CYC-Online 53 JUNE 2003
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Care workers

Staying sane as a child care worker

Brian Gannon

As a Child and Youth Care worker in daily contact with children and young people, you assume an extremely important adult role. You spend a great deal of time with them, you observe them and interact with them, you come to know them and their ways. All growing children, from this interaction with parents and other adults, need:

You as a care worker are entrusted with maintaining these tasks of upbringing. You represent the values and norms of your society and of the kids' families, as well as the philosophy and goals of the agency you work for. In turn, you also represent the children and youth in your group, and share their hopes and aspirations for their futures as mature, responsible and independent adults. Your daily task is one of working at this interface between the children and their worlds, helping them to understand both themselves and the families and communities in which they live, and giving them the confidence and skills they need to cope with the demands of life and to fulfill their own individual goals.

This would be challenge enough for any parent or educator, but Child and Youth Care workers have the added challenge of having to work with difficult, deprived and troubled kids. Such children often bring into the group the disadvantages of their past lives, distorted attitudes and experiences, and much behaviour which has to be “tuned" and even unlearned. And although, like all children, they require both understanding and firmness, the care-giver working in such specialised circumstances needs considerable knowledge, skill and sensitivity. It is this which makes the way we respond to children's behaviour so critically important, and which makes our work generally so difficult and demanding.

Ruling, reacting or responding?
In this field of practice one sees two extreme methods of coping with the behaviour of difficult children. On the one side are those who rule children, prescribing desired behaviours and not permitting any expression of behaviours which may be disquieting or threatening. The problem with this is that the children's behaviour is imposed, standardised and uniform, and there is no way of seeing how they would really behave if the constraints upon behaviour were removed, or whether or not they have learned for themselves how to handle their impulses and feelings. The danger is that perhaps we will only discover this too late, when they leave our program, when the strict regimen is removed, and with it our last opportunity for helping.
At the other extreme are those care workers whose lives are in turn ruled by the children's behaviour. Many workers start their day with a sense of pessimism and foreboding – what sort of a day will the children give me today? – and they wait for the problems and incidents to be thrust at them, and without fail they come! Such workers often go to bed physically and emotionally exhausted, having done little more than attend to the crises, stop the battles and put out the fires. They feel they have worked hard (and they have) but it is questionable whether progress has been made either in individual lives or in the group as a whole; enough that the fort has been held for one more day. The initiative has been left in the hands of the children and dictated by their problem behaviour. The child care worker has simply reacted and through the day has become less and less self-possessed and resourceful, and may well come to wonder whether it is all worthwhile.

If Child and Youth Care workers are to see themselves as a teachers, guides, counsellors and parenting figures to the children, then they must at least retain the initiative, together with the responsibility for what happens in their group. By simply reacting, they lose this initiative and the children call the shots – and the care workers' role is then very much in doubt. By the same token they need to be aware of how each child is doing, and therefore they need to give the children opportunities for making choices and decisions, for trying out new behaviours and for testing out the possibilities and limits of their environment.

The child care worker’s role is not unlike that of a tennis coach who may have some very promising and very unpromising trainees. Child care, like a tennis match, is a dialogue. The trainees must show what they can do and the coach must encourage and correct – and then both try again. There are times when the coach directs the activity, directing his efforts towards a specific limitation or failing in his trainee; and then there are times when the trainee dominates the dialogue, asking for help with a special skill; and there are times when they will play against each other, when each has a chance to serve and so control the movement and pace of the game. The trainee will never develop exactly the same playing style as his coach, and, contrary to the coach’s advice, may prefer a certain grip or technique or speciality stroke. But the end result, the criterion for the coach’s success, is whether or not his trainee can hold his or her own in the game of tennis, either modestly or with high achievement.

That analogy is easily translated into the terminology of child care. The Child and Youth Care worker needs to be aware of the limitations and failings of his charges, and must be ready to respond to the special needs the children demonstrate from time to time. As the children grow they, too, need to “play against" the adults to reassure themselves that they can master their own world in their own way. And though the children will never adopt exactly the same lifestyle as the care worker, he or she will have helped them to the point where they can hold their own in the game of life, whether modestly or with high achievement.

