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123 MAY 2009
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The self as subject in Child and Youth Care supervision

Varda Mann-Feder

The literature on supervision in human service organizations stresses authority, accountability, and the monitoring of performance. This article outlines the ways in which these models are antithetical to Child and Youth Care work, and stresses the importance of exploring emotional responses to the work as a central function of supervision. A hypothetical case example is used to illustrate concepts of countertransference, projective identification, parallel process, and empowerment in supervision. Implications for the supervisory relationship are identified.

The literature on front-line supervision in the human services has traditionally stressed the authority of the supervisor and the associated responsibility for worker performance (Holloway and Brager, 1989; Spears, 1990). Accountability has thus been seen as a central function of supervision. All too often, this has translated into supervisory practice that stresses the enforcement of agency policies, the giving of directives, and negative evaluations of the worker. Brown and Bourne (1996) have stated that supervision can become routinized, depersonalized, and bureaucratic (p. 13). It then becomes an exercise in mistrust and disconnection, and a source of stress rather than support. Under such conditions, workers become reluctant to discuss their real concerns.

Personal growth and connection are central to successful Child and Youth Care work (Mayotte,1992). As noted by Garfat (1999), “From the very beginning, Child and Youth Care work has been concerned with the notion of self and self in relationships” (p. iii). It is for this reason that any approach to supervision that emphasizes issues of administrative and evaluative functions defeats its own purpose: that of facilitating quality service to clients. This article will describe the importance of connectedness in Child and Youth Care supervision, especially with regards to the expression, validation, and exploration of workers' emotional responses to the work. Contributions from the theoretical literature of social work, counselling, and psychoanalysis support this proposition.

What follows is a description of four concepts that are particularly helpful in understanding the relevance of self to supervision: countertransference, projective identification, parallel process, and empowerment. It is only through the exploration of workers' emotions in the context of a safe and supportive supervisory climate that critical aspects of the helping relationship can be processed and addressed. To illustrate these concepts, a hypothetical case will be presented and the responses of four different fictitious workers will be offered as illustrations.

Case example: Marty
Marty is a 15-year-old boy who has been in a group home for six months. This placement occurred after the breakdown of Marty’s fourth foster placement. He was first placed at age 3, after his parents abandoned him and his three siblings. While they were all initially placed in the same foster home, they were separated four years ago when the foster placement broke down.

On weekends, Marty joins his siblings at the home of an old family friend. He waits all week for this visit and will leave to go at the first opportunity. While in general Marty is polite, compliant, and cooperative, he is not particularly close to anyone in the group home. His behaviour has been exemplary, except at the end of the week when preparing for his weekends with family. At those times, he becomes careless, messy, and disorganized, as his priority seems to be to leave the group home as quickly as possible.

Countertransference: Sarah
Sarah is a Child and Youth Care worker. She is well liked by her colleagues and adored by most clients in the group home, who often call her “Mom.” All enjoy her easy affection and infectious warmth, and there are few clients whom Sarah has not been able to engage. Lately, she has been complaining about Marty in team meetings and questioning his weekend leaves. “After all,” Sarah says, “this place is not a hotel. It is as if Marty doesn’t really live here and is just passing time until his next weekend.”

The Child and Youth Care literature stresses that, unlike other approaches to facilitating human growth and development, relationship and engagement are central to successful intervention (Garfat, 1998; Krueger, 1999; Maier, 1992). Whereas other professional groups have insisted on neutrality and the maintenance of a professional distance, Child and Youth Care workers engage actively with clients and foster attachment formation (Maier, 1994). Rather than relying on techniques and behavioural engineering, Child and Youth Care workers use themselves.

