Some Aspects of Damage and Restitution, 1953

Barbara Dockar-Drysdale.

During the years 1952 to 1953, Dr Emmanuel Miller allowed me to attend case conferences every Thursday in the department of Psychological Medicine of St George’s hospital. I found these conferences most exciting and stimulating: discussion was invariably very interesting, and therapists were undefended in talking about difficulties as well as successes.

One day Dr Miller suggested that I should read a paper to the team about some aspect of my work at the Mulberry Bush. ‘Damage and Restitution’ was the first paper I had ever written, and I was anxious and uncertain; but at least I would not be talking to strangers! In fact, the paper met with a warm reception and was followed by a discussion which helped me to gain insight into several problems. Dr Miller asked me to submit this first manuscript to the (then) British Journal of Delinquency, where it was published. I remember that Dr Edward Glover helped me to reconstruct the paper, and gave me invaluable advice.

My choice of subject was important, since I was at that time struggling to communicate my first experiences with emotionally deprived children. I was thankful for Aichhorn’s Wayward Youth (1935), but I nevertheless found it difficult to show the justification of a treatment approach which accepted destructive behaviour as often inevitable.

Nowadays I would be talking about annihilation and creation, rather than damage and restitution. I would not now believe that all children are capable at any time of making restitution. I certainly needed to believe this at that stage of my own evolvement. However, there is much in this first paper which links with the work which we do today, and I am glad that there is some measure of continuity in the evolvement of our treatment approach.

The following notes are based on the practical experience of the Mulberry Bush School. That such experience should be possible is due to the work of the pioneers in this field; above all, is due to the work of August Aichhorn, who, having succeeded in modifying public opinion, was able to pursue unorthodox methods long enough to achieve success. He left ‘wayward youth’ a heritage, namely, the right to expect understanding and help from society in place of condemnation and punishment. We cannot copy him or those pioneers who subsequently worked in this field. However, their individual successes have influenced the opinions of responsible people sufficiently to support new workers like ourselves, who are now able to experiment, with the encouragement and approval of society so that it has been possible for us to permit the damage and await the restitution described in this paper.

Considering first of all the question of attitudes arising in a school like ours in response to aggressive behaviour involving damage, we believe that a tolerant attitude towards all kinds of attack on things is necessary while the child is making a ‘safe’ positive relationship with an adult, thus leaving him free to express the hostile aspects of that relationship against inanimate objects and ideas. Most of the children who come to us have transferred their attacks from people to things. It is therefore undesirable for us to produce a situation in which it will be impossible for them to continue to use this mechanism. Before coming to us, they have probably been severely punished for damage to property; such acts of aggression provided for the time being, a safety valve which they will not need to employ when their attitude towards their parents will have been altered considerably. It is of course necessary during this process to keep a strong framework of community life, to enclose the child and keep him safe. Sooner or later, in fact, when a safe adult relationship is really well established, he will gradually express hostility towards this adult. From this point onwards, as the adult becomes the recipient of aggression and the child begins to value himself as an entity, destruction and damage will tend to occur less often. Once this solid foundation is laid, a long arduous struggle follows, culminating in a more moderate and normal relationship which must then gradually attempt to transfer to the parents.

Of course it is perfectly possible to forestall the stage of damage and destruction;
for example, by introducing the child to an environment which is so ‘grand’ that any attack on things would be intolerable for him, or to a code of behaviour with a series of sanctions and penalties so well established as to be unassailable.

It seems to me, however, that the heart of the matter lies in being prepared to ‘allow things to happen’ in order to permit other developments to take place. We have seen the sequence of events to which I refer take place again and again; we do not find the amount of damage done intolerable. We believe that the phase of damage is an essential stage in treatment; we do not believe that the same therapeutic results would be achieved were it possible to acquire completely unbreakable equipment of every kind.

