see children throw themselves into positions where they are certain to be hurt.  However, the physical pain is preferred over the abuse and rejection of the father.  

In contrast to this patterned abuse is the abuse that is unpredictable, that is there is no clues in the child’s environment that allows them to anticipate their parent’s actions and make an adjustment to their behaviour to avoid, or minimise the resultant ill-treatment.  This sort of environment is most common in families where substance addiction or psychotic mental illness is prevalent.  How the parent treats the child is linked to how they feel and how they feel is dependent on what part of the addiction/psychotic cycle the parent is on.

This inability to predict what will happen develops a sense of hopelessness in these children, that they have no control over their life and so their behaviour becomes erratic with no apparent purpose especially in times of stress.

The difference between these two extremes of response to abuse can be illustrated by examining how they relate to the following characteristics:        


The children from unpredictable environments feel:

  • Less Than – These kids, through their sense of worthlessness and shame never feel they are really entitled to have their fair share of life.  When they are rejected, or by-passed, their response is not to stand up for their rights but say what they think ‘it doesn’t matter’ because they think they don’t matter.
  • Vulnerable – They are unprotected from unwanted boundary intrusion, at any level as well as lacking the ability to get their own needs met through establishing healthy relationships.
  • Bad/Rebellious – Remember it is their sense of self that shapes their reality and because they have felt their abuse was because they deserved it, they were bad and so they feel this way.  Then, in some act of defiance they confirm this opinion by their actions.  It’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy – ‘so you think I’m bad well I’ll just show you how bad I am’!
  • Dependent – Because they have no sense of competency, no belief they can do anything properly, because of their toxic shame, kids with no protection of their ‘core’ depend on others to make decisions for them.  It is an extreme example of them having an ineffective boundary.
  • Out of Control – This is the result of the inconsistent life they have lived.  How could they have a sense of control when the have never experienced consistent consequences for their actions.  When they make decisions, they have no prior knowledge about what will happen and so they make their ‘best guess’.  In lots of cases these kids watch what their friends do, unfortunately the only kids that hang around them are those who exploit them and have the same deficiency in decision making for the same reason.

These ‘out of control’ kids are easy to recognise, in fact they demand our attention.  Their behaviour destroys the environment for others as well as themselves.  The kids without boundaries, or extremely soft boundaries will act impulsively and with dysfunctional behaviours, learned in their dysfunctional homes. 

At the other end of the spectrum are the children who have been abused in a more consistent manner.  They display the following characteristics:

  • Better Than – Because they had to be just what their parent wanted them to be even if this was not to complain, getting the decision on how to act was important, it had to be ‘just right’.  They effect this need to be right, or more probably the danger of getting things wrong made it important for these kids project a successful image.
  • Invulnerable – The inflexible boundaries function to stop others from ‘getting in’, that is finding out how they really feel.  Regrettably, this emphasis on preventing authentic contact with others limits opportunities to get their own needs met.  This being locked in makes them appear and feel invulnerable but the cost is isolation.
  • Good/Perfect – Much the same as ‘Better Than’ this characteristic is also a result of the earlier need to make no ‘mistakes’ when dealing with their abuser.  Part of the features of an abused child is hypervigilance and so these kids are well aware of how to avoid behaving in a way that will give the other person an excuse to punish them.
  • Independent – Because of the walls, the rigid boundaries they have built around them, they really don’t feel they have access to the support of others.  There was no ‘help’ when they were young and abused and so they never risked depending on another person.
  • Total Control – It is no surprise that these kids don’t take risks, it is too dangerous if you make a mistake and so they take control of their life.  The tragedy is that the behaviours they use to ‘control’ their environment are the ones that deny opportunities to satisfy their own needs. 

It would be a mistake to think abused kids will be exclusively down one side or the other.  There is a tendency but you need to think of this as a matrix where a child could be a mix across five continuums.  For example, a child might have the following profile:


For the child who fits this profile you could expect to be a bully.  Even though we can make a judgement about these kid’s behaviour remember, this is not we think about them but how they think of their self.  Bullies, unless corrected during their childhood remain bullies all their life.  This profile, with the ‘Dependence’ and ‘Out of Control’ could portray the profile of members of extreme groups such as the white supremacist or out-law bikers.

The characteristics described above are, of course a crude attempt to have something to hang our discussion on when describing these children’s sense of self which in turn defines their reality.  It is never as simple as these five and of course every individual varies. 

