CYC-Online 140 OCTOBER 2010
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Relationships: What is it we do? ... It is what we do!

Varley Weisman

This article emphasizes the whole use of self in the relationships we develop with children and youth. A brief review of the literature and discussions with a number of youth suggests that the use of self is much more than the relatively easily taught traditional counselling skills. It also includes the intangible, unobservable and unmeasurable phenomena of presence, personality, attitude, and what the youth describe as “being there”. The challenge for Child and Youth Care workers is to combine these skills and phenomena in a meaningful way that enables us to connect with “relationship reluctant” youth.

“The healing comes through simple acts that all children crave and need like being with adults who are caring and wise. It also comes from doing things together like tossing a baseball, going for long walks and listening to music ...” (Malorek, 1997).

The words echoed in my head as I returned home following the International Child and Youth Care Conference in Toronto in 1997. The sentences not only represented the essence of my work with children; they also strengthened my resolve to avoid the temptation of spewing psycho-babble, labeling children's behaviour, and possibly losing sight of who the real client is. Malorek’s emotional keynote address was a reminder to us all that at the very core of effective Child and Youth Care practice is the relationship that exists between the child and the adult. A quality relationship is a key factor that must be established before any meaningful therapeutic gain can be realized. The challenge for me was to reify this information and communicate and teach it in a meaningful way to Child and Youth Care students.

Early Child and Youth Care literature (Brendtro and Ness, 1983; Redl and Wineman, 1952; Treischman, Whittaker and Brendtro, 1969; Whittaker, 1979) spoke of the importance of the relationship in working with children and youth. For the most part, the explanations for working with these youth were in the context of working within an institution such as a residential school and the relationship between the youth and adult was in the context of, and limited to, that setting. The literature was current for the times, as residential treatment centres were both popular and affordable up until two decades ago.

Child and youth care work practice has changed greatly over the past two decades. Political, economic and social pressures have caused many residential treatment centres to close and be replaced with community-based programs. The change in venue led to changes in how services are provided, but the power of the relationship in Child and Youth Care has not changed. What has changed, though, in my view, is that without the cocoon-like insulation of the residential centre, Child and Youth Care workers have become much more adept in establishing meaningful and helpful relationships with children and youth. As Leaf (1995) suggested, it has been a “journey from control to connection” (p. 15).

The children and youth we work with on a daily basis have experienced few or no successful relationships with adults. “Physically or sexually abused children, or children who have witnessed family violence, have a background that can predispose them to feeling vulnerable. They have learned that the world is unsafe and have met the challenge by cultivating such defensive mechanisms as hyper-vigilance or extreme compliance” (Gil, 1991, p. 53). The defenses that Gil describes serve to protect the child from engaging in relationships at any kind of meaningful emotional level. Consequently, many of their relationships are superficial, short-term, and stormy. For the relationship reluctant child or youth, the fear of being hurt, abused and/ or rejected again is a constant part of their daily life and it requires a great deal of emotional energy for them to stay protected from future harm. The concept of entering into an honest, open, and caring relationship with an adult (Child and Youth Care worker) is foreign to them, as past experiences with adults have been characterized by hurt, abuse, and / or rejection. The challenge for the Child and Youth Care worker is to offer an alternative adult model that contradicts the young person's view of how adults operate and allows the young person to risk engaging in a meaningful relationship. The insidiousness of the young people’s perceptions of adults was brought home to me as I prepared a presentation about relationships for the 11th National Child and Youth Conference. I asked people on the Youth In Care chat line to share thoughts and ideas about relationships and what worked. What struck me was one young person's perception about entering a relationship with an adult. The person suggested that he/she submitted to relationships with adults. The use of the term “submit,” in my mind, exemplifies how many young people act in a relationship with adults. We, as Child and Youth Care workers, need to be very aware of and sensitive to this perception, as I don’t believe it is unique to this individual. A helping relationship cannot be founded with a power differential, real or perceived, between the young person and the Child and Youth Care worker. My hope is that my reply to that person challenged his/her perception, as I suggested that the most effective relationships with youth are premised on a condition of equality between the young person and the Child and Youth Care worker.

In order to contradict the young person's perception of adults, we as Child and Youth Care workers are in a unique position to be the first adults in the lives of these children and youth to break the mold. Our interactions and relationship with the child are different than anything the child has experienced before in his/her life. When the young person detects that there is equality in the relationship, he/she can begin to risk becoming emotionally connected to the relationship.

What else is it that Child and Youth Care workers do to break down the barriers of protection that young people have erected? How do we incorporate the work of Brendtro, Brokenleg and Van Bockern (1990) and the suggestion that, before significant behaviour change can occur, the youth must have a sense of belonging or a sense of being part of a larger whole, such as family or community?

