CYC-Online 108 FEBRUARY 2008
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Jack Phelan

Power is an issue that Child and Youth Care practitioners deal with daily. Just as the new worker finds himself in power struggles as the youth test his ability to set limits, the more seasoned worker also has to learn to walk away from power struggles and use humor or just a strategic retreat to extricate himself from “no win” situations. Most of the power struggles are based on one person feeling powerless, usually the youth, but sometimes the staff member also. My thought is that most of our youth and families need to feel powerful before they can start to make the difficult changes we present to them.

Developmental theory clearly describes the fact that a person needs to engage in obstinate, resistive behavior (the terrible twos) before any self-control practice can begin.

I learned many lessons about this from the teens with whom I lived and I would like to share one story.

Eddie was a 16-year-old boy who was smaller than the other youth in the group home. He acted impulsively and sometimes even seemed crazy in an attempt to impress or intimidate others, a basic safety plan that worked most of the time. Unfortunately, we got a new worker who was also a smaller sized man, and they quickly got into power struggles with each other. Finally, after only two weeks, Eddie came after him with a kitchen knife during an argument which began about doing his homework.

Fortunately, none of the staff wanted to get rid of Eddie, even the new guy. But we had to do something to change the situation. Here is what we did:

I took a piece of broom handle about 18 inches long, tied one end of a 36 inch rope to it and a 10 pound weight to the other end. I practiced rolling the rope up onto the stick for a few days because the small muscles on the back of your hands are the only ones engaged. Then I appeared one night at the TV and asked if anyone wanted to try a new strength game. All the boys were eager to beat me at this, so they wanted me to go first. I managed to roll the rope up and down three times, only because I had been practicing. Then I handed the stick to the biggest youth in the house, clearly the strongest, only I started the first roll backwards, which required him to work against himself and was an almost impossible way to do the task. He grunted and strained, to the amazement of all the others, and only managed to do it once. I then handed it to Eddie, rolling it once the easier way. He managed to do it twice, to his surprise. Then handed it to one other large boy, who couldn’t even do it once. No one else wanted to try.

Eddie was much easier to work with after that, not needing to prove himself any more.

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