CYC-Online 61 FEBRUARY 2004
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Reaching beyond caring to loving in Child and Youth Care Practice

Patti Ranahan

This article presents a brief look at incorporating the act of loving into the professional helping relationship that is created in Child and Youth Care practice. The differences between the act of caring and the meaning of loving are discussed. Through an exploration of the author's relationship with a child, the dangers of loving – including the expectations of acceptance of the love being given, expectations on the child to feel love, using love as a reinforcer, and love leading to burnout – are discussed. A new way of loving in Child and Youth Care practice that allows for the inclusion of loving in the helping relationship is explored and experienced by the author. Implications for incorporating love in Child and Youth Care practice are discussed.

I have often wondered if I care “too much.” The cautions and reminders of getting hooked on other people’s problems, or trying to “save" someone are always present in the educational forum where I presently am learning about Child and Youth Care practice. I have noticed that we rarely discuss loving the individuals we work with, and if a colleague does venture to that forbidden place of loving a client, I find myself thinking, “Oh, she’s hooked.”

The expectation that I demonstrate the act of caring is obvious, yet to reach the place of loving is scary. There are fears that are triggered when I think about expressing the loving part of my Self to the world in personal or professional relationships: fears of hurt or inevitable abandonment if I show that side of my Self, or fears that loving another person will mean that I have to give up a part of my Self and be inundated by that person. The definition that I have created regarding love has allowed me to face these fears of abandonment and inundation. Yet this definition has not truly opened itself to being able to express love in practice. We have yet to study how to love the children, youth, and families we work with. What does loving a child we work with mean? What are the dangers of love and is it really appropriate in the professional helping relationship? If I am to go beyond caring to loving in my practice, what will I need to do to make sure my work remains effective? In this article I examine the differences between caring and loving, the dangers of different types of loving, and loving in Child and Youth Care practice through the exploration of a caring and loving relationship I have with a child I work with.

The title of “Child and Youth Care practitioner” itself suggests a relationship in which the main characteristic is the act of caring. Caring can be seen as “a close attention, liking or regard, to protect or to look after” (Mayeroff, 1961, as cited in Denholm, 1990). Mayeroff also looks at the following criteria as part of the act of caring: knowing another’s needs and being able to respond; showing an ability to alternate one’s rhythm to maintain or modify one’s behaviour in order to help another; demonstrating patience, honesty, and trust; instilling hope in order to promote growth and courage to face the unknown; having a willingness to learn without arrogance; and possessing humility. These tasks involved in demonstrating the act of caring from the practitioner can be seen as what essentially makes the profession unique. The wonderfully clear definition of the act of caring appeals to my desire for knowledge regarding exactly what the profession I have chosen in the Child and Youth Care field means. It gives a sense of an objective and a purpose and allows for clarification to those who so often question, “What is a Child and Youth Care worker?”

Caring moves beyond being “good with kids" or being able to play floor hockey. It requires the skillful exploration of the meeting of selves between the worker and the child. The Child and Youth Care practitioner can be seen as being required to bring their Self to their work. So often we define people by their chosen profession – be it a firefighter, a nurse, or a lawyer. The Child and Youth Care practitioner could easily be labeled a “Self,” for that is the tool and the briefcase that the practitioner brings to the work. In order to respond and be present with those we work with, we must bring to work various aspects of our Self, which include our knowledge, our patience, our trust, our honesty, our experience, and our openness for learning, which essentially is the caring. When I have at times let the child or youth know I care about them, the response has been quick. “You only care because it’s your job!” Yes, it is my job to care, and how I fulfill that requirement can determine how effective I am in practice. How I choose to bring my Self into my practice could quite possibly determine how effective I am in the work. It is impossible to fully bring this tool to work without understanding and having an awareness of how it operates in practice. This exploration may take years, months, practice, experiences, and education to be fully reached. Once Child and Youth Care practitioners have ventured to that place, know where it is, and know how to draw each part of their core Self into practice, they can fully embrace the profession and have an experiential understanding of the demands that they themselves are placing on the individuals they work with, healing the child within (Whitfield, 1989).