Understanding unacceptable behaviour
We often forget that behaviour is a language, the medium through which people express their inner selves, and that insofar as care and treatment is concerned it is the underlying message which is often more important than the grammar and syntax of behaviour. Child care workers often make the mistake of giving all their attention to the correctness and acceptability of behaviour without also attending to its underlying meaning. Difficult behaviour is usually the symptom of a problem and not the problem itself.

If we were asked for a list of difficult behaviours, we might include the following: rudeness, vulgarity, lying, stealing, cheating, defiance, laziness, unwillingness to contribute, running away, swearing, disruptive behaviour, bullying, fighting, sexual acting out, sulkiness, rebelliousness, bed-wetting or soiling ... and lots more. These behaviours are difficult, but often we experience them as threatening and unacceptable because we feel helpless in the face of them, we do not understand them, we wish they would stop. They are often, in fact, the problems of the children as we experience them, our problems with the children.

Here is another list of problems with children: fear, resentment, sorrow, anger, loss, poor ego control, impulsivity, mistrust, hostility, over-stimulation, lack of verbal skills, anxiety, poor socialisation, cultural deprivation, poor adult models, insecurity ... again, lots more. Could this be the same list as before, but this time the problems as the youngsters experience them? If we see problem behaviour in this way we are developing an understanding and empathy with the kids, and recognising more helpful tasks ahead of us.

Factors underlying behaviour
Few kids decide to be “bad" or “difficult". There can be many factors which lie behind and influence children's behaviour, and these are are particularly common in children who come to the doors of programs like ours. Many of these factors are negative; others are just different, and we must identify which is which. These factors may include:

Different social and cultural experience.
Deprived children often come from a social and cultural milieu which is foreign to us. Poverty, unemployment, low educational attainment, inadequate and overcrowded housing, poor social environment, and perhaps alcoholism and violence, often constitute the children's early environment from which they have learned much of their behaviour and language “which we may consider “bad" but which are, for them, normal. For such children swearing may be common currency and stealing a method of survival, and child care workers must distinguish carefully between what may be called immoral and what amoral.

Level of socialisation.
Social norms differ from suburb to suburb, from household to household. A child may have learned to conform to norms and values which we would find uncomfortable. Or worse, with inadequate parenting or absent parents the child may be poorly socialised since nobody has reflected for her what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. Such children cannot be judged for not knowing what they have never been taught.

Nobody “to behave for".
Except for the autistic, behaviour is a transitive phenomenon, and behavioural training is only effective within a relationship with a significant “valued and valuing “other person, normally the parent. Socialisation outside of such a mutual and caring relationship is a grim and joyless thing. “Every child needs at least one person who is really crazy about him" suggests Bronfenbrenner, and until he finds that person, confident growth and socialisation must wait. The children growing up in a single-parent family where the parent is out at work all day will have little opportunity to gain approval and appreciation for their behaviour. There is nobody “to notice" them.

Ego awareness and ego strength.
The neglected child has often not built up an ability to make sense of his environment, to mediate in an acceptable way his needs and desires, to tolerate frustration and wait for his needs to be fulfilled, or a sense of personal responsibility for his actions. Such children may be pitifully anxious and impulsive.

Many children feel deserted and abused, angry at the way they have been treated, and they distrust authority or adult figures in general. Such children cannot be expected automatically to give their allegiance to someone else, or, worse, to a 'system' such as might exist in a group home, until they have proved themselves and the youngsters feel confident and trusting in them. In the meantime, their pessimism and feelings of betrayal may present with aggressive or anti-social behaviour.

Remember, too, that no matter what their backgrounds, children and youth are not all alike temperamentally, that some are naturally reserved and quiet while others are naturally more boisterous and loud. Temperament is being recognised anew as a major factor which distinguishes children and their styles of behaviour from one another and we bear this factor in mind when considering depression and withdrawal on the one hand and anxious over-stimulation or rowdiness on the other.

In summary, our response to children's behaviour requires some knowledge of the dynamics of behaviour generally, and knowledge of particular kids' limitations and incapacities. We then know where we need to address our best efforts in each specific case. When children are just naughty, then it is their behaviour which concerns us. But for most children in care it is the meaning underlying their behaviour which need our understanding and attention.

Understanding our own reactions
As suggested above, Child and Youth Care may be seen as a dialogue, and if an understanding of the child is important on one side, then an understanding of ourselves as Child and Youth Care workers is equally important on the other side. What are some of the factors which influence our reactions to children's behaviour, and which make it difficult for us to respond helpfully and constructively (like the tennis coach)?

