Living with Leo. By Evert Wilbrenninck.

 As a shared lives provider (SLP) my partner and I share our home with three young adult students who attend a special needs college. This constitutes part of the college provision.

The following reflective essay is an account of our struggles to live with a young man who steals from us. A case study is presented in quite a lot of detail and explored using the work of Donald Winnicott, drawing particularly on his paper ‘The antisocial tendency’. From this personal account the essay then considers the case study from wider societal perspectives. This provides an opportunity to reflect on the continuing relevance of Winnicott’s work in today’s society.


 Leo (name has been changed) came to live with us in October 2012. We took him in at short notice as we had a room available. This was to be his fifth change of residential placement at the college due to circumstances beyond his control.

At the time Leo was 20 years old and in his second year at the college. He has a diagnosis of Severe Receptive and Expressive Language Disorder and Severe Semantic Pragmatic Language Impairment.

Leo had normal milestones of development, but the family observed tantrums, delay in communication, anger and frustration from early childhood. From the age six he was in special education and went to residential school from the age of twelve. Leo is the oldest of four siblings. His parents are both actively involved in life as a family but have had periods of living apart and there seem to be some tensions within the relationship.

In September 2012 Leo had a mental health assessment following an incident where he had threatened to harm himself, putting a pair of scissors to his throat. He was drunk at the time of this incident. No further psychiatric input was recommended at the time and Leo did not engage with counseling that was offered. He considers it to have been a one off event and a thing of the past. During the assessment Leo mentioned his frustration with his residential placements to be a factor contributing to his distress.

Leo’s risk assessment describes him as a pleasant and easy going young man who however finds it difficult to inhibit his emotional impulses. When emotionally aroused  he has damaged property, absconded and been aggressive and hit out. He struggles to identify his limitations and may not realize when he is in danger or likely to be creating a dangerous situation. Leo is easily influenced by dominant peers and this leaves him vulnerable to bullying and exploitation. Leo drinks regularly and when under the influence of alcohol his ability to make decisions is further impaired.

Living with Leo: reflections on the first year

When Leo moved in with us I was looking for ways to get to know him, looking for things we could do together. It took me a few weeks to realize that he wanted nothing to do with me whatsoever and found my presence embarrassing. He did not want to participate in household activities and did not contribute in any way to the running of the house. He came down for evening meals and spent his time either hanging out with mates in town or in his room playing computer games or watching tv.

On the first weekend he got himself involved in a trespassing and bullying incident which led to police involvement. He denied having had anything to do with it but his version of events didn’t hold water.

In the first weeks we found Leo to be reasonably reliable to keep in touch by phone, to let us know where he was and when he would be back, or would need a pick up if the last bus had gone. We were giving him a lot of freedom and were quite anxious ourselves about how loosely we were holding him. However, Leo responded well to the trust we  placed in him and as he became more reliable we found ourselves more at ease with the freedom we gave him.

His return after the Christmas holiday felt good. He seemed to know that he was coming back to a safe and secure residential placement. He spoke about wanting to keep out of trouble and was avoiding places and people that might lead him into difficult situations. Even though he still refused to contribute anything to the running of the house and chose not to participate in any household activities, there was a sense of mutual respect and trust.

It was during the next half term that we found that £50 had been spent on one of our debit cards on i-tunes. When asked about this Leo readily admitted that he had taken the card to make these purchases. He said he was sorry and that he would pay us back. He managed a first £5 installment, but then failed to make any further payments. He got quite angry when confronted about this and said he couldn’t be bothered.

His parents paid us the money back when we informed them about the incident. They  told us he had also stolen from them. With Leo’s agreement we arranged for him to meet with the police at the house after the Easter holiday to discuss the incident but we did not press any charges.

