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Establishing clear boundaries with children?

2016

 Hi,

I am a second year student attending Mount Royal University in the Bachelor Studies program Majoring as a Child and Youth Care Counsellor. This year my practicum is taking place within a school setting. The school consists of children that come from abusive homes, have extreme ADHD, FASD, Cognitive delays, ODD, Autism, and many other disorders. I was lucky enough to do my fieldwork here last semester, and this year I am working a bit more in depth with some of the children I was observing last year. Over the course of the year one of the boys in my class and I have developed a close relationship. He asks for me to help him calm down when feeling stressed or anxious, we do breathing techniques, muscle stimulation (squeezing, and tensing) and we also have therapeutic conversations about incidents that he is worried about or that are bothering him.

I am very honoured to have developed such a progressive relationship with this young boy and I would love to continue to help him grow, however I fear he is becoming a little too attached to me. When I am helping other children he is constantly seeking my attention by calling out my name, pulling at my arm, and at some points he tries to get me in trouble to get my attention. He has blurted out during class that I am swearing at him or that I have struck him on the arm, even though I am on the other side of the classroom working with another child.

We have spoken to his parents about the situation, and they understand his diagnosis very well (Autism and ODD), and this is not the first occurrence with him doing this. I would like to continue working with this child, because I have really enjoyed the progress he has made, and want to see him succeed even more, but I am scared of more incidents like this happening. In the past my supervisors have had meetings with the parents, tried to talk to him and explain that we need to help everyone in the class, and he does have weekly counselling sessions, but I am not informed about what goes on in these sessions most of the time.

My question to all of you today is: what precautions or actions would you suggest I take moving on from here? How do I work on and establish clear cut boundaries with this youth? and if anyone else has experienced anything similar and would like to share how they handled the situation I would greatly appreciate it.

Thanks,

Brett
...

Forget all the psychiatric diagnostic crap and concentrate on getting to know the kid underneath. Then you can begin to work with boundaries i.e. where you end and he begins.

Gerry Fewster
...

Hi Brett,

Relationships can sometimes be messy, especially with children who have little reason to trust adults. You will have to stick around long enough to become someone significant to this kid, and that will mean tolerating a lot of “boundary testing”. Self-awareness is important. It’s more about you and how you manage yourself.

Good luck.

Werner

I'd suggest reframing the idea of this as a 'boundary' issue. Doing the kind of work you describe having done with this youngster does not sound like one. You are to be commended for developing a relationship, and the approaches you used which are 'within boundaries' if we must.

Rather it's a developmental issue. Your work with this youngster has enabled him to continue to develop. For starters sounds like he's developed an attachment to you. That's great ! Attachment is the first step in healthy development. Now maybe it's time to think about the next phase in attachment - which is, according to the great Margaret Mahler - 'separation' and 'individuation'.

So the issue is how to help him separate from you a bit while still having him know that your attention and support are available to him. The issue is also how to help him continue to develop a sense of himself as special person with interests, skills, relationships with others.

How is that translated into practical terms when there are multiple youngsters to attend to ?

First of all - think of activities. In addition to the things you have already done with him, think about helping him develop knowledge and skill in typical activities - art, music, sports, games, technology, etc. What are you interested in ? What are your hobbies ?

What is wonderful about activities is that they can be structured in such a way as to either bring one closer - or buffer (soften the intensity of the relationship a bit, but in a positive way. ) This enables a youngster to develop knowledge and skills that give him something to relate to others about.

Secondly - maybe use your relationship with him to help him develop relationships with the other youngsters. If you can, organize one of your favorite activities and one you think he'd like - and invite him and another youngster to participate together. Your job is to use the context to foster a relationship between the two This is based on the concept of Pair Therapy (Selman). You are present and facilitate so he still has you available, but he's also being helped to develop a new relationship. In other words, you're still available to him but also using your fundamental relationship to help him 'separate' and 'individuate'. This of course will not happen overnight and there will certainly be bumps along the way.

Thirdly -to the extent he'd understand (I don't know of course to what degree he can) - play back to him what you're seeing and sense that he is feeling not just when there is an incident such as those you described.

These things of course would be done carefully over time.

Karen Vander Ven

Hi Brett,

Since you ask about precautions ... I would be very cautious about dispensing with all diagnoses: you do need to know and respect how others view this boy and how people feel he should be treated. Otherwise you risk entering into 'private practice', in the sense of doing your own thing irrespective of everyone else's views, which would be unprofessional.

For example, if the boy does have autism, then his communication needs may be quite complicated and challenging. At the same time if you have begun forming a helping relationship with him in a relatively short time, then this may be quite a mild form of autism, or something else entirely.

It's also not clear why he is making these accusations about you, but you and others need to understand what's going on. For instance, is the 'muscle stimulation' you are practising part of an agreed plan for working with this boy, and is it possible that, when he sees you across the classroom, he remembers it, and perhaps misinterprets this caring physical contact as an attack of some sort? This is another reason why you should proceed with care - this is part of what that word 'care' means in 'CYC - Child & Youth Care'.

My advice would be to keep focusing on having a close working relationship both with his parents and with the other professionals in the school, and especially with the teacher in the classroom (and the counsellor, if possible), otherwise you could get out of your depth here, which would help neither you nor the boy.

NB I'm definitely not arguing against you offering the boy a supportive relationship, or allowing an attachment to form if that is seen as appropriate, just that you should proceed within the professional framework which the school setting provides. Are you able to ask the questions that you have raised in this posting within the school itself?

Adrian Ward
...

Hear, hear Gerry!

Edwina Poynton
...

Hi Brett,

I have some experience with this type of situation being a classroom support staff in an autism program. What I have tried that has worked in the past is preparing the student well in advance about when I will be working with other students and what time I can come back to work with that student. I have a little 'toolkit' as well where I keep fidget toys, books, etc., that I offer students to borrow while I am with others.

In the past, I have also seen my colleagues try secret words or gestures that only the student and the youth worker know so that from across the room the youth worker can reassure the student that he will be back soon and is still thinking of the student.

All the best! Hope this is helpful,

Nancy
...

Hi Nancy,

Thanks you for the wonderful response. I have currently given him a fidget toy to keep in his desk, which seems to be working very well. I have also talked to him about the days I come in, and how I need to attend to other students as well as you advised. This seems to be working well. He does still sometimes try to get attention in the wrong bay, but when I remind him of the fidget toys, and our conversations he apologizes and keeps busy until I'm available to help. You're advice has really helped our relationship to grow, and I appreciate it. Thank you again!

Sincerely,

Brett
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