Going beyond caring, to loving
Yet how far do Child and Youth Care workers have to go in caring for their clients? Does caring include loving? If I were to describe myself as a child and youth “love” practitioner, I would most certainly raise some eyebrows. I imagine colleagues would be quick to raise the issue of boundaries and question my motives behind loving. Can I have, then, a boundary and still love?

I struggled when initially addressing this question of whether or not there is a potential to love the children, youth, and families we work with, as I saw love as being personal and not a part of my Self that I would express in the professional world. I believed love to be a two-way street, only really true if it was reciprocated by the person I was in relationship with. If it was not true, not reciprocated, there would be a sense of loss. McKeen and Wong (1991, p. 74) describe this kind of love that is based on reciprocation as a “need ... that must be filled, else that person is in danger of depletion.” There was a sense that if I loved, then I was giving a piece of my Self that would be lost if love was not returned. With this reciprocal love in mind, I would easily dismiss the idea that Child and Youth Care practice was to include love, for it would be based on the condition that it was expected of the client. The kind of love that I would be faced with demonstrating to my clients (if I were to include it) would need to be unconditional and not based on their success or failure, their love for me or for others, or how they treated me or others.

Is this possible? “Most people are unable, fortunately, to turn their love on and off” (Krumboltz & Krumboltz, 1972, p. 13). I am like most people, and thus I questioned how appropriate it was to love in helping relationships that can be so brief, so constrained by outside influences, and essentially directed by the client who may or may not wish me to love them, or even to care. The kind of love, then, that I must ultimately demonstrate if I’m to include it in my practice, needs to be able to withstand rejection. I believe that I could continue to care, and have continued caring, in the face of rejection, although rejection of love, when it is brought from the Self, appears to me to be more difficult. And of course the question arises of what happens when we are no longer there? Our job changes, a move happens, the child leaves, our time allotted for service is up. What then? I have always believed that loving included a commitment, and defined that commitment in terms of amount of time. It is difficult to imagine how I can love for only six weeks, let alone for a quick intervention of an hour.

Yet is it possible? I questioned how ethical it was to include love in our profession due to the fact that we are being paid. I have worked with children and youth previously, and I realized that everyone who “cares” or “loves” them in their life was paid to be there. Can that be considered unconditional? The recent strike of a number of human service professionals in British Columbia, Canada, demonstrated how it was a priority for practitioners to receive appropriate payment for their services. The care we give, and potentially the love we give, can thus be considered conditional. So, inevitably, the question of going beyond the profession of caring to include with it the energy of loving once again arises.

The dangers of loving are easily found in my own professional and personal experience. One child in particular speaks to my fears of loving. When I went beyond the act of caring and began to love, the relationship became far more meaningful in my life, and I believed that, through time, it would in the child's life also. Through that level of relationship, I thought that change and healing would be able to occur, as “indeed love is the most healing of our resources” (Whitfield, 1989, p. 133). I initially saw myself loving the child while faced with physical violence, abusive language, and daily tensions. I faced the confrontations and the struggles with the energy of love, which for me at the time was defined by my beliefs around commitment and reciprocation as being a part of loving. The love that I had for this child went beyond my occupational requirements of progress reports and case conferences. The act of caring was always a part of the relationship, yet I saw this as the professional side of my job. To love this child, for me at that time, meant that I was committed and “in it for the long haul.” I read the case files, heard the child's story, spoke with previous foster parents, and became enveloped in the tragic tale. I had entered dangerous ground in how I defined the love I had for him, as I was hooked. Barends and Harper (1999) speak directly to the attempts I had begun making to give the child the love I believed he was owed. My love, then, became conditional as I expected him to accept the love I was giving. In my choice to go beyond professional caring and to show my love to this child, I was challenging him to recognize and accept the lack of love he had received from others. “The child cannot easily understand how you are able to care, when the most important people in his life have let him down” (Barends & Harper, 1999, p. 2).