There are certain aspects of such attacks on things which seem to me to be of particular interest, especially for the child. Many of the children who come to us are punishment-seeking, and, in consequence, self-destructive. Under certain circumstances it would seem that things can be projections of the child himself, and that in attacking things he can displace fantasy destruction of his own person. For example, an orphan who had spent four years in an institution was deeply preoccupied with his clothes. Under no circumstances could he tear them, dirty them, or lose them; he asked to be allowed to take complete charge of his garments, and was appalled by our own rather casual attitude towards these matters and the indifference of the majority of the children. This boy frequently required treatment for major or minor accidents: he was anxious and afraid of hurting himself, but seemed nevertheless to court physical disaster. After a time his attitude began to alter, and he started to tear and dirty his clothes like everyone else. At just this point he ceased to hurt himself, and actually said to me, ‘Isn’t it funny? I’m not hurting myself and I’m tearing my clothes’. Another child, a little girl, suffered from severe depressions and was a compulsive runaway. There was evidence of a connection between these flights and a passionate wish that her mother would leave her brutal and psychopathic father. It was either the acting-out of a wish, or a piece of sympathetic magic to make her mother give up her suffering role and run away. She was usually found by the river in a bitterly unhappy condition, and we found that she would always throw some garment – a dress, a shoe, a jersey – into the water. Had we not understood her behaviour, the consequences might have been serious.

Certain things may be symbolic to a particular child and singled out for attack because of their underlying significance. Should such objects be inaccessible, we have no opportunity to observe the particular mechanism. It is especially important that we should be able to do so, because it may actually be this very object which will eventually provide a field for restitution. The boy whom we remember as the ‘egg child’ is an example of this. This particular child smashed eggs, and this aspect of his behaviour symbolised an attitude to a younger brother which had been present for many years: had the larder been locked we might never have been aware of this fact. At a later date the ‘egg child’ kept hens!

In observing damage done to objects and attacks carried out upon people, I have been struck by the fact that, just as for certain children things may stand for people, so to others people may stand for things. There is, in this connection, a form of unprovoked attack against a person which does not suggest focussed aggression but rather damage done to something which might as easily have been a window or a piece of furniture. I would note that this behaviour can also be positive; for example I have watched a very disturbed child actually using a person as so much play material.

It seems to me that it is essential that the severely maladjusted children in the Mulberry Bush School should thus find their own special outlet for aggression, both for their own sake and because, unless we see these symptoms, we cannot have a complete picture of the child’s personality, and so cannot know how best we can help him. I am not suggesting for a moment that there should not be adequate provision for legitimate aggressive activities. These are, of course, essential, but they may not present precisely the opportunities needed by the particular child. I also think that we are unlikely to obtain a clear view of the way in which each child makes restitution unless such damaging behaviour is possible in the first place.

I wish now to consider restitution in its various forms. It is our belief that children who do damage strive consciously or unconsciously to make restitution, which may not be made in the form which is expected and recognised by the unwary adult. What response can the child expect? Should he be punished, and, if not, what can we do instead? One of the most frequent questions asked by visitors of all kinds including officials, parents, students and neighbours is, ‘What do you do about discipline?’

It is generally accepted that punishment in the form of a deterrent or retribution has no place in a community of mal-adjusted children. Enforced restitution is, however, often advocated. We consider that there is a wide gap between enforcing restitution and making available the means for spontaneous restitution. We feel that our response in any situation should be to the child’s state of mind rather than to his overt behaviour. I do not believe it is necessary to make a child aware that he has committed an antisocial act (as is frequently claimed) since, consciously or not, he will usually be aware of this fact. It may be argued that other children demand fair play in these situations; that (for example) the boy who has been attacked demands retribution, or the boy who ‘jumps the queue’ must be punished because this is what the group has a right to expect. This is not borne out by our experience with maladjusted children. It is very often the adult’s point of view which determines the outcome of such situations: we find that the child who has been attacked is completely satisfied by real sympathy on the part of the grown-up, he does not demand revenge. It is much more often the adult who seeks retribution rather than restitution; while the adult may claim that he represents the group’s wishes in asking for punishment, I feel that there are occasions when it will be found that really it is the group who reflect the adult’s needs in such circumstances.

In the normal course of social development the child accepts frustration provided that he is compensated with love, he meets demands in exchange for approval, and, in return for modifications made by the parents modifies his way of life to avoid clashes with the grown-up pattern. This appreciation of fair play seems to me to be very important and essentially restitutional amidst so much that is unfair in the child’s world. I have seen one boy compete with another for affection and approval, each gaining his needs by fair means or foul; the same children subsequently playing a nursery game with scrupulous fairness, one taking the lion’s share of attention but dividing the cake precisely in half. This whole question of what is fair, and what we are justified in permitting to happen here, often arises in the course of the discussion with visitors. I find that it is very difficult to discuss the question of response both to damage and to other forms of antisocial behaviour without arousing anxiety and hostility. In discussions with all kinds of individuals and groups, I have been struck by the surprising ready acceptance of the concept of restitution in place of punishment. It seems important at this point to stress the difference between enforced restitution and that which is made naturally in answer to the child’s own needs. It should also be pointed out that there is a contrast between the making of restitution and self punishment.

