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

ISSUE 135 MAY 2010 •  CONTENTS •  HOME PAGE

PRACTICE

More on sensible CYC practice

Jack Phelan

Last month I introduced the concept of working sensibly, that it, communicating with youth by sense data rather than through words and adult logic.  I will use an example to elaborate further on this idea.

Hector is a 12 year old who has been in the system for several years and appears to be angry and closed off to adult influence.  His basic story about himself and the world is that no one likes him because he is bad and that he can not trust anyone.  Adults lie to him regularly and when he is vulnerable people will take advantage of this.

Hector does not seek out adults and if you try to get close to him or praise him he will generally act badly to give you the message that he is a bad kid who does not want your help.  Actually, his brain has become hard wired to see the world this way and the more you try to use words to convince him otherwise, the more he mistrusts you.  He resists all attempts at connection, since his attachment ability is quite low and his story is that closeness should be avoided at all cost. Hector is trapped in a situation where he needs help desperately but is unable to ask for it, since it is too dangerous.

Working sensibly with Hector means that you will arrange experiences for him that challenge his story about the world but which will not be consciously blocked by his defences.  You want him to feel safe near you even as his brain is pushing you away.  This cognitive dissonance will gradually allow his story about the world to expand and allow other possibilities to emerge.

A sensible and sensitive CYC practitioner will be able to estimate how much attention or closeness Hector can safely absorb in these life space interactions, and will be careful to avoid setting off his defensive alarms.  Also, no explanations, verbal acknowledgements, or expectations of a please or thank you is part of the experiential communication.  Additionally, verbal explanations such as “I am doing this for you because I like you, or because you deserve it, or because I want to have a relationship with you”, will only create suspicion and withdrawal.  Experiential work is mostly non-verbal.

So you can make Hector’s favourite breakfast and serve it without any fanfare.  You can anticipate his need for help in doing chores or homework and join in without being invited, and leave quickly with no expectation of a thank you.  You can laugh together or do something silly without feeling foolish, can teach him a game or learn one from him while avoiding looking self-conscious or critical. You can quietly provide a lunch when he forgets to fix his own, or drop off a forgotten book or assignment at school without comment.  You can be a witness when he scores a goal, or catches a fish, laughing or cheering together without expectation that he will respond better to you or be more friendly because of this. You can care about how he looks, or what he is wearing or needs to wear, but do it non-verbally and with little explanation.

Experiential moments of safeness and being cared for are the goal, not challenging the suspicious and angry story about the world, but adding new possibilities to it.  Hector will not respond well to external control attempts, or logical explanations about rules and consequences.  He needs to be safe, and some external control will be necessary, but efforts to get him to verbally perform to our social norms will be further evidence for his existing story and will prevent you from getting close to him.  Actually there are many things that CYC programs expect from both youth and the CYC staff which block good sensible work, which I call nonsensical approaches.  More about this next time.