Living with complexity and simplicity

Jack Phelan

I am a child and youth care worker and have been for forty years. I have always been happy that I chose to do this work and have never had the experience of thinking that I knew all there was to know! In fact, my most useful skill has been awareness of how little I actually do know!

I started by working in New York City in a neighbourhood which was very poor and I felt very unsafe. Because I was aware of my lack of skill to even survive there, I knew that I had to listen carefully and learn from the people I was trying to help. This continues to be a real benefit to my career. My next full time child and youth care job was at a group home agency, where I was told that I was expected to get a Masters degree, since working in child and youth care required a lot of skill. The employer helped pay my tuition, I was supervised by highly trained people, and all the other team members had enormous respect for the child and youth care task.

“Simplicity” and “complexity” are my focus today. Child and youth care work consists of engaging with very complex people and problems using simple, everyday tools and events in a carefully orchestrated and developmentally sophisticated manner. Some thoughts I have on how we do Child and Youth Care work:

We don’t describe what we do very clearly.

Other professionals see us as being unsophisticated.

Common sense is not our friend.

Love and affection get poor results.

Compliance and behaviour control are relatively useless.

Our rationale for relationship building is poorly explained.

Our treatment plans create a picture for me of a group of professionals, including the child and youth care worker, standing on a hill looking at another hill far away where a youth or family is stranded, and shouting to the youth/family “Get over here!” Our child and youth care responsibility is to join the person on the far hill and start working from where they are, not where we would like them to be.

An analogy might help: people go to the doctor when they are sick and sometimes get told to take two aspirins and go to bed. Our response to this is to feel that we have wasted the doctor’s time because he/she works with unusually sick people, not normally occurring illness that can be cured easily with black tea and tender loving care. We in child and youth care practice almost always work with unusually problematic situations, yet generally are expected to cure them with common sense and tender loving care.

Let me use an example from my group home experience. A teenager asks me to lend him money on Thursday and promises to repay me on Friday when he gets his allowance. I agree, and he avoids me on Friday and doesn’t pay me back. On Saturday the same boy asks me to lend him money until the following Friday and when I refuse, describing my experience the previous day, he indignantly shouts “Why are you always bringing up the past?” and storms out of the room.

It took me several months and many of these kinds of interactions to learn to listen better to this youth. I began to appreciate that he is only able to live day to day, and is incapable of seeing events in a context of time and space. Imagine if you were limited in your understanding of the world in this way. I gradually learned to join him in this “stuck place” and began to see the logic behind most of his problematic behaviours. It was only at that point that I began to really help him to change and expand his ability to live successfully.

Many child and youth care practitioners know that our youth can lack a cause-effect belief in that they don’t believe that their behaviour has any relationship to the results that they experience. When we punish some youth for bad behaviour, they only see that we are getting enjoyment out of hurting them, and when we reward them for good behaviour, they only see that somehow we are in a good mood and are randomly being nice to them.

My thought is that this belief grows from difficult early life events which shouldn’t happen to anyone and the only way to stay blameless is to accept no responsibility for what happens. Unfortunately, it is difficult to live in the world with this belief and not get into many problems, which is why these youth end up with us.

Our response to these youth is to carefully orchestrate adult responses that slowly teach a different lesson. For example, to enforce rules without any emotional content for a while (perhaps as long as a month), then gradually allow the youth to respond with an excuse to avoid the rule, so that they can learn that sometimes there are circumstances that alter the causal reality. Then eventually, after building a safe relationship, we can respond with disappointment or joy to the behaviour, because this can start to be understood by the young person as “my behaviour has a causal relationship to your experience of me”. To an outside casual observer, this complex pattern doesn’t get noticed. We need to be articulate about what and why we are doing this.

Many new workers and others think that our youth just need to be loved and don’t understand the fear and resentment that gets created by this common sense approach. I will skip the lecture on attachment theory for now, but every child and youth care practitioner needs to understand these dynamics to let go of this common sense idea.

Child and youth care workers meet people where they are: in a place of no trust or safety, with little ability to have empathy for others, and fully occupied with surviving and keeping themselves safe from harm. As we allow ourselves to join people here, we begin to create safe relationships, which allow us to start to know each other. This connection creates the possibility of seeing the skills and strengths which have enabled the person to survive and gives the child and youth care worker a focus to build upon as he/she repairs the stuckness.

Another example: a youth gets a new boom box radio from his mother and proudly brings it to the group home where he plays it loudly into the night. When the child and youth care worker asks him to turn it down because the other youth need to sleep, the youth replies “Tell them not to listen”. Rather than seeing this as a sarcastic response, a skilled worker will hear the developmental stuckness of an immature person who is operationally at a three year old level. The response that may be helpful is to take the radio away, to apologize for being so mean, and to ask the youth to come in the morning to retrieve the radio, requiring him to try to explain why you took it – even if he can only say that it is because you are mean.