It would seem, from the normal behaviour of young people with their mothers, that there is a trend towards restitution from an early age. Little children do seek to make amends to their mothers. There are circumstances in which we can recognize regaining rather than merely gaining approval (which may surely have been lost through refusals to meet mother’s wishes and demands, with subsequent guilt arising from feelings of hostility towards the subject of love). What is there so different here from the situation in our school for the emotionally immature child? Here again he refuses demands, is conscious of inadequacy, has hostile feelings and guilt thereafter.

The educational field seems to us to offer a wide variety of means by which restitution can be made (there is so much ‘making good’ to be done in terms of word building, writing patterns or rows of figures); that this aspect is present in school work has been more than confirmed by our experience here. If the attempts of little children at restitution be unrecognised (as when a child pulls a carrot from the earth and puts it straight into his mother’s stew), how much less likely are those of older children to be appreciated in their true light? For example, we once had at the Mulberry Bush a boy who adopted the role of tender and indulgent mother towards a much smaller child; from what we subsequently learnt about him it became clear that he was acting the part of his own mother making restitution towards her rejected child (himself).

‘Normal’ children can more easily tolerate the frustrations and demands of moderate discipline including such punishments as may be regarded in the light of enforced restitution, since this is in fact a pattern already accepted by them in the course of development (during weaning and habit training, for example). Should, however, their first experiences have been very unsatisfactory, this clear pattern will not have been formed; although so strong is the trend towards restitution that I suspect that there are frequent cases of distorted attempts to make amends which may even be actually antisocial in character and by no means easy to recognise. Restitution may not be the only component of such attempts. As an example I can quote from the case of a boy of whom we heard who was playing with a clothes line when his younger brother was drowned elsewhere. The death of the younger brother was in no way the child’s fault, nor was this suggested by the parents, but subsequently there was a startling change in his personality and very aggressive behaviour became apparent (he had hitherto been a very gentle child). Among other episodes there was one in which he tied up a cat with a piece of rope in a way that seemed cruel. It is possible, however, to detect in this incident an element of restitution; a discussion of his problems in the course of treatment revealed that he felt that he could have saved his little brother with a rope.

When attempts are made to enforce restitution on children with a very abnormal history of emotional development, resistance seems natural: the child has been either building up a strong resistance to his own wishes to make restitution, or he has already satisfied these deep wishes by finding some distorted way of making restitution which will not be recognised as such by others, or, indeed, by himself. He will, therefore, be unwilling-and unable-to adopt a new pattern of response, at first. These are the children who frequently find their way to a school for maladjusted children, and it will readily be appreciated that punishment has no place in treatment. They need opportunities for destructive activity and for making restitution in their own way. The form which both will take depends very much on the child’s particular personality and history. We have found that these children behave in an antisocial manner; they damage, break, steal and the like, but so very secretly that both the antisocial acts and the restitutive activities tend to remain unrelated to the individual children involved.

We find it essential to allow ample scope within the framework of the unit for aggressive behaviour, and at the same time to provide opportunities for various forms of restitution from which the particular child can choose. We do not show approval and we do not adopt any attitude which might suggest approval; but we do not accept this behaviour as a necessary step in a process leading back to the meeting of demands and prohibitions of normal life. A small girl said to me, ‘Whenever I’ve been pinching a lot from the larder, it’s funny the way I want to work the washing machine.’ An older boy, having stolen and opened a tin of plums from the larder, proceeded to give some to a five-year-old, providing a bowl and spoon in the orthodox manner. A girl, having stolen some money from my bag, polished all the furniture in my room. In none of these cases did the children consciously relate the atonement to the desire to make restitution, although it became relatively easy to guess what type of aggressive behaviour has taken place merely by reference to the means of restitution chosen by particular children. I cannot see why it should always be necessary for the kind of reaction to be consciously recognised as such either by the grown-ups or by the children concerned.

