Tumi (5) and Thabo (7) are brothers who were admitted to a residential programme on the same day that I started working there as a Child and Youth Care worker. I remember how Tumi cried when his mother left him at the programme. I had to deal with the brothers’ emotional pain of being separated from their loved ones from day one and it reminded me of a time when I had to deal with my own pain of being separated from loved ones. The reality of separation from one’s family of origin is in itself likely to be a source of significant psycho-emotional pain (Anglin, 2002: 111).
In a way, I bonded with them as we shared our anxieties of being new in a programme. My anxiety was about having to start a new job, with new clients and new colleagues. But I knew that at the end of the shift, I was going home to my own family where there was love and support. The brothers’ anxiety, on the other hand, was complicated by the fact that they were not sure when they would be going back to their parents.
It was standard practice for the young persons in the programme to go home for weekends, and most of them did, except for Tumi and Thabo. For a number of reasons, they did not have that opportunity: they stayed in most weekends. What I found strange was that the weekends – with only the two brothers to supervise – tended to be more hectic than the weekdays. They could not even play together for five minutes without fighting; I had to be with them all the time. My level of supervision of them consisted of "eye-balling"; they had to be in my sight at all times. I wondered why this might be.
In describing children from chaotic homes, Lewis (1995), mentioned that children often communicate through fighting and that deciphering the message is crucial. Some of the more common meanings identified by Lewis include:
Predictability: In their chaotic, uncertain world, there is safety and familiarity in the predictability of the fight. Siblings know how the fight will begin, who will initiate it, how the other will respond, who will do what next, and how it will end. It was interesting to see that if Thabo did not start the fight, Tumi would. I wonder if this was their way of creating a sense of predictability
Sense of competence: Regardless of who wins the fight, there is satisfaction in initiation. Starting the fight is away to take control of something in their lives (Minuchin et al. 1967:294). Tumi seemed to have enjoyed initiating a fight with his older brother.
Self deflection of anger: In some families, open expression of anger is not safe. It is not an equal battle. Deflecting anger towards a sibling is safer. The two brothers seemed to have felt safe with one another and hence the fighting seemed okay between them.
Expression of affects: In their world, open expression of affect is often not valued. Fighting, though, is socially acceptable means of making contact. Also, since these children externalize their feelings, fighting can defuse their tension, anger, and hopelessness. What was evident with these two brothers was that it was acceptable for Thabo to hit Tumi, but he would not allow anybody else to touch his younger brother; instead he protected him.
Avoidance of silence: Noise and movement are a reassurance of their own presence and that of others. Silence can be experienced as abandonment, and it leaves too much room for unacceptable affect to surface. I wonder if they kept on fighting so that I could always be with them. I wonder if this was their way of making sure that we did not abandon them. (Lewis, 1995: 304)
One day the boys’ father came to fetch them for the weekend. When they returned on Monday, I could see that they were unsettled; they ran around the house, irritating all the other youngsters.
During that time of ‘energetic moment’, which some might call ‘hyperactivity’, Tumi intentionally banged the door so hard against my hand that my fingernail came off. It was so painful that I felt like picking him up and dropping him off the balcony of a double-storey house. But instead, I managed to maintain my composure and went to the duty room where I lay on the bed and tried to recover from the pain. As I lay there Tumi kept coming to the door and laughing at me. I wondered if he was saying "at least I got this one". Perhaps he felt powerless with his father and in his mind had and used power over me. Ward and McMahon (1998:57) state that young people who usually feel powerless come to experience a sense of power by provoking strong emotional reactions in those they encounter on a daily basis. I wondered about Tumi’s behaviour.
Often, simply knowing what took place in the child’s world in minutes or hours preceding the action can suggest a useful interpretation of the meaning of the particular behaviour being observed. Anglin (2002: 119).
On the Thursday following their return we received a report from a neighbour of the boys’ father, who described how the father would physically bite the two children. Only then did I understand the message Tumi was trying to communicate to me: he felt powerless with his father. He had experienced pain on two levels: the physical pain of being bitten, as well as the emotional pain of being hurt by his own father – someone who was supposed to love and protect him. It seemed to me that he was doing to me, that which he had experienced, and I came to realize that the physical pain I had endured when losing my fingernail was nothing compared to the pain Tumi had endured over the weekend
Unfortunately, I had failed to make sense of Tumi’s feelings at the time and mirror them back to him so that he could begin to make sense of them himself (Ward and McMahon 1998:17). But at least I did not hurt him back either directly or through punishment. Otherwise I would have abused the limited power I had. He would have been hurt by someone who was employed to care for him and was supposed to have been trained to deal with his hurt. I would have paralleled for him his experience with his father.
Although I knew it intellectually, this experience reminded me that "the young people who come into the group settings come from abusive, neglectful, or overwhelming personal situations, and they come into substitute care with deep-seated and typically long-standing pain" (Anglin, 2002:109).
That incident helped me to appreciate that children and youth in care carry a lot of pain with them. The challenge for the Child and Youth Care Worker is to understand the level of that pain and to hold it for a while (not to react without first thinking it through) before communicating it back to the young person in a form that he/she can handle. It is important to remember that every time you experience hurt – particularly as a result of what a young person has done or said to you – you can use the level of pain you feel as a measure of the amount of pain the young person is feeling. Ask yourself the question: "Is this pain that the young person is inflicting on me actually his or her own pain?" In most cases your answer will probably be "Yes". If you then communicate your insight, in words, to the young person, you may show that you care about him/her.
Anglin, J, P. (2002). Pain, Normality, and the Struggle for Congruence: Reinterpreting Residential Care for Children and Youth. New York, London, Oxford. The Haworth Press, Inc.
Lewis K.G. (1995) Siblings therapy: one step in breaking the cycle of Recidivism in Foster Care. In L. Combrinck-Graham, (Ed.) Children in Families at Risk: Maintaining the Connections. New York, London. The Guildford Press
Minuchin, S., Montalvo, B., Guerney, B,G. Jr., Rosman, B., & Schumer, F. (1967). Families of the slums: An exploration of their structure and treatment. New York. Basic Books.
Ward, A. & McMahon, L. (1998). Intuition is not enough: Matching learning with practice in therapeutic child care. New York: Routledge.