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Staff comments to youth

2015

I am at University student taking my Degree in Child Studies - Majoring in Child and Youth Care Counseling. I work in the field in residential care and started my practicum in September. I really love my job and it is great! I am lucky enough to say the same about my practicum. It has been wonderful! I have learned so much and am always interested and excited to go. It is something very different that I have never done before and I have a great team around me. I have met some amazing people who are so insightful and so inspiring. I couldn't be happier.

While I am at work I am surrounded by a team where I feel very equal and like my voice and opinions matter. If I have concerns or suggestions I know exactly who to take them to and what processes or steps I can follow. This has been an issue with my practicum. I am the only student in the facility at this point and I find that I have had trouble with figuring out the ropes. I have come across one situation and I am not really sure how to approach it. 

I have found that some of the staff sometimes make comments that I do not find appropriate. It has been made clear to me (and I totally understand the reasoning behind this) that the staff try to communicate with the youth using language that they can relate to. Sometimes the staff will swear or use vulgarities when talking. This is something I understand because there is a reason for it and it’s not used to hurt the youth, just as a tactic to relate to them. But there has been times where I think that this has gone a little too far.

To give one specific example: One day last week I was with 2 full time staff and multiple youth. One youth accidentally dropped some papers to which one of the staff members strongly told the youth to "Pick it up and organize it now." This person then looked at the other staff and said "Why is everyone here so stupid?".  Although they did not directly say this to the youth, it was clearly about them. In my opinion, I'm sure these youth have been called names and been told they are stupid enough times in their lives. I feel like we are suppose to be supporting them and helping boost their self confidence and self worth, not lowering it.

I am aware that I should be taking this to my supervisors and speaking with them about my concerns and I intend to do that if I cannot get this resolved at their level. My question is: What are some tips or suggestions on how to approach this staff member before taking it to a higher level? I am concerned that this person has been working this same job for so long that they are just not aware of how hurtful some of their words may be. I am concerned I may come across as a "know-it-all" student trying to tell a senior staff how to do their job which is not my intention at all.

Thank you for all suggestions :)

Regards,

Jen
...

Jen,

Good for the kids you work with that you are present for them and willing to advocate and step out of comfort, and into possibility.

I’ve been reading a lot about shame lately and meditating on how much shame constructs our perceptions and ways of engaging in the world, professionally and personally. As a veteran of the caring professions currently working as a youth worker in the front lines of a residential shelter for kids in the child welfare system, where nothing is typical except maybe chaos and pain, the folks who spend their time caring for children build up self-protective boundaries. There are few people who dislike children and youth or want to hurt them, right? That is an assumption worth sticking with in my mind.

That said, kids, youth, families and individuals who share time in these spaces become blind to how their perspectives and patience and responses to kids in the life space evolve and change. Often there becomes a survival mentality where the staff are hurt by the kids, emotionally and physically and spiritually. We all go through theses stages. Hopefully you will stay long enough to go through them yourself. There is wisdom in growth through the stages.

I wonder how much shame is present in staff who belittle or say hurtful things as it sounded a staff did in your presence? Perhaps they are not aware of it themselves? But staff, like youth go through trauma experiences, cycles of PTSD symptoms and the trauma is complex and too often not discussed. Add to it staff with little ONGOING training in trauma informed therapeutic caring and who return day after day after day to care for our society's most harmed children. Children of shamed families. Children sleeping alone in rooms unclear on why they are there, or certain that the pain they felt from the abuse or neglect of their primary caregiver doesn't feel quite the same as the pain of getting put to sleep by a paid stranger. What kind of shame is that?

And so the kids act out their grief, their anger and they stumble and bumble through life. And very often we laugh at kids mistakes (because sometimes they are funny), and then it’s easy to slip into laughing at kids or making fun of them or teasing them. Because don't adults sometimes tease kids? Some cultures use humor and teasing in ways to protect kids, to shame them into doing better. But such shaming pre-assumes belonging which these kids don't necessarily experience the way adults who belong to families do. Carl Whitaker writes, "Guilt is the inner experience of breaking the moral code; shame is the inner experience of being looked down on by the social group" (Fossum and Mason, 1986: Facing Shame). Sometimes staff mean to bring kids back into the fold and mistakenly shame them into feeling more alone.

I would suggest you investigate with the staff what cultural framework the staff are working from and learn from it. Not to emulate it, but to understand where they are coming from so perhaps you and they can identify where they, and perhaps others, or the agency as a whole, pardons unskillful responses to trauma in shameful ways. By engaging in a conversation of exploration we can discuss the different actions of others in ways that build trust and understanding rather than tear them down. Perhaps they are in a burned out cycle or are more strict and assuming of a level of belonging and attachment in the client than you see. Watch how the staff interacts with other clients. How are they received? Are they open to other ways of being in life space with kids? Everyone can grow.

I would also document your efforts and if they continue, go to your internship advisor for assistance on how best to bring it to the agency supervisor. Sometimes there are staff that need more support.

Good luck.

Peter D.
...

Hi Jen,

I completely understand your dilemma, I have encountered similar situations myself various times over the last 11 years since I started working in residential care. My advice would be to speak with the staff member privately and tell them this is inappropriate and unlikely to produce any positive outcomes for them or the young person. It could in fact get them into a lot of trouble if the young person complains. As a new member of staff it can be difficult as people take offence and your motivation to change things for the better is not always recognised. However, fresh eyes are healthy, questioning why we respond in certain ways and asking if perhaps we could do something better. In the worst case scenario the staff member you speak to may be offended or angry at you questioning their practice but you must raise these concerns if you recognise the negative impacts this could have on a young person’s self esteem or relationships with staff. You are there to advocate on their behalf to ensure they are treated with respect and dignity and staff are the role models for these children so we need to be prepared to show them alternative coping mechanisms to managing their negative feelings rather than mirroring their behaviours and language.

Thanks,
Tracey

Thank you both for your insight!

Tracey - You raised a good point that I have added into my thinking process. I am there to help support our youth and by teaching them how to name call and put others down isn't supportive or positive. Thank you for that.

Peter D - Those were some great thoughts! I guess I hadn't really thought it could be the staff could be feeling shame either before., causing them not to think about what they are saying or even afterwards for saying some of things things they do! But one thing I will definitely start doing which I hadn't up until when you suggested it was record my efforts. It didn't happen if it isn't documented right?! I think that will be a key point here, especially if I have to take it to a higher level.

Thank you both for your replies. It was some wondering feedback and some thought provoking words.

Have a wonderful day!

Regards,
Jen
...

Great observation Tracey. Your willingness to question such an engagement, in an attempt to understand and take appropriate steps, indicates advocacy and care for the youth and team member. I specifically enjoyed reading Peter ' s response as I have been reading literature on compassion for self, care for one's soul, and our individual awareness and growth.

Good luck and be well.

Charlene
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