Relationships — we have to begin somewhere!
If the kids are out in the yard and you are inside, you are not doing child and youth care work. You might be planning, tidying up, sorting clothes or doing administrative work — but you are not doing child and youth care work. Brian Gannon continues ...
Good relationship skills allow the child and youth care worker to attract and involve the unconfident youth, by offering company, encouragement, welcome and commitment. The child care worker takes the trouble to notice the reluctant youngster, to recognise the lack of confidence — and then takes the trouble to do something about it. Many other adults would have left this youngster to go her own way — perhaps even labelling her as 'shy' or even 'unfriendly' but within five minutes, an unpromising relationship can be transformed by using good skills in engaging young people at risk.
Today (for good process and budgetary reason) children and youth are in our program for a limited time. They should, after all, be in care only as long as they need to be. This means that our time with them is limited: we have a limited opportunity to build a relationship, get to know them, secure their trust, be in a relationship and be of some lasting influence and help as we share our space and time with each other — as staff, as carers, as adults and, hopefully, as friends.
"On duty" is not enough
"But," say some care workers, "I am on duty, I'm available if they want me for anything. They know where to find me."
No, that's not enough. It's also not enough to be "keeping an eye" on the children, merely maintaining order, stopping the noise. Or even less, seeing that they are entertained in front of the TV while we get on with our chores. We have to actually meet the kids, get alongside them, strike up a two-way dialogue ... relate to them.
How do we initiate relationships?
We build for ourselves a whole set of attitudes and skills —
initiating contacts with youngsters, being interested in them, for their sake;
introducing yourself, being clear as to why you are there;
actively acknowledging their presence, noticing them, being responsive;
being sensitive, knowing how they are feeling;
approaching them positively;
being welcoming, smiling, open;
joining with the lonely, isolated child;
sharing common times and routines, drinking tea and eating meals together, doing tasks together;
attending to kids, waiting upon them (the word 'therapy' means to wait upon people);
drawing responses from kids, interacting with them;
meaning what we say;
listening to what they say (even non-verbally), hearing what they mean, digesting their messages;
being nearby, being free to talk, being available;
accepting whatever they bring — whether pleasant or unpleasant — because this is our job.
Theory and practice
The theory behind all this is simple: It is that most troubled kids have never been truly engaged by caring adults. Most risk behaviour occurs because of this. Youngsters are entrusted to us only because they need some special intervention. We can only intervene (be useful, stimulate positive growth, re-educate, influence) if we engage with these young people. And young people who are included and engaged by caring adults think differently and behave differently.
That's the theory. Practice is always harder.
Making decisions in the moment to initiate contacts in this way always implies risk — of being rejected, of making a fool of ourselves, of getting it wrong, of being unsure of the follow-up step ... In this year when we are following relationships in child and youth care work as our theme, share with others any difficulties you experience in this area of your work, and any solutions you find useful — either in the daily discussion group here or through the pages of this on-line magazine.