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53 JUNE 2003
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Seven habits of reclaiming relationships

Erik K. Laursen

There is solid evidence that caring relationships are key to the development of resilience. However, the specific behaviors and beliefs associated with caring relationships are seldom specified. An ethnographic study with youth in two treatment settings identified core components of caring relationships. These are trust, attention, empathy, availability, affirmation, respect, and virtue. These patterns of behaviors and beliefs are referred to as “habits" of reclaiming relationships. These are seen as specific competencies to be taught to those working with young persons.

In recent years, there has been an explosion of interest in strength-based perspectives in education, psychology, youth development, and human services (Cambone, 1994; Brendtro & Ness, 1995; Rapp, 1998; Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000; Saleebey, 2002).

This is a shift away from preoccupation with pathology, stigmatizing jargon, and fix-it approaches to intervention. This new positive psychology is grounded in resilience research, which identifies specific strengths that enable children and adults to surmount adversity (Wolin, 1999; Wolin & Wolin, 1993, 1996).

A central theme in the resilience literature is that children who overcome difficult backgrounds have connections to caring adults who bolster their courage and determination to persist, despite difficult odds. While this finding is widely touted as the route to successful intervention, little has been said about the specific nature of successful helping relationships. This article seeks to identify specific competencies in caring relationships that can be taught to those who work with children and youth at risk.

Relationships in resilience science
Among the first to provide hard data about the key role of caring relationships in fostering successful outcomes among children of hardship was resilience researcher Norman Garmezy (Garmezy, 1991; Garmezy & Rutter, 1988). His findings augment a growing body of research that includes the most frequently cited study in the field, Werner and Smith’s (1992) longitudinal study of the children of Kauai.

Over a forty-year period, Werner and Smith followed into adulthood a cohort of children born into poverty. Initially, one third were considered at particular risk because they were also burdened by multiple stresses such as family alcoholism, violence, divorce, or mental illness. This study documented the tug-of-war struggle between stressors and protective factors; stressful life events were often balanced with protective factors within their care-giving environments. The great majority of children initially designated as “vulnerable" developed personal strengths, self-reliance, and protective buffers, which enabled them to overcome the negative odds. Werner and Smith made a simple but profound observation about these survivors:

Studies have shown that the most resilient youth all had at least one person in their lives who was absolutely crazy about them.

Further clues about the nature of successful relationships can be gleaned from an evaluation of Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America conducted by Public/Private Ventures:

Our research presents clear and encouraging evidence that caring relationships between adults and youth can be created and supported by programs and can yield a wide range of tangible benefits. The most notable results are the deterrent effect on initiation of drug and alcohol use, and the overall positive effects on academic performance that the mentoring experience produced. (P/PV, 1995, November, p. iv).

Reviews of this research identified two factors that marked effective helping relationships. First was intensity of contact. In effective relationships, mentors and youth met three times a month for an average of three to four hours per meeting. The second factor was a “developmental" perspective by the mentor. The adult was not a preacher but was to meet the developmental needs of youth by providing opportunities and supports. Effective mentors believed that the youth they served had strengths. They searched for those strengths and sought to build on them. They also saw risk as existing in the environment and not in youth themselves. In contrast, less successful mentors viewed the youth as deficient in morals and values and employed “prescriptive" strategies aimed to rectify the deficiencies in the kids. These flaw-fixing relationships were not likely to be effective (Benard, 1999; P/PV, 1995, May).

The strength-based perspective assumes that positive development is best supported by relationships in which youth feel that they are respected, that they have knowledge about what benefits them, and that they have strengths which enable them to make a difference in their own lives. But the mentoring research suggests that some attempts at relationships are unsuccessful. This implies that those who work with challenging youth need competencies in developing effective helping relationships.

Youth perspectives on effective relationships
To further examine the nature of effective caring relationships, an exploratory ethnographic study was undertaken. Twenty-three youth, ages 13 to 19, who resided in four residential programs in Virginia and Michigan were interviewed in-depth about significant adults in their lives. The interviewers used a semi-structured interview guide to probe participants on their perceptions of what caring adults “do," i.e., what are the behaviors these youth ascribe to caring adults. All sessions were tape recorded, transcribed, and analyzed using HyperRESEARCH (2000), a qualitative software program designed to code and organize interview material.

Based on the foregoing analysis, we identified seven elements of caring relationships. These are: trust, attention, empathy, availability, affirmation, respect, and virtue. Each represents a pattern of behavior and beliefs that make an adult worthy of the trust of a young person. These are briefly described and annotated with excerpts from interviews with youth.

