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My name is Victoria and I am currently a 2nd year CYCC student, finishing up my first semester of practicum at an after school youth centre.
My question today relates to an incident that occurred the other day at the centre, which left me unnerved.
The situation in short was that a male youth at the centre had taken out a lighter and was holding it out in front of other youth, flicking the cover open and closed. He stated to the youth that it was his fidget toy, and continued to play with it. Upon seeing this I immediately thought it was very inappropriate for a youth to be playing with a lighter at a centre full of other children due to safety risks, and politely asked him to put it away or give it to me to keep safe in the office.
Immediately he refused and said there was no problem with having it out, due to the fact that it didn't properly work. I stuck to my original position, and stated his two options again. Once again he refused and said that another staff had seen him with it and had said nothing, but I didn't quite believe that, so I asked this particular staff, and they told me they had told the youth to put it away.
I relayed this message to the youth, to show that the full time staff with not okay with it, and he had two options to put it away, but again he refused. When I told him he could either hand it to me, or put it in his bag, he stared directly at me and told me to try and take it from him. to which I replied with the same two options. This happened two more times, and the finally time he challenged me by saying "I dare you to try and take it from me, go ahead try".
By this point I was feeling extremely uncomfortable as this youth is larger than me, and has been known in the past to punch things when he was angry. I calmly told him that I would never forcefully take anything from him, which he quickly replied, "See you can't take it from me." I then explained how I wouldn't forcefully take anything from him, but that he had a choice between two options, to remove it. He refused to make the choice I had given him, and went to the other staff member to complain.
Upon reflection of this situation I am conflicted in whether I handled it in an appropriate way, or if I entered a dangerous power struggle with a youth, that should have been avoided.
On one hand I wanted to show the youth that I was concerned about safety and was upholding the values and rules of the centre, because everyone's safety is a priority there. However, I would never want a child or youth to comply to me, just because I am an adult, however I don't think I was unreasonable in my request, and I had explained why I thought the lighter was inappropriate and needed to be put away, even acknowledging that we could find him something else to fidget with. At the time I felt that if I caved to what he wanted, then he wouldn't respect my concerns, and would cease to listen to me if I caught him breaking rules, bullying or being inappropriate.
On the other hand though, as I began to feel more uncomfortable in the situation in concern for my safety, I began to worry that I had entered into a power struggle with a youth, when it might have been better to ask for the full time staff to handle it, when I had first gone to talk to them.
So my question is did I make the right call to stick to my
word about lighters being inappropriate and not allowed in the centre,
or should I have handed the situation over to a staff member?
I look forward to your responses, as I strongly believe they will assist me in many situations similar to this in the future, and I would like to keep myself safe, and benefit the youth as best as possible.
I have come across similar situations with my experiences of working in residential child care and in my opinion there is no straightforward solution. In my opinion you were certainly right to address the boys behaviour in relation to the lighter. Firstly because he shouldn't have it in the first place and using this as a toy or to annoy another young person is also unacceptable behaviour. Having said that, it’s good to see you you thinking and reflecting on this experience, seeking other people's views and recognising your own limitations and potential risks.
In my opinion it’s not in any child's best interest to have some adult carers ignoring unacceptable behaviour just to avoid having to deal with the child's reaction. Be consistent in teaching them what is allowed and encourage a consistent response from the whole team
There is a huge Red Flag going on and you need to act decisively – that lighter must be taken away from that youth ASAP and you must alert the highest authorities in your organization. Having the youth put it away is not an option, as he and his living area must be searched in case more ignition/combustibles are available. I have worked with fire setters for many years and seen what damage/harm these youth can cause. Just as sexually aggressive youth can be sex offenders of different levels, fire setters are also described as level 1, 2, 3 and 4 – with level 4 being the most high risk. Fire Setter treatment programs usually involve a 3 way process – the residential agency, the local fire department and insurance companies. Just as a sexually aggressive youth can be misplaced in a residential program (putting a fox in a hen house full of potential victims) so to can a fire setter be in a setting unknown to program staff and capable of serious harm. Please, if you have ever been to a burn unit in a hospital, or even seen pictures of burn victims, you will never think twice on the damage a fire setter can cause. I cannot say that this youth is a fire setter, but with “fire play” going on (the youth flicking the lighter in a somewhat taunting way) this youth may be in need of a fire setter evaluation at the least.
This is beyond a power struggle level – it is a safety issue. And this youth must comply to your care and concern, precisely because you are the adult. Many youth (including most non-fire setters) are in residential because they cannot be managed in the home, school or community (as well as trauma and abuse) by the responsible adults. These youth will defy parents, teachers, the police, coaches, and other positive adult authority figures. Raising children is not all a democracy and many kids need to do things, because you are the caring, loving, responsible adult. When these kids lack respect for the adult, they have no fears of abusing and bullying others in their way in society. The prognosis is not good for these kids when they become adults, as they are prime for a life-time of involvement in the criminal system. You are in a very precarious position, and if handled well, can be a tremendous influence to turn this youth around using this a valuable “teaching moment”. Good luck.