It is impressive to note how real and effective a hostile wish may seem to the ill-wisher. I have seen children at the Mulberry Bush make actual amends for fantasised damage, among themselves and in everyday situations. The tacit acceptance of such atonement, whether offered by a grown-up or a child, is often surprising and interesting. Parents who come to the Mulberry Bush frequently make restitution to the children, who may give clear indication that they appreciate the nature of the action. For example, a boy said to me, ‘Mummy has sent me a big parcel because she hadn’t been to see me recently. When she has been to see me she feels a small one is alright.’ Children also show themselves to be aware of these needs in their parents, by making suggestions as to the form the restitution should take; suggestions which may give clues to the relationships existing between parent and child. Sometimes the mother’s problems seem to put the child in a position to demand appropriate restitution on her part. We knew an adolescent boy who did not receive much care from his mother in babyhood; in his teens ha made demands on her exactly comparable to those of infancy – he demanded from her physical care, money, special meals at odd times, indulgence, comfort and consolation for the smallest trifles; she, weighed down by feelings of guilt, was thankful, to acquiesce in these demands in the hope of making restitution for the early deprivations.

I feel, therefore, that by punishing – that is to say, enforcing restitution in some specific form on the disturbed child – the adult may not meet the particular child’s needs. He has, in fact, particular things he needs to give as well as to receive: by enforcing the specific form, the grown-up may be replacing the process of atonement natural for this particular child by an artificial form. It is not really necessary for the grown-up to know just how the child will make amends, if he can accept the fact that this will inevitably take place sooner or later, in some form or other. Given a favourable environment, most disturbed children will seek means of atonement suitable to their particular personality problems; since ‘make the punishment fit the crime’ is a well established slogan, we would suggest to teachers and parents this alternative, ‘let him who does damage in his own way make good in his own way’.

To sum up, I suggest that punishment not only anticipates but hampers and probably blocks the natural process of restitution, thereby preventing the further process by which the child may direct into constructive channels the hostile feelings which have led to the guilt and the need for making restitution. Restitution seems, therefore, to me to be a mechanism which may be out-grown as the need for it is removed; enforcing it by artificial means is like using aperients in preference to a healthy diet.

We must now consider some varieties of damage which we encounter in the course of work at the Mulberry Bush, together with the types of restitution we have been able to observe.

First of all there are the children who smash windows, bottles and cups. There are two types of smashers; the child who screams in a tantrum ’all right, I’ll smash a window’ and does so, and the child who smashes quietly and secretly. We had a boy at the Mulberry Bush who smashed a bottle nearly every day in a particular flowerbed. There are the ‘scoopers’ who scoop holes in plaster; in this group are often to be found the children who cannot make relationships-the ‘frozen children’. The true tearers are always girls; they tear their own clothes, sheets, counterpanes and so on: boys may tear, but usually with a practical end in view. Bed-breakers are another class; not all children vent their hostility on their beds, spring from spring, as it were. Destruction of educational material deserves a discussion to itself; the clean, tidy teacher and the dirty, untidy child, the clean, tidy textbook and the dirty, untidy exercise book have obvious connections.

Tearing of paper increases in the summer months, and the attack on walls and glass lessens. Plants may be pulled up, but not the plants which the children grow themselves. Branches are broken off trees, but this kind of destructive behaviour meets with disapproval from most of the children. It is perhaps worth mentioning the case of an enuretic who actually removed the rubber sheet in order to wet the bed. Tables and chairs seem to get broken through sheer hard use, rather than deliberate damage; cutlery may be burnt or buried-our losses in knives are extremely heavy. Pictures pasted on the walls are torn or defaced fairly soon, usually by small children. However, three posters of flowers remained on the walls for a year, and a row of posters depicting cheerful babies marching along, which was pasted on the wall beside the stairs, has never been damaged in any way during the same period.

Books are preserved astonishingly well by the older girls, but seem to fall to pieces in the hands of boys, and are the object of savage attack by the very young (of both sexes) who tear them up and burn them. Fires lit by adults are put out by groups of younger children; their own fires, however, survive. Tins of fruit may be pierced with penknives, bags of flour are stabbed, and the inside of a loaf of bread may be scooped out. Eggs are smashed, hair-brushes, clothes and shoes are burned on bonfires; door handles are removed and locks are broken.

This all sounds like a whole-scale destruction, but let us consider the other side of the picture. Not all the damage is done by all the children all the time; certain children do certain damage at certain times. Children who are recovering show great understanding of damaging behaviour to newcomers. The sum total is by no means disastrous, and we see to it that our equipment is either unbreakable or cheap and quickly replaced. What we have of value is kept out of harm’s way.