How vital that realization is! It took a lot of time to bring to my awareness how irreplaceable is the love, acceptance, and attunement in the initial relationship the child had with his mother. In portraying my definition of love as being reciprocal and therefore needing to be accepted and involving a commitment, I was also expecting the child to face that others may not have loved him if he accepted my definition of what that meant. He could, in essence, believe that he could no longer love his mother, for in his view, it was not reciprocal, nor was she committed to an amount of time with him, which would follow my definition of loving. I believed that I was giving the child what he really needed. Love was my mode of intervention, yet I neglected to consult him regarding his perceptions of his wants and his needs. I neglected to discover and explore his own definition of loving and invite him to bring that to the surface.

From his developmental history, and reflecting now on my experience with him up to that point, I believe he had taken on the stance that “I will reject love, no matter who gives it to me" (Gravitz & Bowden, 1985, as cited in Whitfield, 1989). Possibly this rejection was more about my definition of love that I had presented to him at the time. Gravitz and Bowden also state that with this stance of rejecting love that is given, the child may continue to have difficulty experiencing feelings and emotions, including love. My showing this kind of love, then, conflicted with his experience of the love I gave to him. He was told through my love that he had to accept it from me, the Child and Youth Care worker, as opposed to someone else, and had to actually feel the love I gave him. This inevitably was a large burden for this young child to carry. One of the dangers of love, then, is the expectation that can be placed on children we work with and the omission of an invitation to bring their own style and definition of loving into the world.

Another danger in incorporating love into Child and Youth Care practice is using it as a reinforcer. If I choose to include love, and potentially to express the loving part of my Self through hugs and statements, these need to be consistent and authentic. The consistency of love needs to be evident as children watch and may be invited by the Child and Youth Care practitioner to express their own loving part of their core self. Love, and the expression of it, cannot be given as a reward based on the achievements or strides the children have made toward their goals. The child who asks for a good-night hug from the staff at the group home needs to receive it regardless of the window they broke or the milk they split. Learning that love comes only after “good” behaviour is teaching the child that love is payment and is conditional, for “if we use love as a reinforcer, we must be prepared to withhold it just as readily as we grant it” (Krumboltz & Krumboltz, 1972). Withholding or granting love is also described by McKeen and Wong (1991) in their belief that “often love is treated as though it were a commodity, something that could be exchanged or bartered, or withheld and used for ransom or control.” I was discovering that the expression of loving from the core Self that we can incorporate into practice as Child and Youth Care practitioners must be beyond expectations, acceptance, conditions, and commodity.

Through time with the child I was working with, I discovered that the expectations of acceptance of the love I was expressing, and the child having feelings of being loved, were unrealistic at the time. This is not to say that this child will never reach acceptance, feeling and hopefully expressing his own loving, for he will continue to grow and change through our continuing relationship and the future relationships he is involved in. As I faced the fact that my expectations for the child would be unmet, I also realized that I began to show signs of burnout. The definition I had created around love had drawn out my fears of loving. The love in the relationship was not reciprocal, nor accepted, by the child. I had believed that if I loved him in this way, he would be filled up with that love and change would occur. Yet the child did not reciprocate, nor accept, the love as I had defined it. Changes had occurred, but I began to discount the positives that the child was demonstrating in his life and magnify the negatives when they occurred. The child had worked incredibly hard to go from one hour a day at school to full days, yet if homework was not completed, consequences were quickly given.

I began to over-organize and work harder on the child's needs. The amount of energy I spent in what had started out as love, but was now more directed toward my own needs, led to an inevitable burnout and a leave of absence which shifted the relationship between the child and myself to something completely different.