We started to lock things away more carefully after that. There were other incidents of suspected minor thefts or opportunistic acquisition, a packet of tobacco, a wallet rifled through, household funds misspent, borrowed money not paid back. One morning I came down and found a series of obvious clues to tell me that Leo had been looking for money, and the lockable moneybox was missing. When I asked him about it, after a brief denial, he said the moneybox was hidden in the garage. He had used some tools to break it open and had taken £20, although there was more in it.

Towards the end of the summer term Leo made a very clear statement that he wanted to move out of our house and live more independently, but when he came back after the summer the urgency and the antagonism had gone out of this demand.

There was an incident in this new term where Leo had helped himself to cigarette filters in the middle of the night which were in a pot where my partner keeps her tobacco but also keeps a precious hollow duck egg which she has had for years. Leo had tipped up the pot, broken the duck egg and taken all the filters. When confronted with my partner’s distress, I had the impression, for the first time, that he was genuinely remorseful.

The Development of the Capacity for Concern

 It was difficult for me to accept that Leo wanted as little to do with us as possible. He made it almost impossible to get to know him and this aroused strong feelings of anger and resentment in us towards him. We felt very much taken for granted by him. Given  the unreliability of his previous placements it was however understandable that it would take some time for Leo to begin to believe that living with us would be anything more than an temporary arrangement. On the basis of his previous experience, we could not expect him to care about us.

What we were looking to achieve with him was a capacity for concern. Winnicott characterizes this as an ability to care, to mind and to both feel and accept responsibility. He sees this as an achievement which is essential for all constructive play and work (1963a).

The capacity for concern can only arise in infancy when the infant is an established unit which feels the mother to be a whole person. The infant’s instinct-drives make ruthless use of the mother and only to the extent that the mother is experienced as a whole person in her own right will the infant feel the need to make reparation. The good enough mother or environment then needs to reliably provide the opportunity for reparation.

The balance between spontaneous expression and reparation needs to be achieved over and over again and Winnicott highlights adolescence as an obvious case of this (1963a).

After just over a year of unreliable residential provision Leo was not willing to see me as a whole person. He was willing to use me to have basic needs met: food, shelter, transport. There is something ruthless and primitive about this which infuriates me. Yet when I can think about the capacity for concern as a developmental achievement I can get a hold on this. In the case of this 20 year old the capacity for concern has to some extent broken down and needs to be re-established.

In the face of anti-social behaviour one’s inclination is towards moral outrage. Feelings are aroused that want to impose strict rules and zero tolerance attitudes. Yet in the best case this would only result in compliance, which has little ultimate value (Winnicott, 1966, p92). Alternatively it would result in unbearable antagonism.

Winnicott presents the difficulties we encounter in the context of normal childhood development:

A normal child, if he has confidence in father and mother, pulls out all the stops. In the course of time he tries out his power to disrupt, to destroy, to frighten, to wear down, to waste, to wangle and to appropriate. Everything that takes people to the courts (…) has its normal equivalent in infancy and early childhood, in the relation of the child to his own home. If the home can stand up to all the child can do to disrupt it, he settles down to play; but business first, the tests must be made, and especially so if there is some doubt as to the stability of the parental set-up and the home (1946, p99).

To the extent that antisocial behaviour is a symptom of healthy adolescence no cure should be sought. As Winnicott says, the only real cure is maturation. He emphasizes how brave one is when being adolescent. This is not to be sentimental about adolescence: we should be challenged and meeting the challenge is part of the function of adult living. We need to provide stability, toleration and patience in meeting young people in this ‘doldrums’ phase of life and see them through the process of becoming responsible adults who can begin to identify with society (Winnicott, 1963).

The young person is looking for a secure relational framework: challenges need to meet enough resistance so that the young person can develop a sense of safe autonomy and personal freedom. Difficulties will arise when boundaries are either too rigid or absent (Ward, 2012).

