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One child care workers approach to resistance in adolescents

Brian Stock

The conflict need not arise, however, if the worker sees that “resistance is not just a dumb barrier to be removed but a creative force for managing a difficult world” (Polster & Polster, 1974, p. 52). In other words one has to begin with the understanding that the client is doing what he has learned to do, in order to survive the best way he knows how, in a very difficult world. It is, unfortunately this important understanding that is often missed. Conflict may also be avoided if the worker uses “rational authority (which has its source in competence” (Fromm,1971, p.13).Resistance can be respected and seen in a positive light rather than merely as a reluctance to change on the teenager’s part. It is not merely a reaction to authority. In fact, as a creative and adaptive act, it implies an ability to learn and change. It may be, Erikson (1965, p.19) suggests, “an energy of repudiation which accompanies the first steps of an identity formation” and need not be taken as a personal affront to the worker. It may be a necessary part of an adolescent’s developmental struggle and need not be taken as power struggle in the child’s relationship with the worker. Indeed, Simon (1971, p. 6) believes that good behavior that is enforced by the threat of sanction should be considered defective because it lacks voluntariness.

There does come a time, however, when the resistance does get in the way of the healthy development of the client, and, therefore, loses its value. This happens when it becomes anachronistic; when its appearance is no longer a response directly related to the present but is a continuation of the past. It is here that the therapeutic intervention must occur. The worker is most likely to be helpful if he regards the conflict as part of an ongoing, unfinished situation of the client which the client is meeting with his own self-regulation (Perls et a1.,1977, p. 323). In this case, it means accepting the resistance as part of the client’s view of his place in the world and further, accepting this as an image of man as he thinks he ought to be (Sartre, 1957, p. 17). By accepting the resistance one also accepts the client on his own terms. This also demonstrates a respect for the client’s wants and needs by creating an empathetic atmosphere conducive to therapy, and can help build the trust needed in order for further confrontation and change to occur.

By accepting the resistance, I mean, working with the resistance, understanding as much about it as possible and involving the client in its dissolution so that it becomes a stepping stone to a new learning rather than a wall to be broken. Fagan (1971, p. 94) offers a good example of what I mean. He is working with a client who readily goes along with him until a certain point, and then the client resists by demonstrating that the therapist can do nothing to change or help him. According to Fagan, the therapist has lost control of the therapy. He/she can challenge this resistance directly, or can accept it. Admitting to the client that he/ she has lost control and admitting failure is one way for the worker to bring the therapy back on track. (See also Latner,1974, p.184; Erickson,1980, pp. 233-234.) In other words, the worker, by accepting and working with the resistance, advances the therapeutic process.

Perhaps one also needs to remember that resistance can be more a statement about what the worker is doing than a statement about the client (Bandler & Grinder, 1979, p. 58; Latner,1974, p.187). Often working with delinquent clients can raise a worker’s hidden fears of aggression, as well as a negative response to the client’s unfamiliar language and mores (Goldsmith, 1959, p.15). This is not to suggest that child care workers should not be judgemental. They cannot help but be, for they are working from their own ethical system which can be displayed to the client in many different ways (Pilsecker,1978, p. 54). The worker also has his/ her own needs in terms of the client and in terms of the institutions with which he is involved. The point is that the workers should be aware of what they are choosing to do or, indeed, choosing not to do, in the light of the client’s needs rather than referring to their own needs. In other words, the aim here is to present ideas that will enhance the cooperative efforts of the client (Erickson,1985, p.15). It has been suggested that this cannot be done without involving the client directly. The worker needs to understand that unless the client is inducted into the whole process he will resist healing (Anderson & Stewart, 1983, p. 4). This involvement in the process is, in itself, part of the healing process and is also a way of reducing the teenager’s resistance to change because he/she has a say in what is going on. The child care worker must not forget that the teenager in placement comes to us in a state of what might be called a double bind of losing actions. The way he/she is behaving is dysfunctional in terms of his/her social growth, yet knows no other way of behaving that is “safe.” He/she has had many different kinds of limits imposed from the outside until he/she was eventually ordered into placement. Generally he/she has been a recipient of authority, rules and orders, rather than a participant in the process. Allowing him/her into the process involves a change and may give room for “safe” experimentation with new behaviors. Further, by doing this, the child care worker is offering a model of openness, respect, and honesty, and it is possible that the client will learn to respond in kind (Buber,1970, p. 67).


Anderson, C.M., 8: Stewart, S. (1983). Mastering resistance. New York: Guilford Press.

Bandler, R., & Grinder, J. (1979). Frogs into princes: Neuro-linguistic programming. Moab, UT: Real People Press.

Buber, M. (1970). I and thou. New York: Scribner’s.

Erickson, M.H. (1980). Presenting ideas. In E.L. Rossi & M.O. Ryan (Eds.), Life reframing in hypnosis. (p.15). New York: Irvington.

Erikson, E.H. (1965). Youth: Fidelity and diversity. In E.H. Erikson (Ed.), The challenge of youth (pp. 1-28). New York: Anchor Books.

Fagan, J. (1971). The tasks of the therapist. In J. Fagan & LL. Shepherd (Eds.), Gestalt therapy now (pp. 88-106). New York: Harper & Row.

Fromm, E. (1971). The ethics of authority. In S.A. Yelaja (Ed.), Authority and social work: Concept and use (pp. 11-16). Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press.

Goldsmith, A.O. (1959). Challenges of delinquency to casework treatment. Social Work journal, 4(2),14-19.

Latner, j. (1974). The Gestalt therapy book. New York: Bantam Books.

Madanes, C. (1984). Behind the one-way mirror. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Perls, F., Hefferline, R.F., & Goodman, P. (1977). Gestalt therapy. New York: Bantam Books.

Pilsecker, C. (1978). Values: a problem for everyone. Social Work, 23(1), 54-57.

Polster, E., & Polster, M. (1974). Gestalt therapy integrated. Toronto, ON: Random House.

Sartre, J.P. (1957). Existentialism and human emotions. New York: Wisdom Library.

Simon, Y.R. (1971). The bad name of authority. In S.A. Yelaja (Ed.), Authority and social work: Concept and use (pp. 5-11). Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press.

Stock, B. (1991). One child care worker’s approach to resistance in adolescents. Journal of Child and Youth Care, Vol. 6(4). pp. 98-99

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