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134 APRIL 2010
ListenListen to this

Useful Child and Youth Care practice is sensible

Jack Phelan

Our work with people is different than working with the general public. The youth and families sent to us have not responded to the usual approaches and motivations that create results in the majority. In fact, many of our youth have successfully resisted even very severe attempts to motivate them to change. Based on life experiences, our youth are suspicious of people who try to be nice to them, and their dominant story about how the world works is full of fear, anger and disappointment.

Youth with this story about the world have a logical, clearly articulated belief system that controls how they evaluate new information. Any person, particularly an adult, who tries to get them to be vulnerable, trusting or honest is dangerous. These youths are in survival mode and they have trained their brains to block arguments that try to convince them to let down their guard. When possible, adults are to be controlled by manipulating their supposed kindness. Logic dictates that the only reason adults are being nice is because they are being paid to do this, or else they are gaining some other hidden reward.

This is not a negative view of these youth, but an accurate analysis of the situation they are in. They have much more compelling proof that life is cruel than we have that it isn’t. Unfortunately, many of us still try to create convincing arguments, using words and logic based on our experience, that life is good. Most youths see us as not being in the same world as them, and therefore quite irrelevant. Our sermons, exhortations and other good advice falls on deaf ears.

Our real task is to create physical experiences that challenge and expand the logic of survival already hard wired into their brains. I have described this Child and Youth Care task as being “experience arrangers” where we communicate physically and sensately to override this filter which prevents our intentioned message from being accepted. We must stimulate the person through sense data, not words, to deliver the information we believe to be important.

So our goal is to create physical sensations, not verbal appeals. To communicate messages of hope, belief in the need for connection, trustworthiness, and social awareness, we need to use sensible techniques and approaches. This appeal to physical sensation is actually quite doable in Child and Youth Care work, since we share life space interactions and physical connection with our charges.

Some preliminary examples to illustrate:

Creating experiential moments with a suspicious and fearful youth like catching a fish, scoring a goal, enjoying a sunset, laughing out loud together, building a project, fixing a broken toy, or enjoying the feeling of physical effort, create a cognitive dissonance where things do not fit into the logic of survival. When these and other sensible moments are shared with a Child and Youth Care practitioner and skillfully highlighted to underscore the sensations created, the story about how the world works gets expanded.

I will continue to expand on sensible Child and Youth Care work next month.

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