The Antisocial Tendency

 Winnicot discusses the antisocial tendency (AST) in various papers over a period spanning more than two decades. (Winnicott, 1946, 1956, 1963a, 1963b, 1966, 1967). He first put the idea forward that antisocial behaviour contains a gesture of hope in an address to magistrates in 1946. As Christopher Reeves suggests, this may well have been meant to sound provocative and challenging in the context of political debate at the time and the generalization from his specific cases to delinquents may have been a large and unsubstantiated claim (Reeves, 2005). However, ten years later Winnicott is quite categorical that hope underlies the compulsion to steal (Winnicott, 1956, p106). I will hold this as a hypothesis in considering the case of Leo with reference to the 1956 paper.

 The AST is distinguished from delinquency in that it is considered to be part of normal emotional development. It is this aspect of development that Winnicott proposes to discuss in his paper and this is what makes it pertinent to the case of Leo. The concern is that the tendency can develop into an organized antisocial defense which is more complex to understand and harder to overcome.

Thinking about Leo’s lying and stealing as a developmental phase counters the feelings of trespass and outrage at his behaviour. It takes me out of my immediate reaction and upon reflection allows me to take a longer view. Leo’s dealings with the police highlight the fact that the developmental phase could develop into delinquency. My hope would be that adequate containment of his lying and stealing within the household may see him through a difficult phase without the complications of further involvement of the law.

Although Winnicott characterizes the AST as a developmental phase, and in his paper refers only to children, he says that the tendency can occur at all ages.

Winnicott characterizes two aspects of the AST: a destructive element which compels the environment to be important and an element which implies hope and underlies the compulsion to steal. He says this moment of hope is often wasted through mismanagement and intolerance.

The expression of hope arises out of a deprivation. Winnicott distinguishes deprivation from what he calls ‘privation’. Deprivation describes the loss of good experience, in privation there is no prior good experience.

Leo comes from a functional and loving family, not without problems, but one which can certainly be considered good enough. He has said that at first he was very enthusiastic about coming to the college, but soon realized ‘it was shit’. The repeated breakdown of residential placements will have contributed to this. It is of interest that his first theft was after he had been with us for two half terms. Would this be when he was starting to feel hopeful that his placement would last and that we would be able to provide him with what he was looking for?

Winnicott says that ‘at the basis of the AST is a good early experience that has been lost.’ (p110). Paraphrasing for Leo: An essential feature is the capacity to perceive that the cause of depression lies in an environmental failure and this is responsible for the urge to seek for a cure by new environmental provision.  The environment must provide new opportunities for ego relatedness as it was an environmental failure in ego support that originally led to the AST (p112).

‘The child who steals an object is not looking for the object stolen but seeks for the mother over whom he or she has rights.’ (p107) We have often thought of Leo as a little boy and when we do so his messiness and self-centeredness become more forgivable. Winnicott says that  a first sign of the AST is greediness and we see it in the way Leo can help himself to handfuls of biscuits. One way I have found I can build up some kind of relationship with Leo is by cooking him big breakfasts on the weekend. Increasingly I have a sense of a young man not ready for adulthood with all its pressures and responsibilities.

Our task as SLP’s is to be tested and re-tested in our capacity to stand the aggression, to prevent or repair destruction, to tolerate nuisance, to recognize the positive element in the AST, to provide and to preserve the object that is to be sought and found (p111).  Elsewhere Winnicott sums this up by saying that the key word is not treatment or cure, but survival. ‘If you survive then the child has a chance to grow and become something like the person he or she would have been if the untoward environmental breakdown had not brought disaster’ (1970, p196).

If we are able to respond to the gesture of hope by providing a reliable relationship there is a further step to be taken in which despair can also be integrated and ambivalence can be achieved. (1956, p111). Steven Tuber makes the link with Winnicott’s seminal paper ‘Hate in the countertransference’ (1947) to say that it is the acknowledgement of despair associated with unreliability of the environment that raises the possibility of a full and independent life (Tuber, 2008).

Another incident

Household money was now kept in a lockable cash box, which was kept in the drawer of a filing cabinet in the office. One morning I found that the cash box wasn’t there and we realized that Leo must have taken it, planning to break it open at a later time.