The answer to this question can be sought in three separate, yet interrelated areas. The first part of the answer lies in the professional training that Child and Youth Care workers receive in communications, counselling, family systems, program planning, delivery and evaluation, and other related courses. The technical skills (e.g., paraphrasing, empathy, reflection, challenging, consistency, etc.), while easily taught and performed, are not, however, the only factors in play when attempting to break down the barriers that stand between you, the Child and Youth Care worker, and the relationship reluctant youth.

The second part of the answer to the above questions is much more difficult to teach and lies in “how” Child and Youth Care workers go about doing their work. I have come to believe the “how” is the part that is inherent in some Child and Youth Care workers and difficult to attain for others. Gradually, the literature in Child and Youth Care is beginning to address and discuss these inherent, less teachable qualities that are necessary to connect with relationship reluctant children and youth. The discussions may raise the ire of the pure scientists among us who continue to believe that everything we do must be observable and measurable and thus accountable for funders. Garfat (1989) stated: “There is no “right way” to open up a relationship with a troubled child new to you and your program. There is only the “individual way” “the way based on your sensitivity to the child and your desire to encounter this child in a way that invites him or her to venture into a therapeutic relationship with you” (p. 48). The literature does not offer neat formulae, but rather shares the insight of workers who have made a connection.

To really be in a relationship with a child or youth (Garfat, 1998a) takes more than the ability to be a good technician in counselling. It involves being confident in who you are as an individual and taking risks that challenge not only the young person's reality about relationships with adults, but also taking risks with oneself. The work of Rose (1992) passionately defines what is to be a Child and Youth Care worker. She aptly describes that being a Child and Youth Care worker is much more than being an objective technician of various counselling theories. The role is one of engaging young people in meaningful relationships and experiencing and sharing a full range of emotions from anger to tears of joy.

Krueger (1995) identified four key elements of effective Child and Youth Care work that contribute to breaking down the young people’s barriers to relationship and that enhance the potential for a sense of belonging: rhythm, presence, meaning, and atmosphere. Of these four elements, rhythm, meaning, and atmosphere are skill areas that can be taught and learned through experience. Presence, however, is something that is much more difficult to attain. “Presence is being real ... presence is conveyed by the eyes, smiles and nods that are alert and attentive. By an honest expression of how one feels. By listening intently with eye contact and feedback. By showing up for work on time. By enthusiasm during activities and routines. By being predictable and dependable. It is also conveyed by expressions of self confidence ... by firmness ... by awareness of how one’s feelings about abandonment, attachment, success and failure influence one’s interactions and the ability to adjust one’s actions accordingly to meet the needs of youth” (Krueger, 1995, pp. 3-4). Presence is a key factor in what young people look for before risking involvement in a relationship and belonging.

As mentioned previously, many of the young people we work with have predetermined opinions about adult professional helpers and their intentions before we, as Child and Youth Care workers, become involved. Given their experiences prior to being in care and during their time in care, many of their fears and anxieties about becoming involved in a relationship are justified. We know these young people are reluctant to trust adults. We intellectually understand that trust is a basic element required in a healthy relationship. We have numerous activities that allow the young person to briefly and artificially experience trust, yet we struggle to teach these young people the essence of trust. Sometimes we forget, in our quest to have youth trust us, that we must first be trustworthy. Cormier and Cormier (1998) suggest “the behaviours that contribute most importantly to trustworthiness include counsellor congruence, or consistency, of verbal and non-verbal behaviour, non-verbal acceptance of disclosures, and non-verbal responsiveness and dynamism” (p. 68). An example of this struggle and potential incongruity around a trust issue is the ongoing debate regarding the use of touch in our work with children and youth.

Garfat’s (1998b) article on touch clearly challenges those in the profession who argue we should not touch children and youth by suggesting that we deny the youth in care the basic human need of touch. The irony identified by Garfat is that we challenge these young people to engage in meaningful relationships but deny them the opportunity to learn about appropriate touch; something about which most victims of abuse have some confusion. If we Child and Youth Care workers do not trust ourselves or one another enough to touch youth in an appropriate manner, how can we conceivably model and teach them about being in healthy relationships?

To further understand the necessary ingredients to a meaningful relationship, it is essential we listen to the youth with whom we work. Whilst being relationship reluctant, many of these young people have been part of a meaningful relationship at one point in their lives and are fully aware of what they are looking for in a Child and Youth Care worker. As Garfat (1998c) described it, they have a full shopping list of the attributes and qualities they look for in a Child and Youth Care worker. To better understand what the youth look for, I asked a number of youth in care to tell me about their favourite Child and Youth Care worker (past or present) and what it was that the person did that made the difference. Their articulate responses reflected the traditional technical skills expected of trained counsellors, the intangible unmeasurable skills discussed above, and some unique perspectives that we need to pay attention to. The following is a brief summary of my discussions with the youth.

