CYC-Online 125 JULY 2009
ListenListen to this


To be awake or not to be awake – that is the choice: Bringing presence into Child and Youth Care practice

Debra Palmer

I’m not exactly sure when I re-experienced being fully awake. Other than my original experience of being born, being awake had become merely a mechanical phenomenon , the act of “doing” from an external perspective. Although I had flickerings of being awake, or experiencing my vitality from my core, it wasn’t until I experienced a near fatal accident that I began to understand what being awake was really all about.

I had a life choice to make; would I use medication for chronic pain, or search for another way to manage it? I chose the latter. It was then I discovered the power of breath. Through my personal experience, and years of research, I discovered that not only could breath-work assist in relieving the pain, but also help to renegotiate the trauma through my body. I was beginning to experience myself from the inside. I was amazed at my innate potential to be alive and awake at the same time.

Around this time (during the early eighties) I had a contract with the “Ministry of Social Services” to work with very complex, exceptional children and youth in their family homes. While I had many profound learning experiences during those years, my relationship with one exceptional young woman was life altering. She introduced me to listening. She was (is) a blind quadriplegic, with epilepsy and cerebral palsy.

One day, as we busied ourselves with the nightly routines of bathing, medications, physiotherapy exercises and our evening crossword puzzle (I read out the clues and, hand-over-hand, assisted her to write the words on the paper), she suddenly stopped what we were doing and asked, “Can you hear that dog barking?” I listened, or rather thought I was listening, but heard nothing. “No I can’t hear a dog,” I replied. “Listen harder, “she insisted, but I still could not hear the dog over the general noise of the house. She became very quiet and closed her eyes. “Listen to your heart beating first and then you will hear the dog,” she whispered. I closed my eyes and went inside. I shut off my thoughts for a moment and allowed my awareness to move to my heart beat and there it was, in the distance, the sound of a dog barking. I was excited, “I hear it” I exclaimed. She smiled and turned toward me. “I know,” she said quietly.

In that moment of internal awakening and re-connection, I recognized my own ability to stay inside, tune out all irrelevant stimuli and focus on the sound. I realized that what I hear is not simply my vestibular system tuning in to external stimuli “it is a personal choice. No sooner had this dawned on me when my friend took the insight one step further. “Now that you can hear it, do you think he’s happy or sad?” she asked. Once again I went inside and found the place where I could hear the faint howl in the distance. “Definitely sad,” I replied, ... “definitely sad.”

"You’re right,” she laughed. The sense of connection was immediate and overwhelming. She was not only listening to the dog, she was also listening to me listening to the dog. We had established a new bedtime routine; we called it “What Do You Hear” and we played it every night for three and a half years.

Our relationship had changed. From that time on, things were different between us. There was a “knowing”, there was attunement, and there was that magical space in which two people find connection. I didn’t know what this was all about then; I was new in the field, and relatively new at being awake. But I knew something had happened. I knew that I had experienced a universal language. I know now that this language contains key components “the universal experience of breath, presence, boundary and contact. I know now that only when I am awake, fully present, and contained in my boundary, can I make energetic and personal contact with an other; and only when that other is awake and in a boundary is there potential for us to meet.

As I meandered through my career as an early childhood educator, special needs educator, infant and toddler educator, infant development consultant, special needs aide, and child, youth, and family counselor, I instinctively knew there was more. There was more to connecting than paraphrasing, more to listening than hearing, more to “being there” than leaning forward with good eye contact, and there was much more to helping than implementing the “intervention strategies” of the trade.

Simultaneously, I pursued further learning, in the fields of Early Childhood Education. Special Education, Child and Youth Care, Clinical Counseling, and Educational Psychology. But I always had a sense that something was missing. Throughout my undergraduate program in Child and Youth Care and my Masters” program in Counseling Psychology there were smatterings of energetic work, talk of boundaries, discussions about presence, references to internal locus of control, and countless exhortations about making contact. But where was the practice?

Now as a Registered Clinical Counsellor and Family therapist in private practice, I fully realize how much was missing from my formal university education, and how much was missing from the quality of my interactions with some of my early clients. Through my personal work, enhanced by my training in Integrative Body Psychotherapy (IBP), it became abundantly clear that what was missing from my work, and my life, was ME.

