How many of us can remember how we felt at fourteen, fifteen, perhaps younger, realizing with frightening anxiety that eyes were too small, ears stuck out, hair was too straight or too curly, breasts seemed to be determined not to grow, or were growing so fast they had become an embarrassment, or a penis was missing “ideal proportions" by inches?
Why was it all so worrying, preoccupying our minds and leading to hours in front of a mirror? Our need to be confident of our appearance and attractiveness to peers led to the pursuit of magical treatment for spots, deodorants which guaranteed romance and cosmetics which produce beauty without fail. Sex, the life force, growing up – call it what you like was relentless, absorbing and at times overwhelming. Parents struggle to react appropriately, curbing irritation till it erupts; attempting to speak the language and risking rejection and scorn; flagging up the days between now and when their children 'settle down*, find a long-term partner, stop being adolescent, whatever is needed for the longed-for respite. Such sensitivity and need for approval and confidence affects secure young people. Those whose family lives shatter into a thousand pieces around them have the same feelings, but even less manageable because of the many upheavals they have to endure. Even when parental role models are good, young people still have problems. When they are not, they have little guidance to follow in their search for maturity.
Children in care
At this point many child care staff face the problem of trying to provide parental-type support, but without the benefit of early bonding years, or even adequate information on files in many cases! They also face not one or two teenagers, but a group, eight or ten, hopefully not all in despair on the same day but even that is possible! What should their approach be?
Can they perhaps sometimes be more effective than parents who often have great difficulty discussing sexual matters with their children? The book Growing Up In Groups* offers some suggestions.
Someone will listen
First the anxiety and distress must be acknowledged and openness between the adults and young people is vital. The young people need to know someone will listen if they want to seek comfort or advice. Openness means knowing you can talk if you wish but are not under any pressure to do so. In order to be open with the young, staff also have to be open with each other, being honest about individual orientation, aware of their own sexuality and their attitude to other people's. Some young people may present gay or lesbian issues and staff need to be confident and able, without difficulty, to deal with homophobia as well as. being sympathetic to individual young people. Bullying can focus on sex and physical appearance, sometimes as a way of distracting attention from the bully's own feelings of inadequacy.
It is natural for young people to experiment with sex, but that does not mean that anything goes. The role of staff in “managing" this aspect of behaviour needs to be seen as similar to that of a good parent. It will be helpful to establish some ground rules, discussed and agreed by the young people, and then kept to as far as possible with their support. It won't work every time; parents know that nothing does, but that doesn't mean it is not worth trying.
The age of staff can be significant. Young staff may understand the feelings of the young people and how they set their priorities, but they must be sure of the support of older staff in maintaining important boundaries. Any staff members who sense a sexual component in the relationship between them and the young people need to acknowledge the situation and use the advice and experience of colleagues in ensuring that feelings are not allowed to escalate and create major problems.
The task of residential staff is always difficult. In managing sexual issues individual and collective skill and patience are needed. Staff need to model desirable adult behaviour even when off duty if they are in proximity to the young people.
They also need to be able to control their own natural hurt and resentment when occasionally young people, full of anger and pain them selves, turn to abuse of the adults, which with the sharpness of young tongues can be particularly wounding. It is not easy to remember that to a fifteen year old even a twenty five year old is probably already “past it"!
Helping young people in need to deal with their sexual anxieties and growing up can never be easy, but it may carry some surprising rewards when, like weary parents, staff least expect it.
* Growing up in Groups by Barbara Kahan. 1994, HMSO.