By the time I returned, the child had realized that I was not a permanent fixture in his life and that I, like others, would, could, and at times should leave. This shift in physical presence as a demonstration of loving challenged the initial definition of love that I had presented to him. My initial definition considered commitment of time and being “in it for the long haul" as important expressions of love. My absence raised questions concerning how to be loving when being physically present is not an option. The demands that had come with the definition of love that I had in the beginning of my involvement with the child had not allowed the meeting of Selves as two connected individuals to occur. I had been depleted, not from loving, but rather from fighting for the expectations I had placed on myself and the child. Trying to replace the love that had been missed in the child's earliest relationships, being “committed” to be physically present for the child all the time, and the game of reciprocation had emotionally exhausted me. I had lost my boundary and had forgotten my Self in the process. Re-entering the home was different for me. I also realized that I wasn’t permanent and that the love that I had attempted to demonstrate in the past, and my “in it for the long haul” attitude, was not going to “save” him. There was no requirement for me to “fill him up” with the love that I believed he had lost in his primary relationship with his mother. Yet the absence of loving in my relationship with this child was not an option for me. Expressing that part of my core Self was a joyful way of being that I had experienced in brief moments in relationship. A shift in my “love mode" of intervention slowly occurred as I sought out a new way of being loving that was without cost or expectation.

A new way of loving in Child and Youth Care Practice
A new form of love. Yes, one that can be added to practice in Child and Youth Care. Love that is not based on reciprocation, acceptance, or conditions. Love that will allow a boundary and not be lost as it is when given as a commodity. This is not to say that we as practitioners need to love everybody. In some “and maybe in most “cases, professional caring is all that we reach with the children we work with. There may not be enough time for love to be fully expressed, as contracts are limited or children are moved to a new home. A greater love, however, a more mature form of love, can exist in practice when we choose to include it, even in a brief moment of our connectedness with a child. The love of the potential that people have, the value of human life, and the curiosity of each individual’s subjective experience, brings Child and Youth Care practitioners together. The kind of love we can offer in a healthy way for the work with and for ourselves as practitioners is a different form of exchange. This love does not attempt to compensate for love not received in the child's past, nor does it demand the child accept or give love in return. Such love can be considered a lower form characterized by neediness, chemistry, possession, or worship (Whitfield, 1985, as cited in Whitfield, 1989). Child and youth care practitioners can bring loving into practice through the briefcase they are already carrying to work. The briefcase they carry is their Self, and accessing love from this place can bring into practice the love that is characterized by freedom from expectation of return or acceptance. Whitfield (1989) also suggests a higher form of love that includes a different form of commitment, unconditional empathy and acceptance, and a peaceful way of being that allows the practitioner to include loving in their work with children.

As I moved away from my old way of defining love in my practice with the child I was working with, there came a sense of freedom within me. To be able to truly express the loving part of my Self to the child, regardless of his or her actions, allowed me to not only let go of any reaction or hurt that I would receive, but also to free myself to work with him more effectively. Feeling freedom out of loving without definition does not come without struggle and practice. At times I believed I could not be essentially human in working from this place with him. It was difficult to not fall back into the reciprocal way of loving or using my love as a commodity. In order to incorporate love, and thus experience freedom, I needed to find the loving place in my core Self and allow that to be expressed in the relationship. It is in that place, the core Self that we so often are challenged to bring into our practice, that loving without a definition exists. Loving, expressed from the Self, can be brought into Child and Youth Care practice.

What an awesome task! So often I’ve heard from other Child and Youth Care workers about their struggle to not take verbal abuse personally or not take acts of violence “to heart.” I do not wish to minimize the effects of adverse behaviour on the practitioner, for I have myself experienced the exhaustion and depletion of energy at the end of a work day. The awareness of Self, and a boundary where the worker ends and the child begins, gives freedom to continue to express loving. If I held onto all the negative experiences I have had with the child, I would in a sense no longer be free to work, and the child would no longer be free to grow, for my perspective would be clouded with every action they have ever taken. To love in practice, then, is to also be free. Freedom allows the promotion of growth in the child and allows the work to continue.

