My name is Katie and I am in my second year of Child and Youth Care Counselling at Mount Royal University. I have been doing a practicum at a residential treatment program since the beginning of September, and I was wondering if anyone would be willing to answer a question I had about relationships with the youth.
There is one youth at my practicum in particular who has been at the program previously for a 9 month period, and his behaviours and mental health had deteriorated by the time he left. He was recently placed back into the program, and the staff were visibly uncomfortable with this – stating that they did not want to experience the emotional abuse that they had to endure from this youth while he was previously here.
Their comments and warnings about working with this particular youth have caused me to become almost cold and distant while interacting with this youth, and I catch myself feeling guilty about how neutral I am.
I was wondering if anyone had similar experiences working with a youth who causes you to put your "guard" up, and if there was any advice you could give about how to build a relationship with youth who make it difficult to get close?
While it will not be uncommon to engage with "repeaters," staff who are professionals must be prepared to present themselves as unconditionally positive and enthusiastically engaged. Staff who become toxic, especially as a toxic influence to other staff, should be reported to management, as they are detrimental to both the well-being of the child/youth and the morale of staff. Don't try to figure those kind of staff members out....help weed them out of the system!
Sometimes we have to remind ourselves that we have chosen to work with individuals who have difficult behaviours as a result of mental health issues, substance misuse, trauma etc. Therefore we should expect the difficult behaviour and cannot label it "abuse". Changing the way you view the behaviour might be a good starting point for changing the way you currently feel about this young man. Also difficult behaviours can be scary so we need to do all we can to help us feel confident and in control of our fear, for example: make sure we have training in Non Violent Physical Crisis Intervention, educate ourselves about pertinent mental health issues etc, use a team approach, self-care ... Changing how we think about the behaviour and feeling prepared to deal with it is key to developing relationships with those in our care. Remember this young man is communicating needs through his behaviour. Focus on trying to figure out what those needs are and on helping him to meet those needs in more productive ways. This can only be done through relationship. So I would encourage you to take a risk, put yourself out there and build a relationship with this young man, who sounds like he really needs someone to care about him.
A significant part of working with traumatized children is understanding that their traumatic past has them stuck in a physiological state of fight/flight, in which the child often presents as violent or abusive, but this generally is more reflective of the child's perceptions of their own personal safety. We have to remember that they come from a place of hurt, isolation and rejection and our number one goal should be to provide the most safe and nurturing environment possible.
In regard to safety, Steele, W. and Malchiodi, C. (2012) in Trauma-informed practices with children and adolescents (New York: Routledge) say there are four questions practitioners must routinely ask.
1. How do we determine who the child believes is a
2. How do we as practitioners, yet strangers to the child, present ourselves as safe?
3. What defines a safe intervention?
4. How do we create an emotionally safe environment for traumatized children?
Honestly, I hate to answer a question with more questions.. but if you examine the situation critically, using those four questions as a base for critical analysis you may end up with a better understanding of this child's needs and how to better support him in this program.
It does seem strange that the young person was placed back into a program that didn't seem to work for him. And the perspectives of the team as you describe will certainly add to the challenge.
One thing that helps is to consider that the defenses and difficulty this person has in connecting with others are there for a reason. Perhaps from past experiences, not feeling physically or emotionally safe, or simply an attempt to find out how much he can trust those around him.
Those who are the most difficult to connect with are
often the ones who need human connections the most.
Be genuinely curious about him and his needs, finding ways to help him meet those in more productive and satisfying ways. Focus on the moments you have with him and how they relate to his future rather than his past.
He's there for a reason and so are you – and perhaps part of that is so that you can be a model for the team in helping him experience a fresh start.
I have to second what Cat has written.
Always keep in mind that these troubled youth demonstrate many pain based behaviours and remember that trust is built over time, but that you can also do immediate small things like asking this youth how his/her day has been and consistently giving this youth a smile to convey safety. Also, as someone new to the field of child and youth work, make sure that you are able to debrief with someone you trust and hopefully, the organisation you work in will provide you with emotional and psychological support.
