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Working Professionally with Children and Youth in Care
CYC-Online Issue 132 FEBRUARY 2010 / BACK
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Situations in child and youth care: Jonny's question

Brian Gannon is presented with a situation, and he responds ...

Jonny is 14. He’s still living at home with his mother and two younger sisters, but if things don’t change he’s likely to end up in care. He and I met once before at the initial conference where it was decided that I will work with him and his family to help them make the changes necessary to allow him to stay at home. Stealing is the major concern. He’s been caught three times shoplifting from electronics stores: walkmans, compact disks, that kind of thing. His mother says he steals money from her all the time.

Today it’s just Jonny and I meeting together. I decided we should go for a walk in the park to get to know each other informally. As we are walking through the gardens talking about what we might do together, Jonny asks if he can ask me some questions. I say sure.

"Everybody steals things,” he says as an opener.
“Well, lots of people do. But not everybody,” I reply.
"Did you ever steal anything?”
When I was a kid, I’d had just about the same problem: shoplifting, stealing from home, and taking other kids' stuff had got me into a lot of trouble. “Hey!” I say, laughing. “This isn’t about me. It’s about you.”
“Sure,” he says, “put me off. You want me to be honest with you. So, be honest with me. Did you or didn’t you?”

Now, I know there are guidelines about self-disclosure, but I’m really not sure how to handle this.

* * *

Situation response

There are two issues here: one is the problem of stealing; the other has to do with self-disclosure.

Three brief thoughts regarding the stealing, which appears to be chronic (mother says he steals from her all the time) and serious (electronics stores usually have good security and high-priced merchandise).

First, diagnostically, with stealing we are always haunted by the possibility of sociopathy or personality disorder. We can generally exclude this by looking for the presence (or absence) of other groups of personality or behaviour traits.

You will get the feel of this as you continue working with Jonny: be reassured as you see that he has the capacity for a relationship, for responsibility, for consideration for others, and for patience. Because the prognosis for a sociopath is usually so poor, we prefer to explore alternative diagnostic routes for a time. While we must be aware of “worst-case scenario” possibilities, let’s rather go with the positive.

Second, speaking as a psychologist, I must say that I have never found an interpretive approach to stealing to be of much practical help. One often hears suggestions that youngsters are “stealing” love or some other symbolic something, but while we are theorizing amongst complex metaphysical explanations, the kid isn’t getting much real help from us.

And third, ultimately, most kids that I have worked with who steal just haven’t learned the rights and wrongs of stealing, or they haven’t learned the seriousness of what they are doing, as these things relate to the wider world beyond their own immediate families and communities. They need the social and moral learning and experience that will only come through some sort of consistent and valued relationships with others.

(There is a fourth consideration, namely that of the possible instrumental nature of stealing: that is, the youngster is stealing consciously to support some other habit or “solve” some other problem. The stealing is then a secondary issue.)

Leading from the third point above, you have arrived in Jonny’s life at a good time, developmentally speaking – just when he is starting to polish his idea of what an adult is and how he sees himself in relation to that image. We don’t know anything about his father (how long he has been away from the family, what sort of person he is, how Jonny feels about him), but if you are going to be seeing quite a lot of Jonny, you are certainly going to present him with some you-shaped identity ideas and ideals.

Already the boy is sounding you out and wanting to discover where you are coming from (we decided to go with the positives, remember, and assume that you are not being drawn into some manipulative game), and here you are worrying about self-disclosure issues. I think that any guidelines around this are more concerned with over-identification with a client than with shared knowledge about each other. (If you were still bugged by your own past problem, then there would be a problem here.)

Self-disclosure is more complex than getting into “you show me yours and I'll show you mine” stuff. There is a fine line between self-disclosure on the one hand, and role-modelling or behaviour-modelling on the other. You will be spending time with jonny, talking, doing things, and going places. A major by-product of this will be the picture he forms of who you are, what you think and feel, and how you function as a person – in meeting challenges, solving problems, having fun, and so on.

On the one hand, I don’t think you can escape this level of self-disclosure. You may be the only chance we have of showing Jonny a red-blooded identity model, a representative not only of the human race but also of society, that will help him sort out some values, make some choices, establish some priorities.

On the other hand, you have one very strong card in your hand: you had a similar problem when you were a kid – and you grew out of it. This is probably the best “key” to the situation. Yes, you once had this problem yourself, but it is something that kids do. Jonny, at 14, is easing out of the age of being a “kid,” and looking for directions as he tracks ideas about being an adult.

It looks like you’re in a position to be a significant adult in his life right now – and for this he needs to get to know you.

This feature: Gannon, B. (1993). Situations in child and youth care: Jonny’s question. Journal of Child and Youth Care, 8, 4. pp. 79-81.

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