This is problematic, because Child and Youth Care interventions must be based on the client’s needs at the same time. Despite the intensity of involvement, the relationship can never be reciprocal and is always based on a responsibility to the client (National Organization of Child Care Worker Associations, 1995). Working with children and adolescents is highly evocative and commonly stimulates unresolved needs in those who work with them. Often, when this happens, it is outside of the worker’s awareness. In this unconscious form, the potential is great that feelings stimulated by clients, but which are a function of worker’s own issues, expectations, and needs, will introduce distortions into the intervention process. “Blind spots” are an inevitable consequence of engaging actively with clients; even wanting to be involved with children and youth can be considered a form of positive countertransference. However, if not identified and understood, countertransference reactions can sabotage good Child and Youth Care work. Countertransference reactions also become a source of stress, draining the energies of staff. It is not unusual for workers to be privately troubled about their feelings towards clients (Holloway and Brager, 1989).

The first step is to identify these feelings and explore their origins. Often the emotions are not immediately accessible, but have come out through unusual behaviour. Signs of countertransference include special treatment or consideration for a given young person, a sudden drop in the level of interest in a client, unnecessary anger, or a marked inability to understand a client (Chessick,1969). Supervisors are well placed to notice these responses and to suggest a connection to the worker’s personal issues. Often, such actions, if well timed and phrased in a supportive manner, provide tremendous relief to supervisees, who can then go on to analyze and work through their feelings on their own (Brown and Bourne, 1996). Most often, noticing and validating that something has changed in the workers” attitude will free them up enough so that the workers can locate themselves in the interaction and readjust to the realities of the client’s needs. It is rarely necessary (nor is it helpful) that the supervisor learn all the details of the worker’s past or actively work on the unresolved issue.

Projective identification: Jeff
Jeff is a Child and Youth Care worker. He wishes that Marty was more engaged with the staff in the group home. Jeff suspects that under his polite exterior, Marty is a young person who has suffered many losses and is in much pain. However, Jeff feels stuck with Marty. He feels he has no chance of getting close to him and is helpless to intervene. Jeff discusses his frustration frequently in supervision, and repeatedly speaks about how hopeless he feels. He feels angry that Marty has had so many unsuccessful placements and is furious at the agency for allowing him to grow up with so much instability. Marty, on the other hand, is polite and distant and rarely complains to anyone.

Just as the unresolved feelings of workers can be stimulated by clients, in trying to get close to young people in our care we stimulate powerful reactions in them that are based on their relationships with significant others. They may begin to project their expectations onto their Child and Youth Care workers and to react as if they were significant people from the past. Because these projections are defensive, they operate at a level outside of our awareness. Sometimes clients employ a primitive and intense defense called projective identification (Kreisman and Straus,1991). In projective identification, strong feelings of the client are suppressed and are “exported” to someone else, who then experiences them in their place (Moore and Fine, 1990). This phenomenon represents both a mechanism for self-protection in the client and a form of communication. Although Marty may be unable to express or even experience his own pain, he can unconsciously induce Jeff to feel his hopelessness, helplessness, and rage.

In projective identification, the feelings of the worker are important clues for understanding clients and experiencing their internal world. Therefore, it is important that Child and Youth Care workers allow themselves to fully feel their feelings, and sustain them long enough to make sense of the client’s experience. Unlike countertransference, which usually consists of familiar emotions and can evoke themes from the worker’s own life, projective identification is experienced as emotional responses that are surprising, unusual, and almost foreign to the worker. Recognition is the most challenging aspect of dealing with projective identification, but once decoded it can be an important source of data about a client that is often not available elsewhere. Thus, the worker’s willingness to explore feelings in supervision becomes an important aid to meaningful intervention planning. Workers are not singled out for what can be a difficult experience by virtue of their incompetence or vulnerability; rather the experience of projective identification is facilitated when a worker is empathic and engaging strongly with clients.

Parallel process: Julie
Julie is Marty’s primary worker. She has been working hard to try to relate to Marty, who is evasive with her and blames her for his many placements. In supervision, Julie is passive and distant. She has difficulty discussing her cases and will try to avoid her supervision times.

Parallel process takes place when workers take on a role with their supervisors that recreate their struggles with clients. A mechanism referred to as “mirroring” unfolds whereby the experience in supervision duplicates the client-worker interaction (Brown & Bourne,1996). Supervision as a process is strongly reflective of the type of front-line work being done and of the characteristic needs and difficulties of the clientele. Thus, in working with youth who have been abandoned and are attachment resistant, the response of staff in supervision, especially supervision that emphasizes the development of trust and the sharing of feelings, may be somewhat guarded. Workers may not be able to verbalize their feelings, but instead communicate them in supervision through their responses to the supervisor (Schlessinger,1966).

