CYC-Online 121 MARCH 2009
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The wounded healer as helper and helped: A Child and Youth Care model

Jack Phelan

Wounded healers and traumatized workers doing Child and Youth Care work can find the practice of relational life space work to be a positive, beneficial experience. Even though working in people’s homes and communities can be stressful, and indigenous workers can easily personalize their work experiences, the Child and Youth Care model articulated below describes how this can also be a healing journey.

Experiential workers
Recently I was introduced to a concept called the experiential worker, which refers to recruiting and training people who have experienced specific problems in their own lives, being trained to work with others who are struggling with similar issues. This particular workshop described former prostitutes being trained to help street youth, but it also has been used with former drug users to help youth struggling with addictions.

I have also been working with the Isibindi projects in South Africa, an innovative, effective, and locally directed Child and Youth Care intervention that trains indigenous adults to work with child-headed households and families affected by the AIDS pandemic. The reality in South Africa is that many people have been directly affected by devastation and loss across families and communities because of this. I will examine the experiential worker concept, which can also be framed, particularly in the experience of the Isibindi project staff, as the wounded helper. Many of the Child and Youth Care staff in the Isibindi projects have been personally touched by the same dynamics that are present for their charges, and the process of working to create change and hope for others also creates healing for them. This is done with all of the self-awareness and personal integrity that must be present in any helping interaction, and yet there are some unique aspects of Child and Youth Care work which promote this result. Two specific ingredients of the Child and Youth Care model, life space interactions and relationally based practice will be discussed and examined.

Life space work
What exactly is this life space concept? How is it different than other ways of helping? Practicing our profession in the life space of other people is a clearly different approach to delivering human services than the office based approaches of most practitioners. Child and youth care is done most effectively in the natural places that surround us, not in a neutral or artificially constructed place. The lack of control of environmental dynamics and the stress of mutual experience make life space work equivalent to “working without a net”. New practitioners are acutely aware of the dangers inherent in such places, while skillful, mature practitioners focus on the opportunities readily available.

Newer Child and Youth Care practitioners are overwhelmed and intimidated by the onrush of sensory stimulation, inter-personal bumps and clashes, lack of obvious order and generally sparsely equipped environments that they are suddenly surrounded by. My belief is that it takes six months for newer workers to gain enough personal safety to reduce their own anxiety to manageable levels, and another six months to skillfully manage the tasks inherent in interacting effectively in whatever life space they are working. At the end of a well supervised and relatively supportive first year of practice, the newer worker often feels like he/she is starting to win the battle.

There is a fitting in that is required early on, which new workers must do, yet there does not seem to be any pat formula or diagram for them to follow. The cultural and social demands of this life space are both mysterious and “in your face”, providing little room for reflection and thoughtful answers. Residential care workers will find that the first reply to a friendly overture as they join a group of teens will be “Who the (fill in the locally favorite expletive) are you?”. Community based Child and Youth Care practitioners, as they stroll innocuously around the local neighborhood, will get similar questions and suspicious looks from both young and old. Family support workers, once they get past the initial rebuff of “What did we do to deserve you”, will get challenged with questions about how their background or training has any relevance at all to what the family really needs.

Newer workers respond to these personally challenging and sometimes perplexing demands by feeling even less safe and competent, retreating from the life space environment. Newer residential workers can hide in the office or avoid conflict situations until they have figured out how to fit in, unfortunately sometimes becoming too similar to the youth by talking or dressing less like an adult. Community workers may stay in the storefront or Isibindi Safepark, waiting for people to come into this more culturally neutral environment, or only wander the neighborhood with a more experienced colleague. Newer Child and Youth Care family support workers are often relieved when families do not seem to be home, or when certain more difficult members are absent, and rely on a prepared agenda to get them through the home visit.

Life space work during the initial year of Child and Youth Care practice, is more about the new worker getting comfortable and overcoming competence fears than it is about a strategic use of life events to create change. Yet the time will come in each worker’s professional development when they could not imagine any better place to work with people.

