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CYC-Online Issue 83 DECEMBER 2005 / BACK
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The unintended relationship

Brian Gannon

Our field is characterised by the relationship, not just the casual contact which arises between two people, but the chosen medium and method for our intervention with young people. It is more than the “customer relationship” set up by any service provider and client (as between you and your plumber or hairdresser) which is just a polite and cordial platform upon which to do business. The child and youth care relationship is a real and dedicated engagement, entered into consciously, circumspectly and generously. It involves a commitment, probably initiated by the care worker and hopefully joined in time by the client(s), which includes time dedicated, personal space made available, allowances made, trust built and endurance guaranteed.

Not to put too hard an edge on it, but to be realistic, from an agency viewpoint the child and youth care relationship is budgeted: it is understood to be part of the capacity which the agency extends and makes available to young people and their families; it is an investment of costed time and human resources, and both management and professional know that it has a price tag. The professional team will usually assign specific time and tasks to one of its members, in the belief that the relationship is one of the tools of our trade, one of the constructs of the child and youth care approach to working with people.

But not all of our relationship with clients are like this. I was working recently with a group of teachers in a school which was experiencing increasingly difficult behaviour from the scholars. The balance between “teaching” activity and “baviour management” activity was becoming strained. Teachers felt challenged by the competing demands of the curriculum on the one hand, and the rising tide of behavioural and emotional disruption on the other.

One teacher put this starkly in “budget” terms. “I have thirty students in my class. If I were to give each of them just one hour of my time each week, I would have no time to do any teaching. All of my teaching time would be used up!” This plausible-sounding arithmetic has a flaw. It assumes that all of our relationships are always one-on-one relationships. And while we child and youth care workers may be relationship experts, we are also group experts.

Much of our work centres on managing the milieu and the group “whether in the club or community centre or dorm or residential unit. When we are working with any group, we set up a relationship with that group, we learn its capacities and moods and whims, and, by extension, we set up relationships with the members of that group. Just as we are real people in our one-on-one relationships, so we are real people in our interactions with the group and its members. We get to know the group’s members, their samenesses and their differences, their strengths and their needs, and all child and youth workers will be able to hold in mind quite separate pictures of the eight, twelve or twenty members of the group (or team or class, whatever) they are working with.

Bearing that in mind, the milieu we create is made up largely of our myriad interactions with the group as a whole and with the individuals in the group. And this is important: When we deal courteously and constructively with Tommy who is acting up in our class, the others see. Some don’t take much notice; those for whom the interaction has relevance will perceive according to their needs and concerns in the moment. The unsure and anxious will be reassured. “When I get into difficulties and screw up,” one may think, “this is how I might also be helped.” Our positive intervention and demonstration of caring with one child contributes to the “hygiene” of the milieu and certainly gives hope to others, thus playing a healing and preventive role for the kid who might otherwise have acted up tomorrow.

So the flaws in the budget-minded arithmetic of our earlier teacher friend are exposed. In social contexts we do not have to teach every lesson to every child. In dealing with difficulties we don’t have to spend one hour with every child and thus use up all of our teaching time. For some youth we do have to spell things out; most learn simply by being there, by observation, by analogy, by osmosis.

And just as we have our own “picture” of each member of our group, so the eight, twelve or twenty members of our group will have their own entirely different and unique pictures of us “and in most cases we have no idea of what their picture of us may be. If there are twelve members in our group, be assured that we are involved in twelve relationships woven of these mutual perceptions and shared experiences.

What we do learn in retrospect (and usually after some years in the “game–) is that some youngsters hardly remember us at all (“Oh yes, he was that dude with the long hair–) while for others we might discover that we were people of the greatest possible significance “even if we hardly remember them!

We will always remember the relationships we consciously enter into with children, youth and families who are assigned to us “the intended relationships. But we must also be aware that we may be involved, we don’t know how deeply or peripherally, in the unintended relationships with other clients in the program, and who may invest reliance and confidence in us that we never know.


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