The key to assisting children and youth to change and grow is for them to experience acceptance in the relationship. As Child and Youth Care practitioners, I see this as our calling. The focus of this story/article is the life long importance of acceptance in relationship.
I was a "child in care". I was separated from my parents at age two, and by the age of seven I had been in multiple placements and group homes. I was separated from my only sibling (my brother) at age nine (at the infamous wisdom of the Victoria Children Aid Society). For the next ten years I lived in one foster placement (not as positive as it sounds). I had no contact with my mother and very sporadic visits from my father. I felt alone in the world ... nobody's child.
What I wanted to know was “Are you here for the ride, for the duration, whilst I grow?”
Being accepted unconditionally defines my experience of connecting in relationships. Like myself, many or most children in care have experienced rejection, abandonment and/or attachment issues in their lives. Acceptance and a sense of belonging was a yearning for me not an expectation. As practitioners, being present and in the moment is indisputably of key importance, but what I wanted to know was "Are you here for the ride, for the duration, whilst I grow?" My initial response to people was to push them away before they abandoned me – abandonment was my expectation. (Sound familiar?) My negative internal beliefs and worldviews not only dictated my life, they were also my survival, my self-preservation.
Of my life experiences only three adults come to mind as being in relationship with me: a short term social worker, my high school vice-principal and my long term foster mother. (There were no child and youth care workers in my life.) Reflecting on these three relationships I recognised the common theme of acceptance. They listened to me and stood beside me as I made mistakes. No matter what the incident – I ran away, broke curfew, was involved with illegal substances and rebelled against the school system – they did not turn their backs on me or send me away. I'm sure there was an easier way for them but no matter what, they were always there. Individually, in their own ways, they listened as I spoke and I felt heard.
From these relationships I experienced internalised acceptance, knowing that someone really cared, and so I began to discover a sense of belonging. This was by no means void of consequences for my actions, but these people didn't give up on me. My behaviours did not reflect the positive impact they had on my life at that stage of my development, but the feeling of acceptance was never forgotten. These three adults had the greatest influence on my life; through the relationships I knew that I mattered.
I'm confident that these three adults were not analysing themselves in relationship, and possibly were not even aware of the positive relationship that I was experiencing. Are we as human beings and child and youth care practitioners ever able truly to perceive or predict what others need and receive from us through being in relationship with others?
“What I have learned is that we can be in relationship and interaction for a brief period in another’s life, but the experience could last a lifetime.”
This last statement comes from my own experience. I had an opportunity last year to talk on the telephone conversation with my aforementioned social worker. Our relationship had ended twenty-seven years previously. He was moved as I shared with him my life-long feelings of acceptance in our relationship. Then he spoke. He shared aspects of his personal story and thanked me for sharing mine. I appreciated his words of encouragement. An important thing he shared with me was that he could not clearly remember my situation or me – yet I had never forgotten him. What really mattered was how “I” experienced the relationship. This is an invaluable lesson for me as I continue to work with children, youth and families.
At the age of thirty I began my journey into the fascinating field of child and youth care. I am a mother of four wonderful children/teens, a stepmother of two, a school-based child and youth care worker and a recognised professional in my community. After ten years of working while simultaneously completing full and part-time studies, wandering the maze through certificate, diploma, and degree programs, I have achieved my place in the Child and Youth Care Masters Distance program, University of Victoria. Not the outcome one might have expected from a childhood such as mine. What made the difference?
I am intrigued and inspired by the literature on relationships, Fewster, Garfat, Krueger, Parry and VanderVen to name a few. Many of the articles I read explicitly discuss the importance of self in relationship, what it is, what it is not, what it means, how do we know if we are in relationship, what is meant by our being present, and so on. As I read I have another thought – the corollary of this one – do the children and youth feel that they are in a relationship, do they feel that I am present, what does this mean to them? – and how do I find answers to these questions?
In writing this I hope to have contributed some personal perspective on relationships as a child who lived the life of many we work with.