1. Trust
Participants in the study identified trust as one of the building blocks of caring relationships. They suggested that trusting relationships bring safety, stability, and encouragement to their lives. While there is no single behavior that demonstrates trust between people, the participants expanded on this element in the following manner. For DeAndre, trust is demonstrated when “they [adults] make promises and they keep them. That gets you a lot of trust. If you are doing wrong on the trust, it’s going to be hard for them to trust you." James described trust in the following way:

She always did what she said she would do. Like if she told me she would talk with me, I could always count on her doing it. And if something came up, she would let me know she couldn’t be there. You know, she was straightforward. So many other adults say they will do things, and they often never follow through. And then when you ask them, they always have a bunch of excuses, instead of just saying they couldn’t do what they had promised. Mrs. Ghee was not like that; she always did what she said she would do.

Trevor emphasized that he would trust and confide in an adult who would keep this information confidential, “Whatever we talk about stays between the two of us. I know I can tell him anything, and he won’t let anyone else know."

Participants agreed that trusted adults follow through on what they say they are going to do. These adults send the message: “I’m accountable to the kids I serve."

2. Attention
Most participants discussed in depth that adults who listen to them convey support and interest, and they encourage dialogue and keep it going. Others pointed out that sometimes adults can attend to them by just “being with me" because it is comforting to “know that you are not here alone." Still others mentioned that adults who put distracting things aside and do what is best for the situation give them full attention. As John put it, “A caring adult listens to you 100% and wants to get the story from your point of view. At the same time, it’s like they read between the lines and help you understand what’s going on."

Shequetta’s statement summarized the information given by many other participants. She said:

"She listens to us and tries to understand what we are saying. She responds by saying that she understands where you are coming from, and she avoids power struggles by not interrupting. She does not tell us how we should feel. She does not put us down. Ms. Johnson always paid me attention. You know, she always made me feel at the center of the world. Many other adults would read through their mail or flip through papers on their desks when they talk to kids. Or answer the phone and then when they hang up, they’d ask what we were talking about. Ms. Johnson was very different. She would let the phone ring and always give me full attention."

3. Empathy
Many of the young people interviewed expressed that they have a need to feel heard and understood. They said that when they do not feel heard, they tend to shut down and become weary of sharing information with adults in the future. Furthermore, they begin to feel that adults do not care about them. While most participants said that it is important for adults to listen and attend, it is equally important for adults to try to understand the story from the young person's point of view.

According to Shawn, “Mr. Turman always tried to understand me and then help me see things in another light. He asked a lot of questions to really try to understand why you were thinking the way you did. He wouldn’t tell you that you were wrong or what you said wasn’t true."

Other participants described how adults helped them find different ways of interpreting life challenges. As James talked about a caring adult in his life, he said, “When he had heard your story, what you thought and felt about a situation, he would help you see the situation from another person's view. He would help you see how you sometimes misunderstand things, and that there is more than one side to a story."

4. Availability
All the children who were interviewed expressed that they wanted to spend time with adults. Among the most powerful ways an adult can communicate interest is by offering time. A girl who calls herself “Cuzz" explained that her foster mother made an effort out of being available:

"She is always able to stop what she’s doing and make time for me to talk about whatever."

Another informant, Shine, said, “No matter what happens, no matter what I do, he’s there for me. I can do anything, and he’s still there for me."

John confirmed the importance of adults being available. He said:

"Mrs. Hawkins would always make time for you. She would sit down and listen to you and would even stop what she was doing if you really needed it. If she absolutely had to leave you before you were finished talking, she would let you know from the beginning and would then find time to finish up our talk."

The participants also spoke of adults taking time to do special activities with them. LaQuinta said, “He does things that my father never did. I went to church with him last Sunday. He takes me to baseball games and spends time with me."

When adults make time for them, young persons find peace and gratitude in the midst of their struggle. They expressed that adults who give freely and unconditionally of their time convey that children are worthy and important.

5. Affirmation
Most of the young people in the study pointed out that adults who care are always able to find something positive about them. Even in the midst of struggles, these adults convey that the youth has strengths and resources. This affirmation instills hope and gives a sense of worth. The children in the study talked vivaciously about the adults who affirm them.

Shine said, “When I’m down, she says, “'You gotta keep your head up and keep trying.' She keeps me going."

Tazz confirmed this by saying, “They encourage us a lot to do our work. They push you to do things even though you don’t want to do it, because it lets you know who you are and what you’re all about."

Other youth detailed how adults highlight their strengths and potentials. DeAndre said, “Mr. Stark always said I can make something out of myself. He saw the talents that each one’s got, and he took us to visit a college. Now some people here plan to go to that college, because he took us there."

John illustrated the same behavior by saying:

I still remember him saying to me: “I understand you are struggling right now, but it will get better. You are a great person, and I know you'll be doing great things in the future. You are so talented with your writing that you'll make something out of this one day." He always found the best in every kid in the program.

