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29 JUNE 2001
ListenListen to this

questions from readers

The irritating child

The problem: I don’t know how many other child care workers have this problem, but we have one girl, fourteen, nearly fifteen years old, who is obviously in need of a lot of attention, but whenever she comes into the room, instead of feeling sympathy for her, I become knotted up and resistant. She asks unnecessary questions, makes obvious remarks, doesn’t “take hints” when it’s time for her to go, and (I know this sounds harsh and unhelpful) she just seems to take up space and time. I find myself saying wearily “Yes, Marie, Yes Marie, Yes Marie..." almost sarcastically. I feel guilty about this – she never gets beyond this rather servile and irritatingly ingratiating style – and I’m not sure why I feel this way or how I should try to respond.

* * *
You have outlined this situation very clearly and honestly. You begin by wondering whether other child care workers experience this kind of problem. Often we assume that we are the only people who have certain problems, but this is seldom the case. The problem you have described is one that child care workers often encounter – you are not alone in this! But as I reassure you, I also remind you that if you feel some hesitance, uncertainty and a sense of exposure in expressing this problem, remember this feeling. The next time you speak to a youngster about some difficulty that he or she may be experiencing, remember your own doubts as to whether this is a normal and natural response to a problem, and you will understand better how hard it is for children to put themselves on the line by expressing their worries.

By being in touch with our own feelings we are able to understand the experiences of our clients.

Working as people and as professionals
You have described your impatience with this child's behaviour quite clearly. You resist giving her the attention and warmth that you know she needs, and that this makes you feel guilty. You seem to have a good sense of how you should respond to her in order to meet her needs and help her development. But you cannot quite get yourself to respond emotionally to her in the way that your head tells you that you should.

This conflict between ourselves as people (with our limitations and difficulties) and ourselves as professionals often arises in our work. At times our grasp of the needs of a child just does not match with what we, as people, have to offer. This is not comfortable for us, because we want to be of service to our clients.

Not being able to meet our own professional expectations leaves us feeling bad. We often deal with such feelings by blaming others – our organisations, our supervisors and colleagues, and even the children. Instead of doing this, however, you have approached this problem in a thoroughly professional manner. You have taken a hard look at the child and a hard look at yourself, and you admit to yourself that you find it hard to respond to the needs of this child. Well done! Defining your problem so honestly is often half the battle. Now you can go ahead and start working on solving the problem.

Why the irritating behaviour?
If this were a problem we could deal with in supervision, face-to-face, we would need to spend some time exploring your feelings about this child, and try to find out exactly what behaviours trigger your feelings of impatience.

In supervision it might be useful for you to explore your own feelings of neediness and dependence. For example, do you feel impatient and irritated with yourself when you experience yourself as being needy? How do you feel when others appear to want or need more from you than you are able to give?

All this may seem silly to you, but remember that we as Child and Youth Care workers are not machines – but human beings who bring to each and every interaction our own selves. We bring our personal histories and our personality styles. When we find our actions inconsistent with our expectations of ourselves we are offered some material for self-exploration.

Studying this material usually yields insights into our own emotional lives that have previously been covered up. Uncovering some of this can help us to understand our reactions. This understanding, in turn, helps us to take better control of those feelings. And this reduces the effect that our discomfort may have on the child in question.

What I’m talking of here is the old thing that we talk of again and again in child care – self-awareness. If you are able to understand your own feelings, it is easier to control them, and react in the most useful way for the child.

We cannot, at a distance, take this line of thought much further. But perhaps you have someone in your organisation who could help you explore somethose things. It need not be someone in authority, but perhaps a trusted colleague who would be happy to listen to you – don’t overlook the value of peer supervision. Alternatively you could spend some time on your own thinking through these questions. Mull over them in your own quiet time and see what understanding emerges. Another thing you could do is write down your thoughts and feelings – putting thoughts down on paper helps us reach clarity.

Looking inwards to yourself would be one way of working at this difficulty – becoming aware of your own “issues" and how they affect your behaviour with this child. The second way would be to look outwards to the relationship.

Some suggestions
Think of things you can do to improve the situation, and to minimize any negative impact your confusion may have when working with this child. Several practical suggestions follow:

1. Arrange to spend a period of one-to-one time with her. Figure out how much time you feel you could manage to be with her in a compassionate, professional and helpful mode. Contract to spend that amount of time, (whether it be 10 minutes or half an hour) as often as is realistically possible. Be sure to be accurate in your estimation of this time span. Then put the contract into operation sticking to the times you agree with her.

2. Be assertive during other time that you spend in her company. In Child and Youth Care we are exposed to children in their life space. You cannot and should not avoid this child, and you cannot limit the time you spend with her to the one-to-one sessions. It is necessary for you to begin to set clear limits for her. You say she does not “take hints" (which is something you probably find annoying) so do not give them. Rather give her firm clear instructions before you become annoyed with her. “We must both be off now; I will see you at suppertime (or at 5 o'clock as we planned)." This will provide necessary and healthy boundaries without rejection.

3. Listen to what this child is really saying. You say she asks unnecessary questions and makes obvious remarks but use your listening skills to try to understand what she is trying to communicate with these seemingly inane comments. What is the subject matter she discusses? Is she trying to impress you ... or boast ... or perhaps even test you by boring you? Listen to the messages beyond the words. Is she simply saying anything she can think of to fill an awkward silence? Attend to her, and perhaps her meaning will become clearer. Youngsters often say the same things day after day because they think you haven’t really heard them yet. Or does she simply lack social skills? If so, you will know how to follow this up. Is she so much in need of attention that she will take it whether positive or negative? Listen to her with your full attention and try to understand what she says from her point of view.

4. Respond to her communication in an attentive and alive manner. Often when we have negative feelings towards a person we block these off. Along with the blocked off negative feelings we block off positive feelings too. We hold onto the anger so tightly that no other more light, positive and inspiring feelings can emerge. Be sure to be responsive to her. Express your feeling about the content of her communication. “You told me that yesterday; now I’m sure you have something new to tell me today." In this way she will get the feeling that you are interested in her. You will also be brightening up the communication from your side.

5. Engage her in an activity. It sounds as if this young person struggles in social situations. Try to engage her in an activity that she can pursue instead of simply hanging about in the manner you describe – whether that be peeling potatoes or helping to staple papers together. In this way she will feel useful and the activity will provide separate focus for conversation.

6. Make her life more interesting. Perhaps this child has little to offer in a social situation because her life is uneventful. This is often the case with young people who have spent a lot of time in programs. She sounds like someone whose creativity is not being challenged. Providing age-appropriate opportunities for her to experience herself as a human being capable of doing exciting and challenging things will help her to become more interesting to others.

7. Provide opportunities for her to give to others. We know that it is important for young people to feel capable of giving, not only taking from others. Some children do this spontaneously but many for whom we care do not, and thus miss the benefit of altruism. Some suggestions for giving or doing something for others need to be provided for these children. This would place her in an altogether different role, of giving something and not only seeking something.

8. Use your team. It is likely that other members of your team have similar experiences of dealing with this child and perhaps others who have an entirely different experience. Discuss this with the team and work Out a strategy for optimal engagement with all the adults in her environment.

Clearly this young girl is “stuck" (like a broken record) at a difficult point in her life or in her development. We owe it to her to help her to get past this. You will find that getting her to move on to the next stage will automatically end the irritating repetition, which is a sign of her being “stuck". Use this task also as an opportunity to extend yourself – your self-awareness and your own skills. Decide on your approach, apply it consistently over a period of time and then evaluate the situation to see if there has been any change.

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