The commitment I developed in the relationship with this child also changed as the kind of love I put into my practice shifted. I no longer have an “in it for the long haul” attitude, but am committed to the relationship we have created together. Commitment, then, is a dedication to the time we have, whether it is predetermined by an outside agency or set by the children themselves. It was important for me to shift in my way of being in relationship with this child from looking at “being there” come what may to demonstrating that I was there, present and available, in the here and now. I remembered my belief in the uncertainty of time that I may have with those around me. As I cross paths with others throughout my life journey, I have realized that I may have people in my life for years, or for days or even seconds. The commitment I had found through this different form of love meant that while time allows, I am present and there.

Unconditional acceptance and empathy
The unconditional acceptance and empathy aspect of love that can be part of Child and Youth Care practice can be the most difficult to apply. Loving from the core Self has been challenging, albeit rewarding, in the freedom it has supplied. Commitment has also come swiftly for me, as I am able to see time as fleeting. Unconditional acceptance and empathy is an expression of the loving part of our Self that goes beyond an awareness and a commitment to the present. To unconditionally accept and show empathy to the children we work with is easy for the “likeables” (Perlman, 1979) who are attractive and appreciative of our efforts. It is also easy to fall into believing and using labels and negative perspectives fed to us by other professionals about the children we work with. To unconditionally accept means to face the “hard to reach,” who are all too “often hard to love” (Perlman, 1979). It is easy to find in my memory the faces of children to whom I have not been able to express love. I remember avoiding them due to their smell, their whining, or their “excessive” demands on my schedule. I realize now that my avoidance was certainly not unconditional acceptance. I did not demonstrate empathy, and therefore did not express love, and inevitably, did little to care. Yet this remains as potentially the most important part of loving that we, as Child and Youth Care practitioners, can bring into practice. Our commitment and Self can be present, yet are infrequently obviously demonstrated or stated beyond showing up for work or meetings regularly or having a connection with a “likeable.” Unconditional acceptance and empathy, however, enter into every conversation, every look, and every interaction that we experience in our relationship with the child. It is an invitation from the Child and Youth Care practitioner to the children to express their core Self. In the moments when it comes forward it is welcomed and accepted without condition. When the child I’m working with comes home from school after having a fight with another student, how I respond sends a message about how I accept him, how I understand his experience, and, essentially, how I am loving. Through looking at him, and inviting him to bring his Self forward without judgement, I am accepting him as an individual. My acceptance cannot be based on who threw the first punch; it is unconditional. As I ask about what feelings occurred for him during the incident, and express how difficult the experience must have been, I am demonstrating empathy, and therefore expressing love. Unconditional acceptance and empathy includes an openness to the way the children choose to express the loving part of their Self. Inviting the children to bring this loving forward, through their fears and constricting definitions, can create a connectedness in the relationship beyond caring to loving. This may sound simplistic, yet the energy and challenge in including this level of love has been my greatest struggle that requires all of the other aspects of love to be “working.” The integration of Self into practice and our ongoing commitment to the children, the field, the present, and humanity allow the demonstration of unconditional acceptance and empathy. If I am not open to the child's expression of Self, then the acceptance of the child is conditional. If I am not committed to the relationship I have with the children, then I will make little attempt at using empathy to understand their experience of the world. The energy, then, that it takes to go beyond caring to loving in Child and Youth Care practice must not be minimized. In my beginnings of relationship with the child I work with, I described my use of love as an intervention. This “early” love was easy. I was fresh in the field and ready to give “love” to those that I believed were in need of it. As demonstrated, that early love over time did not continue to be useful. Yet, to only “care” about this child appeared to me to only fulfill my job description. At the time I did not fully understand the kind of love that can be seen as useful in practice. I had closed the loving part of my Self off through the layers of fears and definitions of love I had created. Through ongoing shifts and changes, the new and higher love appeared. It continues to challenge me in what it entails; yet from my experience if it is my choice to include the loving part of my Self in my practice with this child, I must prevail. “Even love must be worked at” (Perlman, 1979).