The youth identified qualities that were then categorized into five broad characteristics necessary for “being there” as a Child and Youth Care worker. Perhaps the characteristics outlined could be the beginning stages of a definition of the perfect Child and Youth Care worker. For the purposes of this paper, “being there” can best be defined as what the Child and Youth Care worker brought to and shared in the relationship with the youth. The five characteristics are: personality, attitude, professional behaviour, use of self, and ownership.

Personality: descriptors used by the young people included strength of character, independence, physical attractiveness, sense of play, tact, style, class, genuineness ... not a front, kid at heart, and good heart.

Attitude: observations included wanting to be there, really wanted to help, not just there for the pay, someone who genuinely cared, stick-to-itiveness, interested in me, loved the kids, talked “with” rather than “to” me, child-centred activities, open invitations to talk ... not forced, and need to care.

Professional behaviour: included dependability, accessibility, advocacy, trust, good advice, honesty, a sense that he/she is there for me, easy to talk to, and made time for me.

Use of self: the insights included feelings of safety, felt warm, felt loved, a friend, felt happy, a shoulder to cry on, a listening ear, feelings of comfort, felt understood ... empathy, similarities, and not another suit.

Ownership: the comments included he/she held me accountable and responsible, sees my strengths, consulted with me and sensed my needs ... when I needed to talk and when I needed to get out, etc.

The most poignant moments for me in speaking with these youth came when they shared how they felt when with their favourite Child and Youth Care worker. A sense of calm seemed to envelop one youth as she described feeling warm all over when her Child and Youth Care worker entered the room. Another spoke of feeling loved by her worker. The power of the relationship was evident in the way the youth spoke about their favourite worker. Krueger’s (1995) comments about presence took on a whole new meaning.

The youth’s comments caused me to reflect on some of my most meaningful relationships with youth. Were those elements there? Did I have presence in my work with youth? Did I project and share that warmth and love, or had I come to accept my professional relationships with youth as an objective, clinical exercise? The answer for myself was that yes, there have been times when, to use an athletic term, I have been “in the zone” and was able to project and share warmth and love in my work with children and youth. And I was able to do that in a professional manner.

The irony of our work with these relationship reluctant children and youth is that we believe these children need to trust and love “the elements of a meaningful relationship “yet we have been given a message that it is inappropriate to love the children and youth we work with. Isn’t it odd that the essence of our work is to engage these young people in meaningful relationships, yet there are clear limitations placed upon us dictating how we should and should not model love and trust. If we truly believe that “relationship is primary” (Brendtro and Ness, 1983, p. 17) then we cannot be part-time or conditional subscribers to the concept. Our children and youth deserve better. If we, the helping adults, are relationship reluctant too, then no meaningful therapeutic change can occur.


Brendtro, L., Brokenleg, M. and Van Bockern, S. (1990). Reclaiming youth at risk: Our hope for the future. Bloomington, IN: National Education Service.

Brendtro, L. and Ness, A. (1983). Re-educating troubled youth: Environments for teaching and treatment. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

Cormier, S. and Cormier, B. (1998). Interviewing strategies for helpers: Fundamental skills and cognitive behavioural interventions. Toronto: Brooks/Cole.

Garfat, T. (1989). Saying hello. Journal of Child and Youth Care, 4, 2. pp. v–viii.

Garfat, T. (1998a). On-line discussion regarding relationship. CYC-Net. Available at

Garfat, T. (1998b). On the fear of contact, the need for touch and creating youth care contexts where touching is okay. CYC-Net. Available at

Garfat, T. (1998c). The effective Child and Youth Care intervention: A phenomenological inquiry. Journal of Child and Youth Care, 12, 1-2.

Gil, E. (1991). The healing power of play: Working with abused children. New York: Guilford Press.

Krueger, M. (1995). Nexus: A book about youth work. Milwaukee: University of Wisconsin.

Leaf, S. (1995). The journey from control to connection. Journal of Child and Youth Care, 10, 1. pp. 15-21.

Malarek, V. (1997, June 4). Keynote address. 5th International Child and Youth Care Conference, Toronto, Ontario.

Rose, L. (1992). On being a Child and Youth Care worker. Journal of Child and Youth Care, 7, 2. pp. 21-29.

Redl, F. and Wineman, D. (1952). Controls from within: techniques for the treatment of the aggressive child. New York: Free Press.

Treischman, A., Whittaker, J. and Brendtro, L. (1969). The other 23 hours. New York: Aldine. Whittaker, J. (1979). Caring for troubled children. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

This feature: Weisman, V. (1999). Relationships: What is it we do? ... It is what we do! Journal of Child and Youth Care, 13, 2. pp. 125-131.

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