All the best on your journey forward,
Ffirst let me compliment you on your self-reflective thoughts in regard to this child and your practice. If someone asks me the question "What makes someone 'professional'?" one of the first things I say is the ability, and the willingness, to be self-reflective about ourselves and our practice. I think this is even more crucial in the Child and Youth Care world as so many of the kids raise so many feelings in us that can impact our practice and the way we care for children.
I have had many experiences over the years with children like you describe and agree that they create a challenge for us, and for teams, to digest all the conceptual understanding we have about the impact of trauma on children, don't take it personally, etc., etc. One thing that always helped me with this kind of child was to step back and think that if I could make a strong connection with them then I might be one who can begin to help turn their view of the world around. My experience has been that these youngsters are often easier to reach than we think because despite all their attempts to "push people away" they are very ripe to connect with that one person who hangs in there and remains in an accepting mode with them. Some practical ideas for you:
(1) I remember Thom Garfat talking about tuning in to the "Bids for Connections" that people make and how important it is to recognize and seize the opportunities they present. For kids like this those bids are usually pretty rough around the edges and often socially awkward. Try to have the mind set to look for them and zoom in to connect where you can.
(2) Try to find as many ways as possible to tell this child that you want to be with them and like being with them. The Circle of Courage thinking has referred to it as an "Invitation to belong". I built a number of recreation and activities programs with kids in my practice based almost exclusively on this concept and they were all significantly successful. I remember on one occasion asking a girl who was very often in behavioral difficulties in the program to join a small group we were taking on a trip from New York City to spend a long weekend in Montreal to the dismay of most others in the program who felt she "didn't deserve it" and she would create disruptions on the trip. When I asked her to join us for the trip she looked surprised and said sarcastically "Why do you want ME to come?". I replied evenly "Because I want to spend the time with you and get to know you better". The look on her face was confused but precious. Yes, she attended that year and the next year also....predictably no "issues" with her on the trips.
(3) When he is starting to look agitated or getting verbally aggressive ask him to help you with something. I cannot tell you how many crisis' I settled by asking a kid to come outside and help me carry some stuff in from the van, etc.
(4) Try to find some time to meet with him and explore his feelings about being back in the program and tell him you are happy he is here.
(5) I built much of my practice around a concept I call "Money in the Bank"...that is putting relational "Money in the Bank" with children so that there would be something relational there to "draw out" in times of crisis or for the child to draw out somewhere down the road. Having the mind set to put that "Money in the Bank" with a kid like you describe is usually even more valuable in that those 'deposits" often can focus around empathizing and nurturing when most others would want to run away or punish and they present many opportunities to do just that. Just as important for your own growth in your career is that my experience was when you put "Money in the Bank" with this kind of youngster you were also putting it in with every other kid who is watching you....who may be thinking "If I ever am having a hard time like he is she will be there for me too!", It brings you a lot of credibility and respect with the group.
(6) Capitalize on your willingness to be self reflective and make your interactions with this child a regular topic of discussion with your supervisor to help you monitor how you are doing with him.
I hope some of these suggestions help Katie. I think the fact you are asking the questions and willing to look at yourself has you off to a good start.
Piermont, New York
Let me echo what Frank Delano said and compliment you on your self-reflection. It is so important for us child and youth workers to always question our motives, thoughts and feelings regarding the children we work with. It is great to read about someone who is so new to the field of child and youth work and yet wise enough to question her own feelings regarding a child she is working with. You certainly sound intelligent enough to realise that what staff have been saying about this youth has biased your thinking and feeling slightly, but I would suggest that you try to remain open minded and give the youth the benefit of the doubt and tap into your natural compassion by reminding yourself that this youth was once a little baby and that he has reached the place he is in because life has undoubtedly dealt him a couple of hard knocks.
Good luck and keep up the good work.