Working with young people who have challenging learning, emotional, and behavioral problems places extraordinary demands on the personal and professional resources of educators, counselors, and other youth service providers. Many caregivers become disillusioned because they do not see immediate results from all their hard efforts. Others “burn out” or become frustrated. In order to remain hopeful and prepared to take care of youth in need, teachers/helpers need to make a conscientious effort to take care of themselves first. But as simple and straightforward as this may seem, many youth-serving organizations do not make staff wellness a high priority, and the youth they serve can suffer as a result.
Though awareness of the need for self-care has increased over the past few years, attention has been focused primarily on emotional well-being and physical health. While these aspects of self-care are important, they are only a small piece of a larger picture of wellness. We need to expand our concept to include all areas that impact on our preparedness to help a young person. We need to review and revise our professional practices and our organizational policies to ensure they properly support staff in all aspects of their personal and professional lives that can affect the interpersonal dynamic of the helping relationship. Why? Because if we are not adequately trained and supervised, supported, self-aware, and present-centered in our interactions with young people, we risk losing one of those fleeting opportunities that presents itself from time to time – the chance to reach a child in crisis.
Wellness as personal integrity
The need for caregiver wellness, especially in the form of greater self-awareness, can be distilled to a simple principle: we cannot take another person past where we are in our own lives because we do not possess a map for the journey. In other words, we cannot be an effective catalyst for change in the lives of young people unless we model what we wish to teach them. We cannot pass along prosocial and positive values to youth unless we reflect them in our own speech and actions. Without this kind of personal integrity in our helping or healing relationships with youth, our efforts to motivate, encourage, and support will ring hollow.
It is easy to forget that young people living in difficult circumstances are often wary and mistrustful of adults and hypersensitive to any hypocrisy reflected in our words or actions. This does not mean we have to be the embodiment of human perfection to be effective healers and helpers. But it is essential that our actions reflect our true beliefs and that they follow consistently from our convictions. In other words, our credibility with youth comes from the degree to which our “walk” matches our “talk.”
Wellness as the ability to dialogue
When an adult caregiver and a young person encounter each other for the first time, impressions of youth can form quickly and, once formed, be highly resistant to change. If the adult is not careful, stereotypes, rapid judgment, fear, anxiety, poor training, and personal exhaustion can all contribute to the formation of a biased and limited assessment of the young person that will continue to negatively influence the adult’s interpretation of the youth’s behavior for a long time. It is true that young people often resent our intrusion into their lives, having experienced far too much rejection from other adults to be able to trust easily, if at all. Yet by carefully monitoring our reactions to this initial posturing, we can avoid shutting down the healing/helping process before it even gets started. Listening, really listening, to what the youth says and does not say is so important.
How caregivers present themselves in these early moments is just as crucial to the development of subsequent relationships. Caregivers need to ask themselves: Through my example, what is the invitation I am extending to this youth? Will it bring him or her toward me, toward what I have to offer, toward hope and a belief that changing his or her life circumstances is possible? What is reflected in my own life, in my own values, attitudes, and beliefs, that would help heal, inspire, and give support to this young person? What we discover in our answers to these questions can set us upon a journey of professional development and personal renewal that will quite literally never end. Though it may not seem like it at the time, these difficult and sometimes challenging early moments present a unique opportunity for extraordinary personal transformation. It all hinges on whether or not we are able to move past the initial reactions described above and toward true dialogue.
Opening a dialogue is not the same as establishing rapport. Rapport means creating a communication bridge between ourselves and another person. Dialogue implies speaking and listening from a place of mutual respect, an exchange between equals involved in a search for common understanding. It requires suspending judgment, opening ourselves to learning, and creating safety and the conditions that lead to reciprocity and intimacy. True dialogue must be at the core of any relationship where the goal is to facilitate healing, change, or personal transformation. In its absence, our encounters will seem like little more than interrogations to young people and can be extremely frustrating to the caregivers as well.
But how is true dialogue possible when the adult caregiver possesses more social power, resources, and other advantages than the youth and can exert enormous influence over the course and outcome of interventions? It is possible, but it requires taking some risks and stepping outside the usual comfort zone and the rigid role boundaries of professional practices.
The greatest obstacle to true dialogue is the way many caregivers get locked into professional roles as a way to ensure conscientious and correct practice. Unfortunately, overreliance on such role boundaries can “box” young people in and create “cases” out of persons. Until the perspective of young people is included in our formulations, and their lived experience is counted as expertise, we may miss a great deal of what we need to be prepared to help them.