Strong feelings arose wanting him out of the house. Recently I had thought Leo was  more committed and settled with us and that there would be no more stealing. I therefore felt betrayed and hurt at what he had done and I wanted him to feel how I felt.

After the first wave of feelings I went to speak to him. I told him the money box had gone missing and asked him whether he knew anything about it. I could tell by his first reaction that he had taken it, blushing and looking away. He denied knowing anything about it. When I said he should know why I was suspicious of him, he became quite agitated, saying it had been a long time since he had taken anything and that we both had to trust each other. However, I felt he wasn’t angry enough. If he had really not taken it he would have taken much more offence at my implied accusation.

In the face of his denial I had to back off. It was a difficult position to be in because I could not prove he had done it and to demand to search his room would be very confrontational. After a long silence I left him with the request that if he had anything to do with it to please return the box to where it belongs and we would say no more about it.

Later in the day the money box had reappeared outside the office door. No more was said about this other than an acknowledgement and a thank you.

In supervision the question arose: why did he return the money box. My response was that it was a gesture of reparation, an indication that he did actually want to be with us and therefore I was pleased that I had found a way of offering him an opportunity to put things right.

To me it was an instance of Leo’s inability to link things up in his own mind, to have any sense of the possible consequences of his deeds. Although some planning was needed for the theft, I think it must have been quite an impulsive deed. Although he expressed no regret he did feel awkward when confronted with the fact of what had happened.

Docker-Drysdale says:

‘Many children steal as though they were sleep-walking; afterwards one finds that they remember very little about the actual act of stealing. They remember a rising tide of excitement and then they detach themselves from their moorings – that is to say, from all feelings of guilt or personal concern. If we merely punish them for such actions, we remove any chance of their reaching guilt; what we really need to do is to re-connect, or connect for the first time, this bit that can steal ruthlessly to the other parts of them’ ( 1990, p97).

A week later I had to update his care plan. Under the heading ‘what do people need to know about me’ I put ‘sometimes when I am desperate for money I can’t stop myself taking what I need if it is left lying around’. He accepted this. I was looking for a phrase he would be able to accept and which would also be acceptable to him for others to read. I absolved him of responsibility by presenting this as a condition which he cannot do much about. But by presenting it in this way he may be able to think about it. If he can start to think about it he may be able to do something about. He may be able to decide to do otherwise.

Can I see this theft as a sign of hope? For me in this instance the most hopeful aspect was his ability to make reparation. What is it he feels entitled to? What is he asking for?  If he is still stealing, are we providing him with what he really needs? The day after I cooked him a big breakfast and he seemed relieved that this was still being offered. We  avoided a major confrontation but nevertheless set a clear boundary. Is simply surviving the provocation therapeutic in itself? There were a few difficult days following this incident, hard to say whether this was related as many other issues arose, but by the end of the following week there was a feeling of reassuring trust and appreciation between us.

Learning disability

 Winnicott has little to say about children with learning disabilities. However, learning disability can be considered an added complexity in the biological and environmental challenges inherent in development. Winnicott describes three stages in the process of maturation from absolute dependence, then relative dependence where the distinction between ‘me’ and ‘not me’ has been made and finally an ongoing ‘working towards’ independence ( Winnicott, 1965). Sheila Hollins  suggests that the second stage ‘lasts much longer in children with learning disabilities and many will not mature beyond this (Morgan and Hollins, 2006, p27). This developmental perspective allows us to think of Leo as negotiating essential and relatively early maturational processes with an ambivalence towards independence.  I would hypothesize that he experiences his growing awareness of disability in the face of increased pressures to take on adult responsibilities as a secondary deprivation.

