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Working Professionally with Children and Youth in Care
CYC-Online Issue 132 FEBRUARY 2010 / BACK
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A useful way to begin

Jack Phelan

Do no harm. This simple yet profound principle is a key to being effective as a Child and Youth Care practitioner. You will get many policies and procedures to follow, based on the agency employing you, but this rule is a major reference point at all times.

New CYC workers are often surprised by the behaviors of the children, youth and families we are asked to help, since they behave differently than we think they should.

The feeling of being loved and connected to others is a fundamental human need, and new workers want to fill this obvious emptiness in the lives of children and youth. Unfortunately, when you try to express this emotional closeness with the children and youth we serve, the response is often hostility and aggression. Youth who have had major experiences of loss, rejection or trauma often have a powerful fear of being vulnerable and needy and cannot allow themselves to get close to others, particularly adults. The response to affection and attempts to get close are aggression, or overwhelming neediness, both caused by the belief that you do not really care and will not be around for long. Our intention, which is to have them experience being cherished by another, actually creates fear, resentment and distrust. Doing no harm means being very careful to only give them safe, manageable experiences of affection.

Common sense is a valuable commodity, yet it can also be a hindrance in our work. When we respond to the behavior of the children and youth with answers that would have worked for us when we were young, we are using common sense (using myself as a reference point) instead of trying to think like the youth we are trying to help. Many of the youth we help are actually thinking and acting like children who are still quite young. The behavior of a demanding two year old who says “No” to most adult suggestions is considered normal, but when a fourteen year old does this, we are confused and offended. Youth who have survived without caring adults are very focused on their own needs and do not worry about what other people are thinking or feeling. When an adult expresses anger or disappointment because of a youth’s actions, the youth sees it as your problem, not his. Doing no harm means not lecturing a youth about how he has offended you or others, when he is not able to understand this.

New CYC practitioners have anxiety about competence. This career is very demanding, and no one is really prepared for the stress of trying to help others who seem to need so much. Safety is the main dynamic here, and control is a major tool to relieve this anxiety. Control of the environment, or of the other person, seem needed, when self control and anxiety management are actually needed. As you find yourself tempted to use threats, punishment, or your adult authority to get results, be aware that this is your attempt to relieve your own anxiety. Doing no harm means only creating enough control over the other person as needed for safety.

Care is a big part of your work. Helping people in real life places requires us to be practical and concrete. We use simple tools to create complex results, which often means that we have to have a big picture view of small events. Needy, self absorbed people are hard to help because they do not appear to be grateful or appreciative. Also, youth can demand our attention and care at inconvenient moments, because we need to demonstrate that we care even when it is not easy. Some ways to show me that you care are to make me laugh, to take a special interest in my music or hobbies, or to do something special that is not part of your “job to care for me”, like making my favorite snack.

Helping me save face, forgiving me easily, not being upset over something that happened yesterday, are all ways to show you care. Give me what I need, not what you feel like giving me. Do not make me embarrassed or blame me when I do not do things well, it only makes me believe that you do not care about me. Be clear and firm about limits because I need them, not because you need them. Do no harm means caring without needing to get patted on the back.

Why are people nice to each other? We all have a logical answer to this question, based on our life experience. The children, youth and families we help often have a different logic than we do. The Golden Rule, do unto others as you would have them do unto you, is not logical, actually the Dog Eat Dog rule of do unto others before they do it to you, is more logical. There is no reason for people to be nice to another unless they get some personal benefit. Child and Youth Care workers are paid to be nice to me, that is why they act like they care. When I get punished for a misdeed, the only reason the worker is punishing me is because he enjoys being powerful. When the children and youth we help can grow beyond this logic and see the intrinsic value in caring for others, we will have been successful. Do no harm means not abusing our power as well as opening up opportunities for children to care for others, while being fully aware of how illogical this activity will seem at first. Thinking differently, basically taking on the viewpoint of the children and youth we are trying to help is a difficult task. While we will never fully appreciate the pain of another person, we can strive to be sensitive enough to minimize the messages we unintentionally convey which do more harm than good. A very useful way to begin.

This feature: Phelan, J. (2009). A useful way to begin. Child and Youth Care Work, 27. 6. pp. 18-19.

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