This may be repeated for many days, each time requiring a fuller explanation until he gets to the point of knowing that he has to consider other people as he uses the radio. The egocentric world view that has enabled him to survive thus far will begin to shift. A common sense approach is to punish the youth in increasing lengths of removal of the radio, which will only solidify his view of the worker as someone who enjoys torturing youth.

Good child and youth care practice includes knowledge of personality development, as well as moral and thinking stage development. A teenage boy I lived with in a group home had a pattern of stealing, drug use and prostitution. He was also a youth with a big heart, who had many strengths as yet untapped. To many people he seemed sophisticated beyond his 16 years, when he was actually very immature and had little need for self-control or good judgement (like a three year old). The reason a three year old behaves well is because he is afraid of getting caught being bad by his mother, whom he believes has eyes in the back of her head and knows all his actions.

I used a variety of strategies to convince this youth that I knew whenever he was bad, and this outside conscience enabled him to make better decisions about his behaviour. Then, after a while, I made an agreement with him to stop his stealing within the house. I agreed to replace anything of his that was stolen by others as long as he didn’t steal. I also reminded him that I would know if he merely lost or discarded items to get new ones and that I would know if he was stealing. This youth believed me because he was developmentally immature; this will not work with a normal teenager! He gradually saw the value of not worrying about theft, or getting into trouble with his housemates, and was ready for the next stage of wanting to be trusted by others.

Child and youth care practitioners who do family work are often confronted by situations that seem simple and unsophisticated, but are far from simple. A mother with three young children is assigned to a worker because her home is not clean and there is a risk of neglect connected to poor conditions for the children. Several attempts have been made to send a homemaker to tidy up and teach the mother to clean, but the home would return to chaos within a few days. The social worker has threatened to remove the children, which is another common sense approach that would create motivation in most mothers.

The child and youth care worker visited in this home and stayed in the mess and chaos with the mother, without judgement, creating a safe relationship by listening, bringing food parcels, and nurturing the mother. After three visits, the mother dejectedly states, “This place is a mess and my life is a mess”. The child and youth care worker asks her, “Have you ever had a time when your life wasn’t a mess?” The mother smiles and says that as a young girl she had won a medal. “Where is it now?” she is asked. The mother and the worker search in a closet and find the medal and the worker helps the mother choose a spot in the home to display it. A week later on a visit, the worker notes that the only place in the home that is clean is the area around the medal. The mother describes during this visit that she finds herself looking at the medal when she feels helpless and it gives her strength. Two visits later, the home is clean enough to satisfy the social worker that she can continue to care for her children.

By the way, child and youth care workers are not social workers and don’t do social work. Social workers are the physical representative of the social network system that protects people from abuse, neglect and poverty, while child and youth care practitioners support people in their relationship with this system.

Child and youth care family workers know that parents need to be nurtured before we can expect them to do this with their children. Many parents feel that there is no one that cares for them in the world, so how can they create nurturing for their children?

The complexity of caring for parents often involves repairing the damage by creating activity that can be seen as child’s play. Adults can’t allow themselves to do this easily, since they believe they are supposed to have put this type of thing behind them when they reached adulthood, so the delivery of this developmentally necessary, but hard to accept experience requires skill and strategy. A skilled child and youth care practitioner creates the safe place to do this activity through creating a safe relationship, developing safety and trust, and being playful.

The Isibindi Safe Park model is a good example of using play to repair people who have been robbed of childhood, or who are in danger of not experiencing childhood. The obvious, common sense view of the Safe Park is of a clean, well supervised playground, but it is far more than that. The children who go there have been thrust into adult roles long before they are ready and the lack of safe parent-like adults in their lives will create a future generation of people who are not capable of being nurturing parents to the next generation. Skilled child and youth care workers are using this play venue to introduce a wide variety of reparations and safety measures into the lives of families that are perhaps outside the reach of the social protection net, or who lack the strength to move ahead on their own.

We don’t expect the doctor to use common sense to cure us; our mother already tried that and the black tea didn’t work. Our child and youth care families and youth are often surrounded by chaos and confusion, which actually help them to avoid falling into the black pit of disintegration and despair which they feel pulling them. Our task is to slow down the whirlwind and begin to repair and rebuild, while keeping them and us safe from these powerful forces. So, we must join people where they are stuck in their lives, in their homes and villages, not in an office. We must join with them on the journey, describing and supporting the steps needed along the way, realizing that the eventual destination is less important than the road to be travelled.

I will end with a quote from the American jurist, Oliver Wendall Holmes; “I don’t give a fig for simplicity on this side of complexity, but I’d give my right arm for simplicity on the other side of complexity.” Child and youth care practitioners work on the other side of complexity all the time.