I was initially drawn to the body-mind-spirit perspective toward the end of my undergraduate degree in Child and Youth Care. What I particularly like about IBP is its intricate blend of eastern and western philosophies and its systematic integration of many of the approaches that attracted me during my early training, including Object Relations, Gestalt Therapy, Self Psychology, Reichian Therapy, Bioenergetics, Yoga and Transpersonal Psychotherapy. As Jack Rosenberg (1985), the creator of IBP, acknowledges, “not one element of it (IBP) is new “(it is a method that) “deals with the whole person, integrating the body, mind, emotions, and spirit! A method that brings about profound and lasting changes”.

In my own experience, this model serves to initiate, strengthen and sustain the re-awakening that has been so important to my own growth, both personally and professionally. This involves accessing the full sense of aliveness within the body, primarily through breath work, combined with verbal and cognitive methods that serve to overcome developmental interruptions and promote the full development and expression of the Self. It is not possible for me to offer a detailed description of this model within the confines of this paper, but I strongly encourage the reader to peruse Rosenberg's book Body, Self and Soul: Sustaining Integration to develop a richer understanding of the following discussion.

As a certified IBP therapist and instructor, it is evident to me that the principles and methods of this approach could be effectively incorporated into Child and Youth Care practice. Now that I am “awake”, or at least, more aware of when I am not awake, I cannot imagine practicing from any other perspective than the gentle authenticity of this model. There is no intent on my part to disrespect or disregard other theoretical orientations, rather to view the IBP model as a template, a home base from which to begin the gentle work of re-connection to core aliveness and authentic self-expression.

In this model, the essential tool is the practitioner. There is a reason why certification includes one hundred hours of individual work with a therapist/counselor certified in this method. The practitioner MUST be awake, firmly rooted in self awareness, compassion, and profoundly sensitive to the personal issues that may affect his or her state of presence. Does this mean that only certified practitioners should be eligible to work with children, youth and families? Absolutely not! I do believe, however, that the essence of this approach can and should be integrated to Child and Youth Care practice both from a curriculum standpoint and a personal one.

In terms of curriculum, it is my view that Child and Youth Care programs should not just be concerned about this business called relationship; rather they should be the business of relationship. When I reflect back to my prescribed learning about the “tools of the trade”, building rapport, conveying genuineness, demonstrating positive regard, engaging in empathic listening, and responding with immediacy, there is something fundamentally missing. How do I know that I am in the relationship in the first place?

This question brings up the topic of energetic boundary “a topic discussed at some length by Gerry Fewster (2005) in the previous issue of Relational Child and Youth Care Practice. Only when I know on the inside where I end and the other begins, can I bring myself fully forward and make contact. For me, understanding and practicing personal boundary is my life’s work and has become the anchor from which I engage in any personal or professional relationship. As far as I know there is no other therapeutic orientation other than IBP that works with the concept of energetic boundary as the foundation for contact.

In the IBP model, every interaction between the client and therapist begins with the establishment of boundaries. These can be created as a tangible boundary using a piece of string or wool, or energetic, imagining the physical space between and around the relationship. In either case, time is taken to encourage experimentation. Both the client and practitioner take turns moving away from, and closer to each other, mutually establishing a felt sense in the body that indicates what feels right. The awareness is somatic, a kinesthetic sense of containment, safety, and energetic limitation. It is important that all practitioners receive accurate training and demonstration of boundary work so that they understand from their own subjective experience what an energetic boundary feels like.

Using boundary is not limited to therapy or counseling sessions. All interactions with children and youth can start with establishment of boundaries. From my experience, if I take the time to access my own inner experience and acknowledge my boundary within the relationship, I become awake to my own energy. I am more able to engage, and more willing to bring my full self forward. I am present for my client and for myself at the same time. I believe that this level of relational contact between client and counselor is essential if there is any desire for sustained growth or change. I believe that we as humans are starved of contact; we need to re-connect with our potential to achieve presence and connection to core aliveness through training and practice. It seems logical to me that learning how to work with boundaries in Child and Youth Care practice should have as much weight and support as learning how to paraphrase, or “case manage”.

I do not need to imagine what it is like in a room full of professionals, each with their respective file folder of case notes and expected outcomes, each with their own agenda about how the meeting should be run, each with the best interests of the child in mind, and each with their Agency’s mandate firmly encoded into memory “I’ve been there many times. Can you imagine, however, the same integrated case management meeting with personal boundaries in place? What would it be like for the facilitator to be genuinely present in the moment with the group? What would it be like for the youth or family in question to be given time to set a personal boundary so that he or she could engage from a place of connection, safety and somatic awareness? I like to think this is possible.

