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Relating to the relationship

Karen VanderVen

Given the profound significance of relationship in development and in support of the movement towards relational child care, there are hidden considerations. Anglin (1984) points out that when working with a parent and child or a child and both parents, the worker might inadvertently relate more strongly to one party than another. If the worker focuses more on the child, as she or he might be accustomed to doing by reason of training and past experience, the parent is omitted and unhealthy dynamics can develop. Similar unproductive side effects can occur if the worker relates more to the parent than to the child or even if she relates equally well, but separately, to each. Thus, Anglin (1984) recommends that the task of the worker is to encourage a stronger bond between parent(s) and child than to himself and to then be able to relate to the relationship. In this way the worker can truly support the positive development of both parents and child. The worker's communications may refer to the interactions between the parent and child, and model positive ways of communicating they can use.

Oxygen Principle
On airplanes, we have all experienced the instruction that should pressure decrease and oxygen masks be indicated, parents should put their own masks on themselves before helping their children. Of course, this is counter-intuitive. Would we not want to help our children before ourselves? However, there is an important lesson here for our work with parents: Before parents can truly accept and apply more nurturant and sensitive methods of parenting, the y must first feel more nurtured and cared, for themselves. I have named this concept the "Oxygen Principle" because it is so well illustrated by the airplane example. Introducing activities to parents can be a safe and productive way of offering such direct nurturing and care. This might be done either by suggesting or encouraging an adult type activity that a parent might enjoy, or giving parents an opportunity to play with materials brought for their children before they are offered to the children.

Re-Parenting and de-Parenting
We must not only focus on nurturing and caring for our child clients but in family-focused work must prioritize nurturing parents and avoiding their exclusion or implicit or explicit criticism of them for "causing" their children's difficulties.

This is where Soth's (1986) powerful concepts of re-parenting and de-parenting are important. Soth bases her work on Franz Alexander's (cited in Soth, 1986) notion of the "corrective emotional experience which states that over a period of time emotionally charged attitudes developed in childhood will have to be corrected by reliving similar situations in the immediate presence" (p. 111). In re-parenting workers recreate a nurturing and caring experience that makes up for gaps and lacks in a child's or parent's earlier experience. In de-parenting, dysfunctional learning about relationship that may have occurred in the context of a family are addressed by showing new ways and allowing them to be experienced and practiced in the life space. We can thus consider how we can use the de-parenting and re-parenting notions not only with children but also with their parents.

Incidentally, this is another rationale for why family work in the life space can be so effective. It enables workers to show caring and support by the very fact of "going to the family" rather than having the family come to them (Garfat, 2002).

VanderVen, Karen. (2003). Activity-oriented family-focused child and youth care work in group care: Integrating streams of thought into a river of progress.
In Garfat, Thom. (Ed.). A Child and Youth Care Approach to Working with Families. New York. Haworth Press. pp. 137-138.


Anglin, J.P. (1984). Counseling a single parent and child: Functional and dysfunctional patterns of communication. Journal of Child Care, 2, 2. pp. 33-45.
Garfat, Thom. (2002). Working with families: Using daily life events to facilitate change: A child and youth care approach.  Unpublished manuscript.
Soth, N. (1986). Reparenting and deparenting as a paradigm for psychiatric residential treatment. Child Care Quarterly, 15, 2. pp. 110-120.