I have begun to see through my experiences with the child I am working with the kind of peaceful way of being Whitfield (1989) was referring to in the realm of higher love. The tension and stress that I initially felt in the early stages of my relationship with this child stemmed from my own state of confusion regarding how to move from caring to loving. The length of time and the intensive involvement with him seemed to push me forward, yet I was uncertain about where it was going. I believed caring to be the fulfillment of the job that was required of me in that position as a Child and Youth Care worker. As I moved beyond caring, I did not have the experience and education to know where loving could take me, nor how to incorporate love in practice. I had layered the loving part of my Self with definitions and fears, and therefore was confused as to how to express love without expectation or condition. Thus I dabbled in the dangers of love for some time, and our relationship became stagnant. The frustration led to my burnout, for the love that I was attempting to apply in the relationship was not conducive to practice. Through my continued work with him, I have learned about the higher form of love in practice. The peace that is now present comes from knowing the freedom of loving within a boundary, being confident in my commitment to the present, and showing unconditional acceptance and empathy toward the Self that comes forward in the child. The peace is the result of loving as a way of being and allows me, as a practitioner, to be effective in my practice. Peace may not always be constant throughout all my experiences as a Child and Youth Care worker in the past or in the relationships to come. I have often retreated to my early definitions of loving when my fears of losing my Self or loving too much are triggered. When I face a relationship that I find difficult to incorporate love into, the peace can come from reflecting on the work itself. Loving can be expressed as a way of being, beyond the “unlikeables” that we have difficulty facing, and beyond the constraints and pressures of the work we are presented with. Loving the potential that each individual has, including the potential that our ever-learning Self has, can bring peace. Loving the dance in the relationships I bring my Self to be a part of, and loving the new perspectives and learning that come from each moment with another human being, can also give me peace.

Implications for peace
I can see through my discussions with fellow Child and Youth Care workers how controversial the topic of incorporating loving in our relationships in practice could be. The warnings would most definitely be sounded around boundaries, being in agency, and rescuing. My purpose is not to negate these dangers, and, as I have described, I have entered into dangerous forms of loving in practice that have hindered my effectiveness. I am also not implying that every Child and Youth Care worker is required to love. Caring is what we are required to do in each relationship we help create with the children we work with. The act of caring is concrete, specific, and detailed and is part of the practice and title we share. Loving is reaching a new plateau in practice and is about how I bring my Self into the relationships I am involved m. If I choose to express the loving part of my Self, I need to reach beyond my fears and definitions of love. I need to be committed to the present, and show unconditional acceptance and empathy when the child's Self comes forward. Love is a process, a way of being, an expression that moves and shifts as I develop my style of practice. It challenges me and demands I consistently show a clean slate presence, without conditions, without grudges, and with an attempt to understand each individual's subjective experience as they tell me their story. The expression of loving from the Self removes the barriers that may be present in respect to allotted time for service, or the actions of the child. The “enemies” of time or monetary constraints, agendas of the agency we are employed by, or even the “unlikeable” qualities of the child standing before us, all present us with a choice in how we bring our Self into practice. I’m reminded of an all too familiar precept that speaks to the expression of loving. “Love your enemies as you love yourself.” At our very core exists the essence of loving that can withstand the difficulties we may face in practice. Loving is a way of being, an expression of our Self that can be realized even in the face of the challenges of our work. It is without condition and offers the rewards of peace and freedom. Yet it is important to remember that we cannot bring what we do not have. We most likely need to start at the beginning in our expression of loving before we are able to face the child, the family, and the challenges in our work. Loving our Self.


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Denholm, C.J. (1990). Canadian Child and Youth Care 1979–1989. Youth Studies, 9(2), 51–57.

Krumboltz, J.D., & Krumboltz, H.B. (1972). Changing children's behavior. Needham Heights, MA: Simon and Schuster, Inc.

McKeen, J.” & Wong, B. (1991). To be... love-ing... to be.... Journal of Child and Youth Care, 6(4), 73–83.

Perlman, H.H. (1979). The heart of helping people. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Whitfield, C.L. (1989). Healing the child within. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, Inc.

This feature: Ranahan, P. (1999) Reaching beyond caring to loving in Child and Youth Care practice. Journal of Child and Youth Care. Vol.13 No.4 pp 55-65

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