Make no mistake, entering the world of troubled children, no matter what books you have read and what training you have received, you will repeatedly be exposed to discomfort, embarrassment, anxiety, or just plain fear. At the lower end of the scale you may simply fear being made to feel like an idiot. Further up the scale you will be anxious because you don't know enough about the kids and their problems, and you will fear that you are being useless or perhaps that you will make mistakes. And then there will be experiences with really scary kids and family members, the times when (you will get to recognise) you shouldn't be working alone by yourself anyway.

Fatigue, time pressure and burn-out
Most child care workers have to cope with large numbers of children over extended periods. It is difficult to be spontaneous and resourceful when one is physically and emotionally tired. This could be due to external factors such as unreasonable agency demands, client-staff ratios and working conditions. It could be that your team has been through a tough time – difficult behaviour is contagious and “situations" frequently arise in twos or threes. It could be due to internal factors such as our own physical and mental shape, our planning skills and management of our time. Whichever, our health and well-being is an area which must be attended to before we can expect to be able to respond positively to children's behaviour.

Conflicts in agency priorities.
We may work for an organisation which has difficulty in seeing that a group of hurt, anxious or angry youngsters will produce some disturbing behaviour. The organisation may utterly under-estimate the capacity and resources it should apply to the job, or its philosophy may unrealistically value “good" behaviour above treatment needs. We, in turn, are anxious that the clients” continuint troubled behaviour will reflect negatively on our ability to handle the job: we need to show our superiors that we have the situation under control, yet we also want to respond to the children's real needs ... One would wish to avoid any conflict of loyalties where one’s employers are concerned, but these leads to considerable staff anxiety, and perhaps some renegotiation and discussion of the agency’s mission and strategy will be necessary.

The protection of others in the group, balancing needs.
Aggressive and acting out behaviour, for example, is experienced as threatening not only by us but also by the other children in the group, and we have a duty to them to preserve a safe environment. We can become undecided when some youngsters need opportunity to deal with painful issues or try out their limits, while others are needing reassurance and predictability. Always, there are some behaviours which we cannot permit. At the same time, remember that other children can only benefit by observing the constructive resolution of conflicts in the group, and we certainly shouldn’t over-protect them to the extent that there are never any “family rows". Children will usually come to trust an environment (and by extension, a world) in which they see problems together with the solving of problems.

Our own values and standards.
We may react punitively and appear rejecting when children offend against our personal values and codes of conduct. We may feel that we are also members of the group and also have rights, and bad language, for example, may be offensive to us. There is no harm in expressing our preferences, but we should bear in mind the social and cultural factors in the children's lives which we discussed earlier, and be careful not to convey rejection because of an essentially cosmetic failing on their part.

Rigidity and sensitive issues of our own.
Further to the above, we need a deep understanding of ourselves and our own susceptibilities, for few of us reach adulthood having disposed of all our issues from childhood and adolescence. At some stage we have experienced strong feelings of fear or hurt, and we often bring with us into this work some unresolved material of our own, usually related to such powerful human themes as acceptance, authority, sexuality, death, etc. When children present behaviour related to themes like these, there may be areas about which we feel uncomfortable and unable to tolerate or deal with objectively, and we freeze. This may make children even more anxious about similar areas in their own lives, and for the sake of all concerned we need to recognise and face our personal “keep off" issues which lead to rigidity. Never be afraid to admit that you have some “no go" areas which it might be better to allow colleagues to handle in your place.

Insufficient knowledge.
Behaviour which is beyond our experience or understanding is often frightening and we prefer to deny it or eradicate it. When we are confronted by bizarre or exaggerated behaviour we should never hesitate to discuss it with our supervisors. In fact whenever there is anything in children's behaviour which confuses us, for example failure to learn from their experience or repetitive episodes which don’t respond to our interventions, we should refer these to colleagues or superiors. In this way we gain insight into and mastery over our work, and we widen our own repertoire.

Many of us come into this work with high ideals which we are reluctant to let go. The reality of hurt and pain and anger in the children's lives conflicts with our expectations of warmth and gratitude, of being able to preside over “one big, happy family". Such idealism may lead us to prefer not to see the reality, and children may feel guilty and unacceptable for spoiling our fantasies and not fitting into our dreams.

