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A Good Hearing? An Application of the Life Space Interview in Residential Child Care

Johnnie Gibson

Both research and practice wisdom agree that the current population of young people in residential care units throughout Europe have particular psychological needs that require a high level of skill on the part of those charged with their day-to-day care. Most of these young people have experienced severe and multiple trauma prior to admission to care, (EUROARROC, 1998). Whilst there is no empirical evidence in Northern Ireland concerning quantity or type of prior traumatic events experienced by young people in residential care a local study undertaken by the Social Services Inspectorate, (1994), did find worrying evidence of multiple placements. They conclude that, "... for a significant number of children there is a level of disruption which is unlikely to provide them with the continuity of care necessary for their proper development" (p.114). The authors of the EUROARROC report affirm what observation and direct experience tell us already, mainly that, "Multiple, accumulated traumatisation is thought to be a significant risk factor for the development of psychological problems in children" (p.60).

Professionals working with this group of young people in residential care require well-developed skills. Relationship building and advice, limit setting and re-direction, programme planning and undertaking joint activities are all legitimate aspects of the residential social workers repertoire of skills. So too is the whole area of care that groups under the heading of meeting primary human needs. Given the characteristics of this population, residential social workers, perhaps more than ever, need to be competent in a range of truly therapeutic skills. The Life Space Interview, (Budlong et al., 1993, p.261) is a long established, but locally little known interview format, for intervening with children and young people. This paper describes the Life Space Interview (LSI) and provides an illustration of its application.

The term Life Space Interview (LSI) was first coined by Fritz Redl, (1959) in the United States. What Redl meant by the term life space was that area of shared life experience between child and adult and frequently other children. The life space interview, conveys the idea of the focused intervention of a helping adult who is in greater proximity (Wood and Long, 1991, p.304) to a young person’s living or daily environment than is found in traditional clinical practice. Traditional clinical practice refers to therapeutic work with a young person that is operated on a planned appointment basis. The dialogue within the LSI, between adult and child, arises out of issues that belong in the life space, but which may have connections to past events and learning experiences.

Fritz Redl, a psychoanalyst and teacher, and his colleague, David Wineman, a social worker, undertook in depth studies into the behavioural controls and/or lack of them found in groups of aggressive, delinquent, children and youth, (Redl and Wineman, 1951, 1952 and 1957).

They ran three major projects in order to study behavioural controls. The overarching clinical aim of this work was "to understand why children’s controls break down, how some of them defend themselves so successfully against the adults in their lives, and what can be done to prevent and treat such childhood disorganisation." One of their conclusions was that behavioural control is, "the daily job of the most normal child in pursuit of everyday life" (Redl and Wineman, 1952, p.27 in Wood and Long, 1991, p.304). The inner-city young people studied by Redl and Wineman in their three major projects had significant problems with, "poor controls over themselves and their aggressive impulses. They were frequently involved in personal and group crisis in which they either refused to participate or attempted to destroy group activity and cohesiveness", (Wood and Long, 1991 p.304). The Life Space interview was born in this context. Redl and Wineman took the view that adults in direct contact with youth during crisis episodes had enormous opportunity to work therapeutically and thus to intervene in ways that produced lasting change.

The Life Space Interview is a focused process that takes place between adult and child. When originally conceived it was largely informed by psychodynamic principles but has much in common with present day cognitive approaches to therapy (Faupel et al., 1998; Temple, 1997) in so far as it involves the child in a thinking and planning process aimed at increasing social, emotional and behavioural competence. Redl and Wineman were convinced that the Life Space Interview needs to be part of a broader therapeutic milieu. Their core clinical premise gives some measure of what that environment should be like. It should be, "an emotionally healthy environment; a therapeutic environment (that) provides a psychological climate of support and protection from traumatic handling by personnel; some interpersonal gratifications that are not contingent upon behaviour; and a degree of tolerance for deviancy and regression with safeguards to protect against escalation," (Wood and Long, 1991, p.306). One fundamental point here is that absence of congruence or poor fit between the values of the wider milieu and what even the most skilled adult undertakes within the LSI will render the latter ineffective.

Budlong, M. J.; Holden, M. J. and Mooney, A. J. (1993). Therapeutic Crisis Intervention Training Manual (4th Edn.) Ithaca, NY: National Residential Care Project, family Life development Centre, Cornell University.

European Association for Research into Residential Child Care (EUROARRCC) (1998) Child Care in Four European Countries. Glasgow: The centre for residential child Care.

Faupel, A.; Herrick, E. and Sharp, P. (1998). Anger Management: A practical guide. London: David Fulton Publishers.

Redl, F & Wineman, D (1951). Children who hate. Glencoe, IL: The Free Press.

Redl, F & Wineman, D (1952). Controls from within. Glencoe, IL: The Free Press.

Redl, F & Wineman, D (1957). The aggressive child. Glencoe, IL: The Free Press.

Temple, S. (1997). Brief therapy for adolescent depression. Saraota, Florida: Professional Resource Press.

Wood, M. and Long, N. (1991) .Life space intervention. Talking with Children and Youth in Crisis. PRO-ED Austin, Texas

Gibson, J. (2000). A Good Hearing? An Application of the Life Space Interview in Residential Child Care.
Child Care in Practice. Vol.6 No.1 pp. 39-40

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