 Stepping out into the world

Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory provides a framework to think about different contexts in which we can think about stealing. Within the microsystem of Leo’s own family his behaviour can be expected to be contained as a passing phase of adolescence and as such can be considered to be part of normal development. (Winnicott, 1946, p99). His placement with us as SLP’s provides another microsystem within which his behaviour can be contained. The links between family, residential placement and college together form the meso-system within which Leo actively participates. This is influenced by the exosystem which includes external and indirect influences on Leo’s life such as residential management, social services, funding bodies, medical and mental health practitioners. This in its turn is embedded in the macrosystem of social policy and criminal justice as well as cultural and societal perceptions and attitudes about stealing (Bronfenbrenner, 1979). Winnicott presents the provision of containment on a continuum that becomes increasingly depersonalized and externalized, with the four walls of the prison cell as a last resort in the provision of the stability the young person is demanding. (Winnicott, 1946, p102). However, in considering Leo’s case in terms of Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems we find ourselves at a threshold. At the level of the mesa and exo-systems there is an ongoing effort being made to understand his stealing as a meaningful communication about his personal development. At the moment he is stealing from people who care about him, and maybe, encouragingly, he did not steal from us until he felt sure that we did care about him. His thefts do stir up powerful feelings which in the first instance demand retribution. One of my first responses has always been that I want him out of my house, that I cannot live with someone I cannot trust and that by withdrawing my care from him I will teach him a lesson. His theft provokes a thirst for revenge and I have often thought that if Leo was ever to use our debit card again we would press charges. In speaking to magistrates Winnicott said that the function of the courts was to give expression to potentially dangerous public revenge feelings so that the offender might be treated humanely (Winnicott, 1946, p98). Acknowledgement and discussion of our feelings in supervision takes the danger out of them and this allows us to remain thoughtful in our work with Leo. It makes it possible for us to continue to regard him with warmth and even affection and the surprise of this experience may well be much more effective than any attempt to ‘teach him a lesson’ (Ward, 2012). Leo will not encounter the same level of thoughtfulness and care in the criminal justice system and therefore I see this as a threshold. If we cannot provide Leo with what he needs in this stage of his emotional growth, he will ‘look a little further afield, looking to society (…) to provide the stability he needs’ (Winnicott, 1946, p99). And the further afield he looks the more likely his acts will provoke a harsh and punitive response from society (Ward, 2012).

So, what can we expect from society?

David Smith has written about a revival of interest in the emotional lives of offenders and the importance this has for understanding crime. He draws parallels with practices within probation services from the 1950s to the 1970s, linking this with the work of, amongst others, Clare and Donald Winnicott, specifically drawing on the element of hope expressed in the AST. Although he concludes that effective management of offenders depends crucially on relationships that ‘can accommodate the richness and contradictory complexity of clients’ experiences (Smith, 2006, p372),  he says this is unlikely to get the emphasis it needs in the face of  hostile public attitudes about the management of anti-social behaviour. Punitive attitudes often dominate the debate in politics and the media (Stevenson, 2012).  Morgan and Newburn refer to this as ‘the rebirth of populist punitiveness’ (2007, p1029). In a response to Smith’s paper and reviewing a body of literature which emphasizes the value of taking the time to listen, Herschel Prins writes that the ‘over-speedy and ill-considered response to matters relating to all forms of anti-social conduct is much in evidence’ (Prins, 2007). As Adrian Ward says: ‘what is critical for the young person is that the act needs to convey something to someone in a form which will be heard. If it is unheard it simply remains an act; if it is heard it realizes its potential as a communication’ (2012, p7).

This communication is even more at risk of being missed in young people with learning disabilities. Leo is diagnosed with Severe Receptive and Expressive Language Disorder and Severe Semantic and Pragmatic Language impairment. His special educational needs fall within the following areas: difficulties with social and communication skills, emotional and behavioural difficulties, vulnerability and anxiety, literacy skills, memory skills, fine and gross motor skills, skills of written expression, concentration and attention, planning and organizational skills. Nevertheless, on first meeting him one could easily miss any learning disability whatsoever. Leo would be one of those who are good at hiding their impairment (Simons, 2000; Edgerton, 1993). Studies have shown there is limited awareness or understanding of learning disability within the criminal justice system (Cant and Standen, 2007; Fyson, 2007) and this is compounded by the frequent changes in diagnostic nomenclature which may well reflect increased understanding amongst experts, but has the unfortunate side effect of impeding effective communication about learning disability in other domains (Fyson and Yates, 2010). Leo’s diagnoses of  Severe Receptive and Expressive Language Disorder and Severe Semantic and Pragmatic Language impairment are a case in point. Both describe aspects of autism and there is mounting evidence that clear boundaries between these conditions do not exist (Perkins, 2007).