Child care workers, probably more than any other professionals, often have to wait a long time to see results. The mending of broken lives may take years. Children take a long time to regain belief in themselves and in others; they reach plateaus in their healing and development when not much seems to be happening, when no progress is visible; often they stumble, lose confidence and hope, are hurt again, and seem to go backwards. We sometimes have to face the fact that some children are not going to get better at all. This is very discouraging for the workers who may have no comfort beyond that of knowing that they are doing their best, with perseverance, and skill, and great generosity.

Ownership of the problem.
Many Child and Youth Care workers tend to make the children's problems their own, and so may become more anxious than they need to be when confronted by problem behaviour. As a care worker you have offered to assist in the solution of problems, but the problems are not yours. The problems belong to the children, often to the whole family or even the whole neighbourhood; you may be sympathetic and empathetic, you may do your best to help clarify and objectify the problems that you meet, you may be with them whilst they work through the feelings and issues associated with the problems, you may assist them in seeking solutions, but in the end they should be their solutions to their problems, and not yours.

These are some of the factors which often cause child care workers to react rather than respond helpfully to troubling behaviour. Knowing ourselves and understanding our expectations and motivations can overcome many of these. However, the worker should not bear all responsibility for this alone, for he is part of a wider profession and part of a wider team, and must draw on the strengths and resources of both.

Things to take on the journey
Child care workers often see themselves as lone adults in groups of children and families. Unlike other categories of workers, they have no tools in their hands; they work with neither typewriter nor notebook, neither hammer nor saw. It seems to them that in their work they must use themselves as the tools of their trade, and this means risking themselves. As is to be expected when working with troubled children, there is usually more give than take, and in such an economy the books of job satisfaction will not balance.

There are four essential anchors which the child care worker needs to prevent the dangers of personal exposure in residential treatment which lead to reaction rather than response:

A Philosophy of Child Care.
The worker needs a clear understanding of the aims and goals of the trade against which to measure each interaction with a child. “What I am doing now, does this fit with our philosophy?" The ability to step back from a situation to consider it in this light makes it easier to respond helpfully – and less easy simply to react.

Knowledge of oneself as a member of a team.
No care worker should be left entirely to his or her own devices in the treatment of troubled children. Workers must know that they can refer matters at all times to superiors or colleagues, and so gain an objective picture of a child's behaviour and the task which that behaviour implies. It is essential to be able to share with colleagues questions such as “What is actually happening here?" and “What is the best response to make?"

The real team tool under this heading is supervision. Do you have an assigned person just up the passage with whom you can check out your observations, your meaning-making and your actions, your questions about things you don't understand, why is this not working – or why did this intervention work? Supervision is something which should be available to you on the floor, when and where you are working; it should also be available to you on a regular basis so that you can examine larger time samples and at a distance – not only when you are in the heat of confusion or doubt, but when you can reflect how your skills and practice are developing over time. You are not receiving this kind of supervision? Ask for it!

Participation in a treatment plan.
Many children's programs fail to define the tasks which need to be accomplished in respect of individual children, and workers are left at best with a vague and generalised idea of what we are aiming at. If some systematic assessment is done, then for each child there are specific goals to be reached within a plan, and child care workers are greatly helped in their work when these are clearly spelled out. Our responses may then be made in terms of these goals, and everything we do with the children becomes more purposeful – and, again, less likely to be mere reactions.

Practice skills.
We never stop learning how to listen, how to respond. We often answer youngsters in an oppositional way which forbids further discussion; with an air of hasty judgement or finality which allows no exchange of ideas; or we ask literal, intellectual questions ("Why?" being the worst) which the kids cannot answer. They walk away frustrated and unlistened to, often with negative behavioural consequences. The skill of being able to listen, and making time to listen ("Tell me about it") draws much of the sting of their hurt, indecision and anger – and teaches us more and more about the children we work with.

The kids you work with are going to be difficult. That’s part of the deal. This can be scary and discouraging. But we will cope with the work better if we understand the background and meaning of their thinking and behaviour, and if we understand our own shortcomings and skills, our own abilities and vulnerabilities. Above all, we should refuse to go into the field without a battle plan, a shared philosophy, and without the back-up and support of superiors and colleagues. It is our own responsibility to see to it that our personal skills and knowledge are honed and sharp at all times.

This feature: Gannon, B. (1990). Staying sane as a child care worker. The Child Care Worker. Vol.8 No.4. pp10-12

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