Day-to-day questions that bother child care workers are dealt with in this write-in series
“Things go wrong at the very start of my day. The children seem so defiant even about getting out of bed let alone washing, dressing and chores. By breakfast time I am already in shreds. Is this normal?”
Waking children sounds at first like a very minor problem, but child care workers know that it is very real, and that it often seems to be able to wreck the delicate balance of many relationships before the day starts. Here we have to think of several things: what starting a new day means to a child, what stages children are at in their treatment programmes – and even how old they are.
Another day begins
There are many children – and especially children in care – for whom a new day promises nothing pleasant. If today is going to be another day of unhappiness, of feelings of loss and separation, and of a sense of failure and self-hatred, then I don't really want it to start at all! Yesterday was bad enough; there is nothing better to look forward to today.
Like many worrying behaviours, an unwillingness to get up in the morning can be a symptom of deeper problems, rather than a problem in itself. Care workers often have to think 'What is the real problem here? What can I do about that, so that the child is more willing to start his day?' There are many descriptions of children in care which talk about pessimism, expectations of the worst, feelings of dread, anxiousness about failure ... Child care workers can then work at creating better experiences for children, opportunities for achievement, a sense of being accepted, feelings of growth and competence “all of which can neutralise the negative feelings.
In other words, for such children, we should not be fighting with them about actually getting up in the morning; we should be working out how to make getting up more worthwhile for them. Some practical questions to ask: What nice things will happen (or can be made to happen) for this child today? What feelings of affirmation, success, self-worth, affection will this child get today? What unhappinesses can we get rid of – or at least lighten – for this child today? What fears and dreads can we get out into the open, so that they don't continue to haunt this child's life?
Dealing with all these questions today might just make tomorrow morning different.
Dependency and autonomy
Even as adults, from time to time we regress to a more dependent position, when we feel like being 'mothered' or having a little fuss made of us.
Foster writes: “Disturbed children come into treatment with substantial needs unmet – both the dependency need (the need for mothering), and the autonomy need (the need for establishing their own powers and abilities). Owing to their deep sense of worthlessness, they may have great difficulty both in accepting care and gratification and also in trying out their own powers". This combination of feeling unloved and unconfident often lies at the heart of children's difficulty in getting up in the morning. We are reminded of our role in helping children to progress through developmental blocks and milestones, rather than making them perform according to a routine.
Meeting whose deadlines?
Sometimes we mix all of the children together into a group, and expect them all to perform at the same level, for example, in getting through all of the morning routine by breakfast time at 7 am sharp. Sometimes there are strong expectations in the procedures manual of our organisation about early morning promptness. By giving priority to 'the house rules' or to the unit clock above individual abilities, we can create unnecessary anxiety, and even panic, for children. Maybe there will always be kids who come to breakfast with one sock on and their shirt inside out. We can fix that up after breakfast, but let's prefer a pleasant breakfast rather than a rushed feeling of defeat. The better deadline to follow is the child's timetable of development and socialisation, his growing ability to understand and master the requirements of his world. This happens for normal children along a developmental time scale; and it happens for troubled children as we help them over their difficulties and get them back 'up to speed'. On the one hand, we have no right to expect children to accomplish that which they cannot do; on the other hand we have the responsibility to teach, and cultivate their ability to conform to normal social expectations.
The child who is 'not feeling well' or who 'has a headache' at wake up time is not uncommon. The seasoned (or cynical) child care worker may be tempted first to check whether there is a history test at school today or whether the child has finished his homework before establishing whether or not the child is in fact ill!
By using the word 'malingering', according to Cape Town general practitioner, Stanley Levenstein, the child is too easily seen as bad rather than sad. He goes on: “It may be difficult to assess to what extent, if any, somatic complaints are deliberately fabricated by a child. A more important consideration is what purpose is to be served by such an assessment. If the aim is to identify 'malingerers' in order to expose them as liars and frauds, then the care worker will be embarking on a futile and counter-productive exercise. Much more important questions for a child care worker to consider are: if this child is malingering, why has he or she found it necessary to adopt this maladaptive way of dealing with problems? How can I find ways to try to understand this child better and help him/her to cope more constructively with his or her problems?"
It is the experience of most adults that happy children can't wait to start their day – or, conversely, that children can't wait to start a happy day. There is a message for child care workers in there somewhere.
The exception to this will be with adolescents! In your reading on human development, you have come across the euphemistic statement that in adolescence “sleep patterns are often disturbed". So, when you find teenagers crashed on their beds at 4 pm, wide awake at 11 pm, and then impossible to prise out of bed in the morning, the problem is probably a universal one, which has more to do with adolescence than it has to do with you or your morning routine.
Here again, child care workers get themselves unnecessarily ruffled. Remember that adolescents are also at an age of increasing independence, and where justified, maybe we should let them face their own consequences for being late in the mornings.
A wake-up call (and maybe a cup of tea?) – but from there on it's their life. To protect them from school consequences is often to prevent them learning their own responsibility and competence – and to get all your kids to school on time out of consideration for 'the good name of the children's home' may well be to institutionalise.
The morning after the night before
It could be that the best time to tackle a 'bright and early session' is the night before. We all know that anxiety is reduced when we can deal with coming challenges in advance.
Talking with a youngster about what will be happening tomorrow, what needs to be done first thing in the morning – and perhaps even preparing clothing and school things in advance to reduce the pressure in the morning, can go a long way towards making more cheerful and positive mornings.
Levenstein, S. (1987). Psycho-Somatic Illness and Symptoms in Children. The Child Care Worker, 5, 5.
Foster, G.W. et al. (1981). Child Care Work with Emotionally Disturbed Children, University of Pittsburgh Press.