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bread and butter care issues

The welcome

Robert Kydd writing 50 years ago

The immediate reassurance achieved at the front door, we go a step further. As a rough guide I would say that there are three ways of reassuring children, according to their age. The very young child should be picked up and mothered, or at least given the comfort of some physical contact to reassure him that he is still loveable. The staff, and especially the women, should not inhibit their natural desire to pick up and comfort a child and should realize that the deprived child sometimes needs this comfort at an age when normal children would scorn it.

With the school-age child, between 7 and 11 or 12, after one has established that there is food and shelter, and what look like friendly adults, it is better to turn him over to the group of children already resident. From them he will get what to him are trustworthy answers to such important questions as ‘Do they hit you here?’ ‘What time do you have to go to bed?’ ‘Do they let you go home?’ In my experience the comforting value of the Reception Centre group should not be underestimated. It is not exclusive because it is so temporary and it is often remarkably understanding because all its members are in similar situations. A really cocky newcomer will be rejected right away by any group, of course, and a certain amount of testing-out of the leadership must be expected. When the reassurance by his contemporaries has had its effect one can then proceed to talk to the school-age child, explaining his situation and answering his questions, and helping him to understand.

With adolescents it is well, I find, to start with the verbal explanations, to take them aside and have a thorough discussion of’ the reasons for their being in the Centre and to explain the rules. Adolescents are much more individualistic than school-age children, and while they are usually dependent on a group of their contemporaries, they very often have ideas of their own and need to have a chance to express them. I find that a school-age child learns the rules much more quickly by example from the group; the teenager needs to have the rules, and the reasons for them, explained.

With all ages it is important to be forthright and honest without being unnecessarily cruel and without criticism, expressed or implied, of the parents. The child is in care and this is his first introduction to it. It is no use filling him up with optimistic stories about his going home soon, or pretending that his mother’s absence is temporary when we know it to be indefinite. The first part of therapy is to have the child accept being in care.

This one single function of reassurance requires continual attention to every detail of daily living. If we have offered the child food from an obviously ample store on his first arrival we have made a beginning, but we must go on providing ample and regular food which is seen to be ample and proved to be regular. The child should realize that be can eat his fill of such things as bread and butter, though there may be a limit on the more expensive foods. We are again on the child’s side, exercising the loving adult’s function of feeding him. We like him so much, too, that we eat at the same table and use the same crockery and cutlery. We serve the food to him ourselves and prevent that feeling of insecurity that the serving of food by other children or uninterested staff makes certain. We are on the child’s side on the question of table manners; we do not criticize his handling of a knife and fork, or his method of eating. We allow him to observe what the group standards are and conform to them at his leisure. Noting is easier than to make a child conform to a certain standard of table manners while at the same time spoiling our relationship with him, creating resentment and ensuring that he will, at the first opportunity, revert to his own methods of eating. Meal-times should be relaxed, free-and-easy occasions when we all enjoy our food together. (It is usually the children who are the most relaxed, of course, for it takes some experience before an adult can relax at Reception Centre meal-times. For many, many months, my wife, unused to our dining-room, used to prod me and say, ‘Look at what so-and-so is doing with his food.’ My usual answer was ‘What you mean is "Don’t look at what he’s doing".’ Sometimes, of course, someone is showing off and needs to be reminded of the fact.)

Another part of the daily routine that has to be organized with a view to reassurance is bed-time. Most children resist going to bed (and there is surely something wrong with a child who wants to go to bed early), but this problem assumes different proportions in the Reception Centre. Remember how you yourself don’t sleep very well in a strange bed and you will have a glimmering of what it is like in a busy Reception Centre where there are always one or two children who have newly arrived and are sleeping in strange beds. Not just strange because they are in a different house, but perhaps because they are clean, white, cold single beds in an enormous room instead of dirty double beds shared with the warm bodies of their brothers and sisters.

Remember, too, how in times of stress you yourself lie awake and worry and how, just as you are dropping off, the most frightening of all the possible disasters comes into your mind and you awake again with a jolt. Now think of a house full of children all under stress, most of them putting off that moment in the darkness when their worst fears well up, and you will realize that Reception Centre staff do have something abnormal to cope with at bed-time. Luckily, of course, nature insists on some sleep even for the most unlucky of us and peace descends eventually.

Children from disorganized homes, and even those from ordinary working-class homes, find our bed-times ridiculously early and we may not only be criticizing their parents by implication by insisting on a reasonable hour, but also depriving them of a TV programme to have seen which is essential to keeping their end up at school.

Altogether, then, we must have supporting adults present at bed-times and not too far away after ‘lights out’. I have found it important that there should be a settling-down period of something like half an hour. The children should be actually in bed, resting their bodies if nothing else and doing something quiet, like reading a comic, playing with toy soldiers, knitting or listening to a story being read. This is often the time for a quiet talk, for the child to become confidential and for the listening adult to be sympathetic and reassuring. Almost always a group of teenagers sharing a bedroom will begin group discussions after ‘lights out’. It is sometimes possible, though not always desirable, to join in these discussions or at least be permitted to listen to them. One can then do some really positive reassurance, a job that only the residential therapist can do. Somehow the darkness, the comfort of a warm bed and the security implied by the shadowy authority figure in the corner bring out fears and feelings that are denied expression at any other time. Let us be humble, however, and remember that we are not doing group psychotherapy, we are residential therapists doing a little first-aid, a little reassurance.

This feature: Kydd, R. (1963) Assessment and Therapy in the Reception Centre. Magazine of the Residential Child Care Association: An ABC of Social Problems and Therapy, pp.9-11