Adults who are having difficulty coping because they are under-resourced, poorly supported, exhausted, or overwhelmed can also often retreat behind rigid professional practices to avoid dealing with the complexity of young people’s issues. But whether to ensure correct practice or self-protection, retreating from the “moment” with the youth we serve – or losing sight of them as equals in the search for understanding – severs a vital connection that could otherwise lead to mutual learning.
Tragically, many young people experience our rigid adherence to roles as indifference, detachment, and lack of genuine concern. Wounded children and youth want to know that they reach us, that we are listening, and that our responses are based not simply on professional categories and practices but on being touched and concerned by how they feel. When they look into our eyes, they need to see our vision of their wholeness, not reinforcement of their brokenness. Even experienced and conscientious teachers/helpers will lose the connection if a youth senses that he is being “techniqued” or that the caregiver is merely feigning interest or concern.
Wellness as supportive administrative
In order to move beyond traditional professional roles, caregivers must not only take personal risks, they must also be supported in their efforts by pro-staff administrative practices in their organizations. Such practices include helping staff develop a conscientiously applied program of professional development, assigning realistic and manageable workloads, and adopting self-care as a standard of practice and criterion for annual performance reviews. It means making sure that staff are adequately trained from the beginning to do the work they are required to do. It also means screening job applicants carefully and thoroughly during the hiring process to make sure they pose no risk to young people or co-workers and are likely to make a positive contribution to the organization overall.
Perhaps the most crucial, though often neglected, supportive administrative practice an organization can offer is quality supervision. In many school, counseling, and other youth service settings, supervision all too often becomes simply a matter of “correcting mistakes” in one’s work with clients. Many of us labor under a false notion that we learn from having our mistakes pointed out; we don't, unless the person bringing those mistakes to our attention is non-authoritarian, non-threatening, and non-confrontational. Our willingness to hear and accept criticism is conditional on our relationship with that individual. If the relationship is negative or lacks trust, what we are likely to learn is how to avoid getting “caught,” to lay blame elsewhere, to avoid bringing issues forward, and to use power-abusive professional practices. In other words, we are likely to end up mistrusting authority, becoming dependent on external control to shape our behavior, feeling silenced and fearful, or devaluing and doubting our talents and abilities.
Ironically, these are the very issues we are usually trying to address with our clients, yet they can characterize our own relationships with supervisors and colleagues. Shifting the focus away from “correcting mistakes” to drawing out the talent and, more important, the self-awareness of staff is far more beneficial and more likely to support the development of effective working relationships between adults and young clients.
Another practice that supports such effective working relationships is soliciting feedback on our professional performance from young people. It may sound risky at first – inviting feedback from clients will mean giving up some power and opening one’s self up to criticism. But this practice can be a surprisingly effective way to increase accountability, refine skills, improve productivity, and stay current on youth issues. Soliciting client feedback can also save us from the misguided illusion that we can remember our own adolescence and are thus able to “relate” to the youth. Even if we could recollect our adolescence with precision, the times have changed and young people today are dealing with issues that did not exist just a few years ago. Moreover, teens of a different gender, different sexual orientation, or from a different cultural or socioeconomic background than the caregiver will experience problems that the adult may have difficulty understanding.
The task, then, for caregivers is learning how to maintain a boundary necessary for promoting healthy healing while still creating room for dialogue, intimacy, and genuineness. This vision of professionalism means acknowledging to young people and ourselves that we do not always have the “right answers.” It means surrendering power, leaving the familiar, and creating a neutral place in which to meet the child unfettered by our categorizations and valuations. This can be unsettling. But when we are in touch with our own discomfort and uncertainty in these moments, we begin to access the experience of powerlessness typically felt by the young people we serve. If we allow these feelings to teach us, they will transform our work in heretofore unimagined ways.
Most of us can recall moments with teachers or other significant adults who had a profound effect on our lives during our formative years. When asked to identify the essential elements of that experience, adults typically recall things that have more to do with personal qualities of the adult and elements of the helping relationship than with the subject matter at hand. In other words, adults recall being affected more by the interpersonal process of learning/teaching than by the content. As professionals, however, we may forget the importance of these interpersonal variables – the integrity of those teachers, the way they heard and valued our opinions through true dialogue – and place greater emphasis instead on the information we want to pass on.
The simple truth is that our process of helping, teaching, or healing is our message. When we understand this, and are supported by organizational practices that foster staff wellness, we as caregivers can be truly prepared to help.
This feature: Mathews, F. (1996). Being prepared to help. Reaching Today's Youth, 1, 1. pp. 52-54.