CYC-Online 50 MARCH 2003
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residential programs

What do we know of our children?

F.G. Lennhoff, writing 35 years ago, considers how we get to know newcomers to our program from the ways in which they present themselves

Most people are aware that to different people they present different aspects of themselves, some more and some less “genuine", as they would call it. They are also aware that there is much that they would like to conceal from the casual acquaintance or the person who has some kind of authority over them. Many succeed in living their lives almost in separate compartments, in each of which they play a fairly consistent part which may be most inconsistent with how they behave in the next one. Only to their family perhaps and their real intimates do they show all the aspects of how they really are, and this is not exactly by choice. One might rather say that in the family setting, there may not be the fears and other influences that make concealments necessary. And even in the family there is a wide range of possible situations.

Because the worker in the residential setting knows this, he often despairs of really knowing what his individual charges are like. He argues firstly that he can see that many of the children are quite different towards one another when an adult is not present from how they appear to him. Secondly the conditions of institutional life force children into an artificial situation, in which they will not react naturally. And lastly, these children have usually suffered many disappointments and hurts, as a result of which they are afraid to show themselves as they really are, for fear of further hurt. And he can point to examples of places where the adults were sure they had a good knowledge of their children and what they did; and then most serious misbehaviour was found to have been in existence for a long time.

But the residential worker does have the initial advantage that the children who come into his care have some reason for doing so. Information on their backgrounds is available. With his knowledge of child development and his experience he can learn to reason from what he sees to its origins. From what he knows of the child's earlier history he can now expect certain reactions. If this theoretical frame is used to classify children into types and dismiss their problems it will bring little help. But it can be used to broaden his understanding and expectations of each child so that he can take a long-term view and a deeper one. He will be less likely to be deceived by a superficial conformity; rather he will worry if the stresses he knows to exist do not somehow find expression. When a symptom disappears, he will be in a better position to judge whether this is a real step forward or whether the symptom has merely given place to another.

Also by seeing the child's more puzzling behaviour as an expression of difficulties he knows about, he will be less alarmed by it, less likely to try to suppress it through his own anxieties. We owe it to our charges to show them that we are not frightened nor shocked by these distress signals which they did not consciously select, and which often frighten or embarrass them. They often find other children surprisingly tolerant of these symptoms, and the adult must not be less so. Of course if other children are intolerant the adult has a still greater duty to support the child. It is usually the symptomatic behaviour which has alienated other adults, perhaps the child's own parents. Where he finds that it is not a barrier to acceptance, the child is able to take the next step towards showing himself as he is to the adults in the residential setting.

It is not right to argue that the residential setting is an artificial one; indeed it is not clear quite what is meant by “artificial" in this connection. If one simply means it is not a family milieu, anthropological work has shown that there is no natural pattern even for the family, and that children grow up in very varied settings, which by our standards might be considered unnatural. If one means that the residential setting is consciously created and guided, then this need not be a criticism but a source of strength. Indeed this sketch book tries to show how so many of the situations of life in such a setting can be used to help the children know themselves and develop. The setting will only form “artificial people" if it encourages a superficial conformity which takes no account of the real feelings aroused by each situation. For this reason, the setting which hopes to have a therapeutic effect must be founded on honesty of the adults, and a willingness to face unpleasantness which enables them to bring the children, in good time, face to face with their difficulties. The confrontation may be achieved in conversation in the situations of living together and the community’s reaction to these, or as a result of a special challenge which the adult devises for this purpose. But first we need a genuine bond with the child, forged out of experience lived through together. For this reason I would encourage an adult who wishes to help a particular child to work at a task with him, perhaps a piece of handicraft, or something that needs doing to improve the place. The work makes for an easier bond between them, because its practical demands are to the fore, and thus the child does not feel that the object of their companionship is to forge emotional demands. But as the work progresses, a trust does develop, and in a tentative way the child begins to offer glimpses into himself, leading as well to his own greater self-awareness.

One must not forget that these children, like all others but more dramatically, project their earlier experience of people onto the adults now around them. If the adults cannot face this they will devise a series of marks of respect, standards of politeness and customs to make the expression of hostility, frustration and even affection almost impossible. Then the children's feelings which are denied will be the basis of what is called a subculture, a system of thoughts, attitudes and behaviour in the community from which the adults are excluded (because they wish to be). But if they are strong enough to accept the feelings, and have the insight to understand and work through them with the child, then the adult-child relationship will be stronger than any other influences in the place; even though it has its ups-and-downs, setbacks, and later adolescent rebellion. Dr. Margaret Platt writes of children who either remain antagonistic, or their anger and hate are turned against themselves, or stored in the personality so that special defences are needed to control them. As these defences are broken down in treatment, the repressed anger and hate are released. They can either be modified by the therapist if the transference is positive (much as a good mother is often able to persuade her child to relinquish his rebellion and accept what she is asking) or turned against the therapist if the transference is negative. So far I have chosen to talk about the aggressive feelings of the child because I think they are more readily understood, but the same could be said about his intense desires ...

We have already written about honesty in the community when there are important questions to be discussed, when individual members are in difficulties, when things as a whole are not going well. (This is not to suggest that everything must be threshed out in public; but we must learn to be tactful rather than secretive). In these discussions adults and children have a voice, and any child who has a grievance knows he is bringing it up before everyone; he does not make a distinction between young and old. The adults, (even though in the last resort authority rests in them by virtue of their experience of life and greater detachment from the questions discussed), are more felt as a moderating influence, seeing that the issue is honestly faced before a decision is taken by the whole group, and explaining if need be why they think a decision is not fair. This combination of honesty and modifying influence is at the heart of their work with the individual child too. And the child accepts it because he has learnt to trust the motives from which it comes.

Earlier we mentioned the long talks after lights out, in which children boast, fantasy, try to impress one another, and share some of their secrets. The restraint of adult presence is gone. But the worker just described will know that his approach reaches the real personality of the child and finds a response. By comparison these conversations at night are not so important, and he can trust that in them too his influence will gradually show. He will find as time goes on that the influence he brings will affect the child's relations with adults and children. He will accept the times he is not with the child as already preparing for the time when they are not together at all, and yet his influence must still continue.

This feature: Lennhoff, F. G. (1968) Learning to Live. Shrewsbury: Shotton Hall Publications. pp D1-D3

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