Life space work requires a process of developmental maturing for the new worker because this is an unsafe place at the beginning of one’s career. The expectations placed on an unskilled, inexperienced worker to be helpful in situations which appear overwhelming, create competence anxiety, leaving new workers feeling too vulnerable and exposed. Newer workers have concerns about professional capability which limits their range of responses to youth and families, since they want to appear to have a correct (safe) answer. The focus is on finding the right answer to situations, which prevents them from being fully present in the moment. People who are still struggling with their own healing are particularly vulnerable, as each new encounter with the painful experience of another can be a potential reminder of their own bruising.

The use of relational practice and living alongside moments are fundamental to effective Child and Youth Care work, and even mature practitioners are aware of the need for clear boundaries. Our own lives, with all of our strengths and struggles, constantly interact with the lives of others in this life space dynamic. Child and Youth Care practitioners go through a series of steps as they mature into skillful, competent workers who can control and strategically use their own live experience as an effective part of the change process for others.

The ability to be mutually present, co-experiencing the same reality, creates potential for change that does not exist in most other helping models. As a worker can increase her ability to be present and share her presence in that moment with another, she is opening both people to a place where anything is possible. This ability to establish one’s presence without a self-protective mask or pretension enables both to build new possibilities and hopes, in spite of past realities.

Garfat (2001) has described the growth of Child and Youth Care skills in the life space as a four step process:

  1. Doing for another

  2. Doing to another

  3. Doing with another

  4. Doing together

The safest way to be helpful, when you are feeling vulnerable and not particularly clear about how to help, is to do things for and to the other person: organize routines, provide food and resources, and give advice. Gradually the worker gets better at listening and being empathic, and shifts into providing what the other person says is needed. Then comes the ability to create a safe relational connection and a mutuality (this is where the label of “client” gets dropped) where workers begin doing things with the other. Finally, at a level that is hard to grasp until it is experienced, the mature worker is able to be fully present in the encounter with others and can, given enough time and opportunity, create a mutuality that opens both people to co-experience the life space and be influenced by each other “doing together.

The journey of self-development undertaken by the competent practitioner which results in this personal growth is both challenging and rewarding. The personal benefit is as least as useful as the increasing skill in helping others. Every capable Child and Youth Care practitioner describes the satisfaction of becoming a better person through doing life space work.

Mature Child and Youth Care practitioners know that without personal benefit, there is no way that anyone can survive in this field for more than a year. The martyrs leave quickly, blaming others for being ungrateful. The personal development potential available through life space practice is an enormous incentive which has no end point. Whether workers are wounded or not, they all experience tremendous personal growth and healing through the process of relational life space work. This level of self awareness and ability to be open to others is not easily achieved or inevitable, but skillful Child and Youth Care practitioners get there through experience, good supervision and education.

The power and effectiveness of life space interactions, in contrast with a more reflective, office-based approach, can be understood by examining the use of experiential, in-the-moment support to help people change and grow. I have described this approach as the present moment model. The skill of working in this present moment model is explained next.

The present moment model
Many of the people we see are not really living in the present. This may sound strange, but actually this is a fundamental difference between people who believe that change is possible and those who do not. Our role as Child and Youth Care workers is to build competency and hope by supporting people to get unstuck from the self-defeating beliefs and ineffective behaviors in their lives. By creating a relational connection and proposing change strategies, we expect that people will learn better ways to live and create better futures for themselves. Many workers are also struggling with being in the present, and this parallel process can prevent any significant change from occurring. Wounded healers who successfully develop the ability to be present in ever expanding moments, are both benefitting themselves and the other simultaneously. The awareness of this personal benefit can serve as an incentive and a goal for wounded healers.

The model posits that people live with negative labels and social restrictions that are mostly self-imposed. These labels are generally based on past experience and inhibit one’s ability to change in the present because he already has predicted a pessimistic future for himself. This negative story about self creates a filter or lens through which the external world is seen and understood. The task of a change agent is to create a safe place for people to let go of these rules and labels, so that they can experience different possibilities for themselves.

