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 (1998) 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.
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 youths' 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. and Ness, A. (1983). Re-educating troubled youth: Environments for teaching and treatment. New York: Aldine de Gruyter
Garfat, T. (1998). The effective child and youth care intervention: A phenomenological enquiry. Journal of Child and Youth Care, 12 (1,2)
Krueger, M. (1995) Nexus: A book about youth work. Milwaukee: University of Wisconsin
This extract from Weisman, V. (1999) Relationships: What is it we do? ... It is what we do! Journal of Child and Youth Care 13, (2) 125-131