The spontaneous restitutive activities we have observed include the following. Children help with the housework (bed-making, sweeping and so on), they wash up, do laundry, wash floors or paint, distemper walls, paint woodwork, mend holes in plaster, repair beds, light fires, make cups of tea for grown-ups, give parties to other children, comfort and care for small ones and look after animals devotedly. They save up and spend money on parcels to send home to their families, make themselves very clean, decorate rooms, do jobs for all kinds of people from whom they have stolen (refusing to be paid), produce abnormally clean and tidy work in class, do carpentry (children have told me that wood used for carpentry is ‘a tree broken up’), make bowls of clay, etc., for presents to mothers, grow flowers and vegetables which they present to the staff, and buy or cook food for grown-ups (‘Here’s a cake for the gang’). It does not follow that a bed-mender emerges from a bed-breaker; although this is quite likely it is just as probable that he may be an ardent colour-washer. The girl who steals from me may not return the money, but she is quite likely to buy me a bunch of daffodils, and subsequently be able to speak of the theft and speculate as to its cause. These attitudes have proved perfectly acceptable to our domestic staff, who have the understanding which comes from human warmth and satisfactory experiences.

In conclusion, I would like to refer to the attitudes of visitors of all kinds, from parents to students, towards the damage which we allow to take place at the Mulberry Bush. Parents who have had experience of their child’s destructive behaviour and have often used many forms of punishment, mostly need and receive reassurance; they can face the fact that ‘here it doesn’t matter as it would in your own home’. It is essential that we should help to relieve their sense of failure. The fact that ‘this is different’ is comforting to them; we are not in competition with the child’s home; we speak therefore rather ruefully to parents of the damage done, of the mess and untidiness, at the same time stressing the medical care, the good food, and the outdoor country life. We do not suggest that such destructive behaviour should be tolerated at home; on the contrary, we sympathize with the parents’ difficulties. It is one thing to discuss the need for tolerance in the matter of wet sheets…. It is another to wash them. When clothing is fully destroyed we replace the garment; when parcels or presents are stolen, we buy others. When visitors other than parents have to be considered, our comments and explanations depend on the nature of the guest. The truth is really invaluable; for example, when an official asked, ‘Why don’t you lock your larder?’ it was possible to say ‘Because then the children couldn’t steal food’. It is one thing to note a broken window, but a different matter to learn that Tommy who has broken it has an abnormal EEG. We can point proudly to a missing brick at the top of a chimney and say, ‘Ah, yes, that was Georgie in his early days, when he started going up rather than out’, especially as we can talk of the Georgie of today who comes to visit us during his school holidays, and was described to us by his headmaster as ‘such a nice boy’. Some of the most interesting comments we hear are rationalizations made by visitors who are unwillingly attracted to something utterly strange and upside down. A Chairman of an Education Committee remarked: ‘I know what it is that I like about that place, it’s exactly like a public school.’

The length of the damage-making phase varies considerably in different cases, but it seems reasonably short. As children recover, and their feelings of guilt are relieved, they have less need to make exaggerated gestures of restitution; they help in quite a different way. It is difficult to define this difference, but one is aware that there is no longer an inner compulsion, they tend to ask for a job with pay and do it reasonably well but without desperate zeal. They have passed their Sturm and Drag period, and this is apparent in their attitude towards people as well as to things; once a charming delinquent boy, who had a history of a long series of unsuccessful foster homes, said to me (at this point in his progress): ‘I’ve got a new name for you, I’m going to call you Mrs Grumps because you don’t have to be wonderful now.’ It is the necessity for this weaning stage which indicates how essential it is to have mature workers who can rejoice when they find themselves to be superfluous.


There are various types of restitution. Firstly, the enforced restitution which is punishment; secondly, the restitution for which means can be made available; thirdly, the fantasy restitution which is carried out by the child in so distorted a way as to be unrecognizable; fourthly, the spontaneous restitution which the child will tend to make according to his own needs. We feel that a school such as ours must be able: (a) to make restitution available in various forms, (b) to recognise fantasy restitution as a step towards reality restitution, (c) to permit aggressive and destructive behaviour under controlled conditions, in order to make possible the return to restitution trends, with the consequent uncovering of basic feelings of hostility released by making restitution and relief of guilt feelings.