The experience gap
Many people with whom we work have a story about themselves based on past experiences which they use to define themselves as powerless, incompetent, and unable to change. This personal story keeps the person trapped in a past history of defeat which is a tale with a long tail. The tail/tale dragging behind him or her creates a future picture of hopelessness, and the cycle then feeds on itself. There is no room to experience the present moment in a new way, because the person can’t allow the present moment to be free of these self-defeating themes (Phelan, 2000). Our task is to assist the person to let go of the past story in the present moment so that we can create an experience gap, a different state of being, which is new for him. The concept of an experience gap is very important. There exists an inability to be present in the moment, based on the twin pincers of past defeat and future hopelessness, which immobilizes the person. The stuckness often observed in our youth and families, so frustrating to encounter by “logical” professionals who assume that there is a shared ability to be present in the moment, create labels like resistant and unwilling to accept services.

The environmental and relational ingredients that combine to make this dynamic possible, where the person can be free of labels, personal frameworks, and fears, are all within the ability of a skilled Child and Youth Care practitioner to establish. The way to create this is to be fully available in the life-space and to support safety and vulnerability in the moment through presence, not just words. This experience gap state allows the person being helped to develop new pictures of him or herself (as competent, hopeful, happy) that challenge the story in the self-defeating cycle, creating a cognitive dissonance or confusion which opens up the possibility of new ideas.

The free place
Our task is to create a free place for people to safely and consciously let go of constricting roles. Old expectations and patterns of behaviour do not automatically emerge, and this creates an experience gap, which is the present moment. Many of our youth and families will be unfamiliar with living in the present moment because they are trapped in a tragic past which creates a hopeless future, with no room for the present to exist. As we support people entering the experience gap, we also arrange for them to have a new experience of themselves as capable, hopeful, and free.

The Child and Youth Care worker’s challenge is to create a living moment in which there is minimal interference from these self-defeating messages, so that new experiences can happen and be acknowledged. Safety and trust are key issues; the inclination to let down one’s guard and to experience freely what is happening, to relax in the moment, are simple and also profound dynamics to establish.

Safety and trust
We create the free place by gradually developing boundaries that are safe and can be trusted. Inexperienced workers must focus on developing safe and predictable boundaries for themselves before they can create safety and trust for others. They must also engage in a process of letting go of their own labels and categories that have defined the social rules for safe and trustworthy interactions. Both wounded helpers and other new workers will struggle here, but for different reasons, and need sensitive supervision. The one will be inclined to sympathize and join with the youth/family, while the other will want to argue and give advice. The intimate, yet clear boundary lines in life space work take time to develop. Experienced workers have a relaxed, confident manner that signals that they are grounded and fully present for the youth and family. This requires skills around using agendas, routines, rules, and respectful and honest approaches that create the external environment needed to allow both youth/family and staff to safely enter into an engagement in the free place.

Analogue communication
This new and radically different message about self is communicated through a sensuous, non-verbal experience, and is supported by the Child and Youth Care worker’s presence. This approach is not “therapy” “the practitioner creates an atmosphere and a physical situation, then engages in an activity and both people experience a parallel process. Words are not important; sense data acquired through experienced behaviour are the key. This interaction with the world has been referred to as analogue communication, where senses rather than words communicate. The term for this “place in the present moment where the usual rules don’t apply” might be referred to as an analogue free place (J. VanRosmalen, personal communication, 1999).

Child and Youth Care workers have a powerful role in this system, in which the helping task becomes creating an atmosphere of safety where the other person can let down his or her guard and feel free to stop, relax, and enjoy the moment. The goal is to create an experience gap that allows a new experience of self to emerge. As these new experiences of feeling capable, trustworthy, and/or happy accumulate, the self-defeating past story and future picture of hopelessness lose their power.