In exploring parallel process, supervisors must remain open to their emotional responses to the worker, and be willing to look at the supervisory relationship in the here and now in order to better understand what is going on. This is only possible, however, when there is an explicit contract that the supervisory relationship itself is open for discussion. The supervisee cannot be confronted in a manner that is authoritarian or judgmental, or there will be a reluctance to explore what is going on in the relationship. In fact, in an atmosphere of trust and acceptance, discussing the supervisory relationship can be a surprisingly direct way to explore what is occurring in the client-worker interaction. At the same time, the manner in which the supervisor responds to the worker’s behaviour provides a model for intervening with the client. In this way the parallel process can also benefit the work with the client: supervision can replicate the issues in the work, and the work can replicate the process in supervision (Reiner,1997). Parallel process has been described as a “rewarding focus for supervisory activity” (Schlessinger,1966). It is also very clear that client issues cannot be resolved by helping systems that repeat the same problems (Mehr, 1995).

Empowerment: Bill
Bill supervises the group home staff that work with Marty. He has become increasingly concerned with Marty’s apparent passivity in relation to his life in the group home and especially in relation to his future. Bill believes that if his staff can let Marty take more active control of his own intervention plan, including deciding for himself where he would like to live when he turns 18, Marty will begin to engage more actively in his life at the group home.

Supervision that is evaluative, authoritarian, or power-coercive creates disempowerment in a team of Child and Youth Care workers (Brown and Bourne, 1996). Staff become dependent and helpless and are at a loss especially in relation to the need to empower young people in their own lives. Supervision optimally occurs in a climate of collaboration, openness, and trust (Holloway and Brager,1989), where the supervisor can acknowledge the power inequities openly and engage the worker in a two-way relationship that maximizes worker preferences and choices (Brown and Bourne,1996). This means creating space for supervisees to bring up issues about clients “in their own way” (Mehr, 1995, p. 201).

Often supervision is irregularly scheduled and subject to frequent cancellations by managers who are pulled in many directions. This contradicts the entitlement Child and Youth Care workers have to regular and consistent support. Ultimately, it can undermine trust. At its best, supervision should provide a “safe haven” where workers can ventilate and feel cared for. If workers perceive that they are valued and approached as equals, they are more able to minimize inequality and control in their relationships with clients. The key ingredient is that supervision enables and empowers Child and Youth Care workers by acknowledging, validating, and legitimizing their responses.

Conclusion: Therapy or supervision?
The vignettes offered illustrate how emotional responses are an integral part of Child and Youth Care work and how making the self is an important subject in supervision. This does not apply just to the reactions of the worker, but to those of the supervisor as well. These feelings serve to expose important aspects of the worker-client relationship that may otherwise go unnoticed or cannot easily be articulated.

For emotional content to emerge in supervision and truly enhance practice, supervision must be conducted in an atmosphere of trust and acceptance (Holloway and Brager, 1989). This is not the same as therapy, however, because it is not the worker’s needs that set the agenda, but the client’s. Personal growth may be facilitated, but only as a by-product of facilitating effective intervention (Burgess, 1992). Feelings in supervision should be confronted and labelled, but in a rational and goal-directed manner (Taintor, 1972). The focus should not be on exploring the worker’s internal world in depth or on providing therapeutic interactions. The supervisees should determine how they want to resolve any personal issues that are stimulated by the work, and they must be encouraged to do so outside supervision (Christensen and Taylor, 1995). Lastly, supervision is an active, not a passive, process (Mehr,1995). The Child and Youth Care workers who can use supervision as an opportunity for openness and self-expression stand to learn much about themselves and the young people that they work with.


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This feature: Mann-Feder, V. (2002). The self as subject in Child and Youth Care supervision. Journal of Child and Youth Care, 15, 2. pp. 1-7.

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