The participants agreed that anyone who works with children should practice accepting children for who they are and appreciating their differences. They stressed that adults should not excuse inappropriate, unacceptable behavior but rather affirm that they are willing to help them change. Further, the participants observed that when they feel appreciated, they are provided a source of strengths to face daily challenges.

6. Respect
Several participants mentioned adults who respected young persons enough to involve them in making decisions about their lives. These adults helped them develop a sense of power over their choices and options and instilled in them a sense of control over their lives. They described how adults enabled them to discover the resources and tools within them and around them.

Shequetta expressed how her caseworker and foster mother involved her in decisions:

They always asked what I thought. The caseworker drove me crazy at times because she always said: “You are the expert on your own life, so what do you think?" But it was great to feel that you had a say in your own life.

DeAndre described the respect he received from adults in these words:

"They guided me, but the decisions I was making were mainly my own. They accept me for who I am, and they don’t blame me for the things I do. They sat me down like a man and talked to me. If you give them respect, then they give you respect."

Youth felt that adults who enlist their suggestions send a clear message that they value their abilities, strengths, and resources. These adults believe that young people should and can be part of making decisions for themselves. Other participants felt that adults who behave in this manner teach children to help themselves and prepare them for adult life. Adults who work with them in this collaborative manner respect their opinions in developing solutions and achieving change.

7. Virtue
The participants described caring adults as good role models. These adults practice what they ask kids to do. Tweety said, “She is a positive role model. When I have a problem, she listens to me. She helps me use coping skills."

John was even more specific as he talked about the importance of role modeling. He said:

"He does what he asks us to do! He helps us with homework and talks to us about being responsible, like you shouldn’t drink, you shouldn’t smoke–things like that. He walks you through the consequences of your actions so you can see for yourself what choices you have. He doesn’t tell you what to do, but it’s clear what he believes is right and wrong."

Several youth said that it is important that adults set limits and hold them accountable when necessary. They stressed that boundaries assure that their environment is emotionally and physically safe. Caring adults create a safe environment where they can learn from reasonable rules, limits, and consequences. They felt that in this way they could best learn to internalize rules and behaviors that they can act upon in a thoughtful, reflective manner even if the adult is not present. The youth appreciate respectful guidance.

Tweety said, “When someone yells at me, I get mad. But when someone tells me when I’ve been bad, I’m happy “cause I know that they’re trying to help me."

DeAndre sounded a similar theme:

"I get held accountable. Show respect. Take responsibility for your actions. Do things like in reality – don’t be fake. They negotiate with you. They debate and they educate you – make sure you got a smile on your face every day. That’s great. You know you can make something out of yourself."

The seven habits of reclaiming relationships
This exploratory study identified seven elements of caring relationships as perceived by youth in residential treatment settings. The findings have clear implications for staff training and future research. In their own words, the youth described concrete ways in which caring adults can engender resiliency.

The goal of this study was to specify the components of effective relationships in a format useful to practitioners. Borrowing a metaphor from Stephen Covey’s seven habits of the heart, we have labeled these patterns as “seven habits of reclaiming relationships." In Table 1, we summarize the specific adult behaviors and beliefs associated with each of these patterns.

Table 1. Seven Habits of Reclaiming Relationships

Behaviors Beliefs
Trust Doing what you say you are going to do I’m accountable to the young persons I serve
Attention Putting the young person at the center of concern Children and youth are valuable and worthy
Empathy Seeing the world through the young person's eyes There are many versions to the same story
Availability Making time for children and youth a top priority Young people are important and worth an investment of my time and energy
Affirmation Saying positive things to and about a young person and meaning it Even troubled youth have positive qualities and constructive behaviors which can be acknowledged
Respect Giving young people a say in decisions which affect them Feelings are valid and young persons are the best experts on themselves
Virtue Holding young persons accountable for their behavior with-out blaming; being a role model Children must learn self-discipline, and those who teach them must practice what they teach

An examination of this table makes it apparent that caring is not just a “feel-good" relationship. Rather, effective caring involves specific adult behaviors and beliefs, which provide the catalyst for positive youth development. It not enough for adults to contend that they care; the task is to convincingly demonstrate caring to youth who have not always found adults deserving of their trust.

By clarifying the components of successful caring relationships, we take the first steps on the road to developing a competency-based training program for relationship building. These seven clusters of behaviors and beliefs were drawn from interviews with youth in treatment settings. They complement resilience research and best practices in strength-based interventions. While this is not a formal instrument, these patterns sketch a road map for self-reflection and skill development for those who seek to have a positive impact on the lives of challenging youth.

Portions of this article are adapted from a paper by Sybil Wolin presented at the 2001 Strength Based Services International’s Annual Conference. Used with permission.


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This feature: Laursen, E. K. (2002). Seven habits of reclaiming relationships. Reclaiming children and youth. Vol.11. No.1 pp 10-14

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