CYC work involves creating these free places through a process of arrangements. In fact, Child and Youth Care workers can be described as experience arrangers (Phelan, 1999). The task of helping becomes arranging experiences that promote the possibility of new beliefs for the people we support. The skill of arrangement can be defined as a strategic process of creating situations that support a person to exist in an analogue free place where new experiences happen. The ingredients that support this strategic process are:

The events of everyday life offer tremendous opportunity to create competence, hope, and new pictures of the future. The use of play, connection, nurturing moments, successful overcoming of challenges, and just managing emotions can all be experiential positives in our work, but they require us to be able to create the free place to be especially useful. This is where relational practice comes in.

The inter-personal in-between
Garfat (2008) has created a model to articulate relational practice which is helping us move forward in understanding Child and Youth Care work. Basically, he posits that we bring our “self” into contact with the “other” by creating a shared “in-between” space. The relational work occurs in this in-between space, and our role is to make it safe for both people to enter this area and be fully present there. I highly recommend reading his full description, and I apologize in advance for describing this rich concept so simply. Yet the inter-personal in-between model will help us to understand the healing and self growth process of the helper. To quote Garfat, the in-between, then, is the container for the relationship between self and other as well as the space created by the relationship (p 10).

Every stage of a worker’s professional development provides opportunities for healing and growing. When a new worker does things for and to the other, they are stepping into the in-between, even though awkwardly. The empathy expressed is fairly minimal, since the worker is still quite self-protective, but the other person feels challenged to understand the logic of a stranger being nice to him without an obvious personal benefit. The worker is often motivated by wishing that someone had done similar nice things to him when he was hurting, and may need some coaching in boundaries at this point, but both people are starting to experience the in-between. For the wounded healer, this experience of managing another’s distress is personally empowering.

When the worker progresses to doing things based on the other’s needs, she has grown relationally in both empathy and establishing clear boundaries, and can distinguish her own issues from the issues of the other person, even when they are similar. This is a major step forward in creating a self-healing process, and the focus of supervision should reflect that reality. The worker can more fully enter the in-between while reflecting on self. The other person is starting to recognize the in-between as a new place where they may not have ever been before.

When the worker is able to do things with the other, a mutuality has been established where both people are consciously choosing to join each other in the in-between place. This is when significant change is possible, where the person being helped allows himself to engage in a give and take relationship and the analogue free space dynamic can be created. The Child and Youth Care practitioner is now capable of being both fully present for the other and also self-reflective. They are both able to be present in the moment and open to new possibilities. The worker clearly focuses on the needs of the other, but also experiences this growth of hope, competence and freedom from the past. Wounded helpers absorb this energy even as they arrange it for the other person. Even non-wounded workers grow tremendously as they reach this stage of practitioner development.

The stage of doing things together is reached when the worker has achieved a level of competence, self-acceptance and personal development where her past experiences, both good and bad, are embraced and enjoyed, and the worker is able to “play the hand she has been dealt” in the best possible way to support others. Child and Youth Care practitioners at this stage cannot imagine working anywhere else than in the life space and know that their journey of healing and understanding is enriched by each encounter and connection with others. The creation of the free place is a regular focus, and she can join people at the desperate places they inhabit with safe, intimate boundaries and healing energy.

Child and Youth Care practice, embedded in real-life situations and experiences, is especially helpful in the healing journey for both the helper and the helped. The analogue communication, experientially delivered, is shared by both participants and when properly managed, creates energy in the inter-personal in-between space that is absorbed by all.


Garfat, T. (2008). The inter-personal in-between: An exploration of relational Child and Youth Care practice. In Bellefeuille, G. and Ricks, F. (Eds.), Standing on the precipice: Inquiry into the creative potential of Child and Youth Care practice. Edmonton,AB: MacEwan Press.

Garfat, T. (2001,January). Developmental stages of Child and Youth Care workers: An interactional perspective. , Child and Youth Care OnLine, 24. Retrieved January 16, 2009.

Phelan, J. (2000). Another look at activities. Journal of Child and Youth Care, 14, 2.

Phelan, J. (1999). Experiments with experience. Journal of Child and Youth Care Work,14.

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