The CYC-Net Press CYC-Online

ONLINE JOURNAL OF THE INTERNATIONAL CHILD AND YOUTH CARE NETWORK (CYC-Net) – ISSN 1605-7406

ISSUE 125 JULY 2009 •  CONTENTS •  HOME PAGE

PRACTICE

Life space work as practiced by skilled CYC practitioners

Jack Phelan

Until now, I have been describing the journey that all CYC professionals undertake to reach a level of practice that I will refer to as being a mature practitioner. People outside of our field do not understand the complexity and sophistication of this level of CYC practice and less experienced workers are both intimidated and impressed as they work alongside mature practitioners.

Even well intentioned people trained in social work, psychology, education and mental health can really only see that good CYC workers are capable of the skilful use of recreational activity, creating relaxed and comfortable interactions with youth and families and able to establish safe learning environments. These are all important professional tasks, but are actually capabilities of the CYC workers who are still below the level of skill of a fully developed practitioner. To borrow a metaphor from an esteemed colleague, Merle Allsopp from South Africa, appreciating skilful CYC work is like viewing art, you can only see it as deeply as your own perception and knowledge will allow you.

We are bombarded in our own literature with statements that CYC practice is relationally based, and that our main tool is the relationship we establish with the youth and/or family. Yet our understanding of this relationship work is poorly articulated, both within and outside of our professional circles. Mature practitioners absolutely appreciate the paradox of working relationally with people who have been marginalized and punished mainly because of their fundamental inability and unwillingness to be in relationship with others. In fact, mature practitioners know that the biggest professional hurdle to overcome is connecting, because it means leaving behind one’s own safe coordinates which balance and support living successfully and choosing to join people in dangerous, frightening, and lonely places.

The closest vocational parallel is people who do rescue work, finding stranded or marooned travelers in dangerous places. The youth and families we serve often act they way they do because of where they are, not who they are. When a person is in survival mode, they become very reactive and self-protective, without any need for social rules and mores. Our youth and families need someone who can join them in these dark places, not just offer advice from afar. The real skill in describing our work is to articulate the first step out of danger, not the eventual safe destination.

An additional complication, based on attachment dynamics and mistrust beliefs, is that there is a reluctance to signal the need for a rescuer, because being vulnerable inevitably leads to being victimized. Picture a youth who has fallen into a deep hole, yet is unwilling to cry out to passer-bys for help because he believes that they will laugh at him and perhaps throw things down at him for sport.

So, what is needed is a professional who can physically and emotionally join with the other person’s reality, remain safe and confident in spite of the danger, and display the tools and skills to move toward a better place. Life space work at this level of connection is what effective CYC practice is all about.

Mature practitioners cannot imagine doing CYC work anywhere else than in real life space situations. They do not picture the life space as an unpredictable, anxious place, or a chess game where one is always planning future moves, but a rich, complex energy field where they are fully engaged. When faced with challenges, they look inside, not outside for solutions. Creating connections with others is totally reliant on how you are, not how the other person is. Opportunities for engaging are everywhere and do not need to be pre-planned. Structures, routines, rules and events are background and emotional energy is foreground. The act of caring and building connections creates the healing and growth required for successful living, and the mature practitioner has this focus at all times.

Some practical examples may be useful:

  1. A community youth worker gradually builds stronger connections between each youth and herself, among the local group of youths, and between each youth and the community, in order to establish logical reasons to act responsibly and with social empathy. Behavior control is unimportant, except when it threatens to undermine connections. So, she becomes safe and predictable, helps youth to trust each other more, and offers opportunities to contribute to the community. Typical anti-authority behaviour is only challenged when it blocks building connections. When things are going badly, she asks herself how she could be doing it differently, and does not look to blame.

  2. Family support workers see angry, mistrustful families as trying to keep themselves safe, protecting themselves from change for good reasons. The daily chaos is a way to avoid bigger fears of loss and danger. Success will emerge when the worker gets better at joining and supporting existing relationships to be healthier, often through nurturing adults, bringing physical relief and resources, and living alongside the family without judgements or advice. Effective family support workers impact family dynamics without creating dependence on their presence.

  3. In residential treatment settings, the mature practitioner will slowly shift from a safe, predictable rule and routine person, to a caring individual adult, by making a favourite snack, or sharing a special interest, or knowing when to back off. Soon she becomes a more substantial adult presence and can create good choices through relationship energy. After this, the real treatment work begins, and the youth sees the worker as a person who is starting to understand him and yet still likes him. As the youth expresses the pain underneath, the worker does not back away.

The actual things that mature practitioners do in daily interactions look quite simple. Bringing a loaf of bread and a coloring book on a family visit does not seem too complicated, yet the nurturing message, both from welcome food and the pleasure of mom and worker playing together by coloring, builds an experience of caring that the mother will eventually be able to transfer to her mothering energy. The timing, content and delivery of this simple/complex learning are quite sophisticated.

Supporting an ego-centric and fearful youth to be both open to nurturing and to become nurturing may involve gardening and caring for plants, or asking her to teach you a skill. The eventual activity looks simple, the judgement about when and how to create the learning is complex.

Supporting youth to be angry, not teaching anger management techniques, can be messy and yet very productive. Unfortunately, most of our youth have excellent reasons to be angry, and the pain underneath can often only be reached after legitimizing their emotional experiences. Unskilled workers should not attempt this. Yet the life space offers tremendous opportunities to explore these predictable dynamics.

Mature practitioners rarely use punishment, although it is occasionally the right response. Behavior control is rarely the focus for mature CYC practitioners, unless safety is at risk. Relationship work, when done well, increases connection and social empathy, opens youth to examining choices and ego-centric logic, and develops self-control. Skilful CYC practitioners not only do relational work very well, they also resist anything that undermines this focus.

Mature practitioners are often frustrated by supervisors who expect them to focus on cleanliness and good order rather than good treatment.