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Working Professionally with Children and Youth in Care
CYC-Online Issue 132 FEBRUARY 2010 / BACK
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practice

Relationship scars

Karl Gompf

hi there im well i was in a car crash but lucky to only have a broken arm and ribs hope to see you soon mi burthday is still on septmbur 23
luv rolly

Rolly. There he was. A skinny little kid, twelve years of age, poised to enter yet another home for kids. Already a seasoned veteran of the care system. Eight years in various institutions and only four years on the outside. And being on the outside was at best bleak while being on the inside was at best dismal. The Canadian family that adopted him from an orphanage in Germany really did not want him. They took him only because the orphanage, in their progressive wisdom, insisted that they keep Rolly and his older sister together. It did not take long for the family to place him in an institution in his new country, Canada.

For you to understand how Rolly managed his world, a few lines from the orphanage in Germany are sufficient. “Rolly does not show up well. He is rather impetuous and it is sometimes hard for him to be obedient. He frequently seeks attention by unadapted behaviour.”

Additional lines from a Canadian institution may deepen your understanding of how others viewed this skinny little kid. “Rolly requires constant external controls and his emotional growth has been retarded. His problems include hyperactivity, physical aggression, enuresis, thumbsucking, rocking, teasing, learning problems, destructiveness, and poor impulse control.”

Now in his new home, it was one of those days when, sure enough, Rolly required constant external control. A day when the authors of Rolly’s social history in Germany would have especially stressed that he did not show up well. A day when the Canadian authors may have added to their list of Rolly’s problems (or is it their problems?): he just loses it and causes havoc all day long.

On this day when Rolly did not show up well, neither did I. As he yelled, screamed, kicked, bit, and cursed at all present, nothing helped to calm him down. All seemingly gentle, persuasive, well-meaning attempts at “meeting his needs” had failed. In exasperation I shouted something like: “Rolly, if you don’t stop this behaviour right now, I don’t know what I am going to do.”

Well, Rolly knew what he was going to do. He ran outside. He ran fast. He ran to get away. He kept running – straight into a barbed wire fence surrounding the horse pasture.

He ran back just as fast as he had left, crying, bleeding from his face, and looking for help. Several stitches later, Rolly was calm. He enjoyed his milk and cookies and let his affectionate, forgiving, loving side shine through. The side that had not been documented with his list of problems.

Rolly’s permanent facial scar came to mind recently when I sat in a workshop entitled Understanding and Approaching Behaviour. On the topic of behaviour modification, the guidelines for using punishment included: “Use punishment only when other interventions will not work. Apply the punishment immediately. Apply the punishment consistently. Impose the punishment impersonally. Do not punish when you are angry or otherwise not self-controlled.”

Message to the authors of these guidelines. PUNISHMENT IS NOT APPROPRIATE ANYTIME.

Language has power. So change the language, come up with natural consequences and creative interventions known in the child and youth care field to help kids get through their day. And never, ever, ever lead anyone to think that punishment is OK as a last resort. Or even the threat of punishment. Rolly and I know this.

You see, I didn’t actually punish Rolly on the day he got his scar. But he heard in my message a threat. He heard that I really didn’t know what I might do if his behaviour continued. And I used a loud voice, louder than necessary. When Larry Brendtro, in his wonderful keynote conference speeches, says that child and youth care practitioners need a loud voice, he means an assertive, firm, yet caring voice, not a voice that hints of punishment in any way.

Over the years Rolly and I keep in touch, one of those child and youth care relationships that lend meaning to your life. He reaches out sometimes when he is hurting, sometimes just because, and sometimes when his birthday approaches. His scar is my scar. His scar has healed. Mine is still healing.

hi there good to hear you are well hope your arm and ribs are better hope to see you soon too – have noted septmbur 23 on mi calendar
luv karl

This feature: Gompf, K. (2004). Relationship scars. Relational Child and Youth Care Practice, 17, 2. pp.77-78

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