CYC-Online 120 FEBRUARY 2009
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Negotiating the life space (Part 2)

(You can read Part 1 here and Part 3 here)

Jack Phelan

Building on last month’s installment, the newer Child and Youth Care practitioner gradually begins to feel comfortable in life space work. The initial belief about “what is needed” comes from a personal reference point, what I have referred to in other places as a common sense point of view.

For workers who have had difficult childhoods themselves, the focus can be on providing to the youth what they wish that someone had given to them, specific support, or advice, or open-minded listening. They may have difficulty separating their own past needs from what this individual might need. Clear supervision around boundaries is important at this stage. Newer workers with fairly stable childhood experiences may be overly inclined to use punishment and reward strategies, since this would have worked for them as youth. They have difficulty letting go of very straightforward, logical (to them) approaches. Again, boundary awareness and expanded appreciation of developmental dynamics are issues for supervision.

The initial stage of helping others in the life space is focused on doing things for and to the other person. Newer workers still refer to the youth and families as “clients” and tend to see themselves as quite separate from the people they are trying to help. Therapeutic techniques and external control strategies are eagerly assimilated, while empathy and curiosity are ignored. Diagnostic categories, assessment labels, and behavioral problems are the focus of learning. Supervision can encourage learning these things, but with a caveat that there is much more to effective practice than these pieces.

Newer workers vacillate between fight and flight reactions much of the time when confronted with conflict in the life space. On a behavioral level, there is a tendency to over-react with punitive responses or to ignore and avoid uncomfortable situations. In one–to“One situations, particularly when a newer worker is engaging in life space counseling, there is a tendency to either sympathize and join with the youth, or to argue with his point of view and give advice. The newer worker is still struggling with personal comfort and safety, and has fairly low ability to truly empathize and cleanly engage with the youth.

Thom Garfat has described relational work as entering the “inter-personal in-between” and newer workers do this by creating useful mutual activities, modeling behaviors, and becoming trustworthy care-givers. The more complicated work of being open to the other person's experience will come at another stage of professional growth.

When workers can achieve a level of competence and personal safety in the life space that they can let go of their own needs and be open to what is happening for the other person, then effective life space work can begin. My belief is that this takes at least a year of Child and Youth Care life space experience to accomplish.

More next month.

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