It is tempting to conclude that the middle ground is where a healthy individual’s sense of self should be.  It seems right that:

  • No one is less or better than anyone else, we are unique, have our own DNA and experiences and so comparisons are a waste of time.
  • Should we never make ourselves vulnerable to others?  Many be in intimate relationships we may need to trust another to expose ourselves.  But the cost of being hurt is great.  If we are invulnerable then we miss out on the intimacy that requires trust.  So, again the ‘middle ground’ is a tempting rationality.
  • No one is good or perfect just as no one is bad or rebellious, we can all do bad things or good things but we are not our actions even though others will define us by those actions.
  • We are social beings and so we do depend on others to get our needs met; society is set-up to share.  Therefore, we can’t survive if we are totally independent.
  • It is tempting to commend a totally in control position.  This work has always had the aim of teaching these kids to control their behaviour.  But, that is to the extent that they are coming from a position where they don’t understand they can control their life.  If and when they do develop a functional suite of behaviours then it is time to expand their knowledge and to do so they need to try new things, they need to take risks, they need to let go of their control.

The truth is there is no proper position of the characteristic continuums presented but for every situation there will be a ‘best spot’ from which you can act.  Sometimes it is suitable to be independent and others dependent when to take that position or the infinite variations between these extremes depends of the situation you are in.  The question ‘what is really going on’ is the key and is the key to setting functional boundaries.

Posted by: AT 12:44 am   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, May 13 2019


What's the Chances?

At the centre of good classroom management is a structured discipline and welfare policy that provides known consequences for actions.  The secret is to make the child understand the connection between what they do and what happens as a result of that action.  Of course a 100% connection is not a reflection of the real world.  There are many consequences that can be linked back to any action.  For example if I speed on my way to work I could get to work early, enjoy the thrill of driving fast, be booked for speeding, have an accident, kill a pedestrian, there are a lot of possibilities that can follow my action.  So why is the tight link between the child’s actions and the consequences you deliver so important?

The objective of these Newsletters focuses on those students whose behaviour is severely dysfunctional however, the techniques we present will support all students.  Our premise regarding those with severe behaviours has been that for the vast majority of the kids their problems can be traced back to an abusive/neglectful childhood. 

In previous newsletters we have discussed how memories are formed and that those memories direct our behaviour.  As a child we have a need and we try an action.  If that satisfies the need we ‘remember’ it and when the need returns and we try the same action that memory gets stronger until it becomes our habit.  If the action doesn’t get a result memories are not formed.  This is at the heart of some of the behaviours we have discussed elsewhere, if throwing a tantrum worked once then I will try that again and if it continues to be effective that will become the habitual behaviour.  As we know that’s fine until you try to get that need met in a different environment.  Kids from these environments had a sense of control in their formative years but the tools they learned to get that control were specific to an environment that clashed with the one considered to be ‘normal’ such as the classroom.

For children who live with addicted parents or those with severe mental illness there is a lack of any predictability in their life.  Addicts and those with unstable perception do not provide an expected connection between the consequences they deliver for a child’s action and so the child can’t effectively learn how to behave. 

For example, if the son of an alcoholic gets into a fight and his father finds out the reaction from the father could be:

  • A belting for hurting the other boy
  • Getting a great deal of approval for being tough
  • Ignored
  • Being taken down to the other kids house to apologize.

The list goes on but in reality these and many other consequences the father dreams up are delivered depending on the ever-changing mood and perception of the father.  The result is the child has no idea that what he does influences what happens to him.

The children from families appear ‘out of control’, dependent, vulnerable and just ‘bad’ but this is because they have no sense of control yet they still have the needs they try to satisfy.

How we can help these kids develop a sense of control is by attaching a most predictable consequence for their actions.  Developing the link between actions and consequences is where the rules come into play.  For example if they talk inappropriately in class they get the same consequence, or maybe a sequential set of consequences they expect.  This is why the mantra of being consistent and persistent in your delivery of consequences is critical if you want them to develop that sense of control.  If they get this sense of control in your classroom there is a chance they will develop the confidence to use that capacity into the world.

The other thing you can teach them is that life is not really that predictable.  Take the example of me speeding while driving to work; some of the possible outcomes I could get are getting to work early, enjoying the thrill of driving fast, be booked for speeding, having an accident or kill a pedestrian.  Only two of those consequences are in any way beneficial for me.  They are getting to work and being thrilled by my speeding but I certainly don’t want the remaining three consequences.  Of course the probability of these things happening varies.  I suspect that the chances of killing someone is not very high and I’m most likely not going to be caught BUT if I do speed I must accept that every one of those possible consequences could occur and that they would be my responsibility.

So, we teach the kids, yes there are probabilities and more likely than not you will get away with acting in an inappropriate manner but eventually that consequences you did not want will come up.  As I said to the kids, ‘well your number has come up, you knew that could happen so accept it is your responsibility’.  If you never want to have a particular consequence never do the action that can extract that outcome.

Linking actions to consequences is the greatest empowerment you can give to these damaged kids.  Not only will it make their position in life more powerful it provides you with a ready-made language to manage your classroom.

Posted by: AT 08:20 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
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John R Frew
Marcia J Vallance

ABN 64 372 518 772


The principals of the company have had long careers in education with a combined total of eighty-one years service.  After starting as mainstream teachers they both moved into careers in providing support for students with severe behaviours.

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