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71 DECEMBER 2004
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family work

An Explanation of Family Support Work

Jack Phelan

I am teaching a course on Child and Youth Care practice with families this year and we are creating an ever expanding viewpoint on what is significantly different about the Child and Youth Care approach in family work. This is a fourth year course and the students are experienced practitioners, so we have some wonderful discussions together. I want to share some of our thoughts with the CYC-Online audience.

We are using the new book, A Child and Youth Care Approach to Working With Families, as our text, which is available on this web-site. I would like to share our discussion in a recent class where we explored the premise that one good way to articulate a Child and Youth Care approach with families is to begin to examine the process of doing residential care work. An examination of this form of Child and Youth Care practice will help us to develop a theory of Child and Youth Care family support work.

The major challenge of residential work is the fact that you are living with the youth on a full time basis. The practitioner spends eight or more hours per day fully immersed in the life-space, trying to create communication, cooperation, and information. The worker learns about the youths” lives and their families through a process of sharing space, food, energy, etc. and trying to develop purposeful interactions. In the process of living together, the worker feels the daily parenting burden and the “worry energy" expended in being with these needy youth. The “caring for" that occurs creates an empathy for parents, which also results in a resentment when parents have been less than adequate.

There is a decision point here for us, and some workers choose to support and join with parents to strengthen families, others choose to reject the parents and protect the youth from their families.

The behavior confronting us is another major challenge, and workers have a choice here to see behavior as consciously chosen and needing to be reinforced or punished, with relatively simple and logical explanations, or as a manifestation of the stuckness (to use a solution-focus term) of the youth. Workers who choose the former can stay relatively comfortable with using external control, advice and logical consequences (a Child and Youth Care oxymoron) to deal with youth. Workers who choose to view the youths” behavior as being more complex are able to notice the depth of the stuckness and when this occurs, they also begin to see the strength and resiliency underneath the poor choices.

When we appreciate the depth of the stuckness and the hidden strengths, we are ready to create a relationship. Child and Youth Care practice has relationship work as axiomatic, yet unless we can see the other person as a potentially competent person with a legitimate reason for acting as they do, our relationships will be flawed from the start.

Residential work is very demanding and not all workers reach this level of skill and understanding. Competent Child and Youth Care family support workers often come from residential practice and can translate this ability to family work.

Some of the beliefs that easily translate to family work include viewing loyalty to one's family as a resilience, not an unrealistic fantasy; experiencing resistance as a healthy protection that requires the worker to look at himself, not the family; and knowing that you have to meet the family and youth where they actually are, not where you would like them to be.

Good Child and Youth Care practitioners know the futility of giving advice or being “logical" and that externally applied solutions are not useful.

So here is a beginning description of the competent Child and Youth Care Family Support Worker and how he/she is distinct:

We find ourselves confirming some things that were nervously known, and discovering hidden wisdom around many items. I often remind myself, to quote Goethe, “Everything has been thought of before, the difficulty is to think about it again."

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