The AST which in Winnicott’s view is a sign of hope will get a very different reception within welfare and criminal justice agencies. Anti-social behaviour orders were introduced under the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 and became instrumental in the government’s social control policies with the Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003. Fyson and Yates found that ‘there is an emerging body of evidence which demonstrates that young people with learning disabilities are at greater risk than non-disabled young people of being made subject to an ASBO’ (2010, p112). As for the effectiveness of this approach, they find that issuing ASBOs ‘with their particularly punitive bent and negative conditions (…) further set these young people up to fail’ (2010, p118).

Rod Morgan, speaking as Chairman of the Youth Justice Board, speaks of how offending youth become increasingly ‘unattractive trouble’ as they grow older. ‘As they approach adulthood they are increasingly regarded as undeserving. Punishment, not help; control, not support; contempt, not respect, is more and more their lot.’ (2006, p8) Drawing on the work of Winnicott, he emphasizes that the gaining of trust is the key to healthy human development. Failure to gain the trust of these young people will turn them into a threat to society that will cost us dearly (2006).

In discussing adolescence Winnicott says this is a developmental stage which society will permanently have to meet. He then asks: ‘has our society the health to do this? (1963b, p131). Richard Rollinson highlights several dysfunctional aspects of society that are pertinent to the case of Leo (2012). He mentions the active creation and encouragement of antisocial behaviour in the excessive consumption the economy depends on and the associated celebration of wealth and celebrity which privileges the individual over the community. This is a confusing world for any young person to identify with without sacrificing the ‘fierce morality’ that does not accept false solutions that is characteristic of adolescence. (Winnicott, 1963b, p129). There is a tendency to idealize childhood and then demonize youth. Society demands compliance which for Winnicott would be the abandonment of hope for change. We also make unrealistic promises to children and young people which deny ‘the scrapheap culture for the non- and under-achievers’ (Rollinson, 2012, p116). I believe this is particularly true in the world of special needs and has much to do with carers’ and other professionals’ inability to live with feelings of despair.


In our role as SLPs we are in a position to develop the quality of relationship Smith (2006) refers to. We have the time to listen as long as we can keep the space open by refraining from acting on our first impulsive feelings in the face of transgression.

Winnicott’s  paradoxical statement that hope underlies the compulsion to steal can help us to keep that space open. It does not provide us with a quick resolution as in the case study he presents in his paper (Winnicott ,1956).  On the contrary, our capacity to continue holding Leo is regularly tested to breaking point. However, we can work with an attitude that remains open to whatever development is possible if we do not react conclusively.

Our hope is that Leo will be able to achieve a level of integration in the time that he has left with us that will keep him out of the courts. If he turns to delinquency the containment he encounters in society as an adult is very unlikely to meet his deeper needs.

Winnicott suggests that simply surviving the encounter is therapeutic in itself, but the task is a complex one as we navigate our way between collusion and confrontation in our responses to Leo, never knowing with certainty what the way forward is and often questioning whether our work with Leo is effective or meaningful at all.

Wilfred Bion uses the phrase negative capability to describe a state of mind that a therapist should strive for. It is a phrase coined by Keats to describe a capacity for ‘being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason’. Bion recommends this not as a technique to apply to clinical sessions but as a way of life (Symington and Symington, 1996, p169).  It aptly describes a capacity we continuously need to develop as SLP’s to survive living with Leo.


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