Integrating the key concepts of IBP into a Child and Youth Care curriculum would be a complex task. I believe however, that it is a task that ought to be contemplated. Training in breath work, becoming present, establishing boundaries, working with early development (primary scenario), recognizing holding patterns in the body and defensive patterns of behavior (character-style) can only serve to enhance the methods and material currently being taught.

I know that the current curricula in several schools of Child and Youth Care continue to evolve. I have personally mentored many students and continue to be passionately committed to supporting students as they transition into the field. One thing that seems to remain constant however, is a consistent complaint from students of not feeling ready “a vague uneasiness of self, an unconscious yearning for the “right” way to be in relationship and a fear of risking bringing themselves fully forward. I believe that, with adequate training in the areas discussed above, these fears can be effectively alleviated.

Over the years I have had the privilege of being invited to speak to graduating students about some of my experiences in the field and to discuss some of the mythologies I have encountered in the professional world. I would like to conclude by sharing some of the myths I have struggled with and the suggestions that I have offered:

  1. Wake yourself up. Don’t wait to be “taught” how to become awake. Self-initiate your own awakening. Participate in IBP training or engage in personal therapy. Keep yourself open on the inside and connected to the outside in order to grow.

  2. Avoid the mythology of “objectivity”. This idea that counselors must remain objective at all costs continues to permeate many schools of thought. It is the subjective experience of self and other at the contact boundary, that is at the heart of relatedness.

  3. Learn to breathe fully from your core and experience the difference between sympathetic and parasympathetic breath

  4. Expand your repertoire from “How are you feeling” to “what do you notice in your body and where.” This allows for connection between thoughts and somatic experience.

  5. Watch for the “Paralytic Effect”. This affectionate term is one I use when describing excellent students who enter the field and suddenly become anesthetized to their own experience as well as the experience of the client. They completely lose self in the presence of other. Re-acquaintance with their energetic boundary, in the presence of a caring witness usually alleviates this.

  6. Be aware of the mythology surrounding “passion”. The idea that the counselor shouldn’t become too “passionately involved in the lives of others” is interesting to me. Is there anything more passionate than relationship? Why are we so afraid of passion in this culture? As long as there are boundaries and you know that the passion that you are experience is yours, then enjoy your energetic experience of passion and pass it on. After all, Child and Youth Care stands for Child and Youth Care not “Cautious Young Clone”.

  7. Maintain your courage to be curious. Explore where you came from without blame. Become aware of your own patterns as they play out in your current relationships, both personal and professional. This is the only way that I know to fully bring into awareness the messages that may have been missing during the early developmental years, and the ways in which we unconsciously seek them out.

  8. As often as possible stay connected to infants and animals; their pure energy revitalizes my being and reminds me of my core aliveness, of who I was and who I have the potential to re-connect with, in this moment in time.

In conclusion, I have lit a few fires in this field, and have also experienced “burn out”. I am eternally grateful for the exceptional teachers and mentors that I have invited into my life, but as I continue to evolve, I continue to co-construct my awareness. I continue, without too much resistance, to remain open. I continue to question what is best practice even when it has meant getting “transferred” from my position.

There have not been many things in my life that I can comfortably say are the “truth”, but I know this much to be true: my experience of life in general has changed; I know the difference between being awake and sleeping; I listen more; I am more willing to wait for responses instead of interpreting; I am more comfortable hanging out in the unknown instead of searching for security; I am more able to “go inside” instead of desperately searching on the outside for verification; and I can now identify and interpret my somatic experience and trust my dynamic boundary.

Most importantly, though, I have experienced relatedness “my exquisite, felt sense of aliveness in the energetic presence of another. I thank IBP for introducing myself to ME, and I am passionately committed to sharing my experiences with other willing colleagues in the field.

Now that I am “here”, I can recognize “there” and I am no longer willing to stagnate on the lonely continuum between breath and death. Are YOU?


Fewster, G. (2005). Just between you and me: Personal boundaries in professional relationships. Relational Child and Youth Care, 17, 4. pp. 8-17.

Rosenberg, J., Rand, M. and Asay, D. (1985). Body, self and soul; Sustaining integration. Atlanta: Humanics.

This feature: Palmer, D. (2005). To be awake or not to be awake “that is the choice: Bringing presence into Child and Youth Care practice. Relational Child and Youth Care Practice, 18, 1. pp. 24-28.

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