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War stories

Brian Gannon

The situation

Next week I meet “Shane-Man.”

I’m not looking forward to the challenge. “Shane-Man” is not his real name, of course, but a name he has given himself, and one that has stuck to him wherever he has gone. Shane (which is his real name) is one of those “career welfare kids” who has been through the system — and back again — a few times now, and each time around the accretion of horror stories gives him a tougher and meaner reputation.

I am going to be his child care worker, and I have heard about him from several different sources. The first (and longest) report was from the school that has just been responsible for his nth suspension from school. It is filled with words like insolent, subversive, cunning ... and other nonspecific but highly evaluative words. The next report was from his mother (he has no father), which seemed to say all the same things, but in different words, disobedient, disrespectful, deceitful. A third report was the official referral report from the state office responsible for Shane’s placement. It hedged all its bets with phrases like “has resisted repeated attempts at intervention,” “has demonstrated an unwillingness to co-operate with treatment plans,” and “has shown little capacity for improvement.”

More discouraging yet have been the (probably highly unprofessional) reactions of child care colleagues who have come to know this boy during his frequent contacts with “the system.” “Shane-Man!” they say. “Boy! Here comes your trial by fire!” And then follow what I have heard called the “war stories” of our profession, reminiscences of past engagements with difficult clients — and with “Shane-Man” in particular: tales of confrontation, of eyeball-to-eyeball stand-offs, battle and survival, of strategy and counter-tactic, victory and defeat.

Next week I meet “Shane-Man.”


 1. We know this feeling. It’s like when you were at school and the school bully finally got around to you — and your friends looked on to see how you handled yourself. Or worse, it’s like when you (now as an adult child care worker) step in to resolve some problem with a really difficult kid-and the rest of the kids in your group look on to see how you manage. As if it’s not bad enough that you have to do a difficult job, you have to do it in front of a whole lot of people.

The temptation, of course, is to throw away all of those reports and opinions that others feed you when you start with a new youngster. “Let me make up my own mind,” you say. “This kid has been tried, convicted, and sentenced by everyone else before I even get to meet him.” With all those rave reviews preceding him, how hard it is for you to see this person as he really is in your first encounter.

But don’t throw them away. With a “repeating” child like Shane, these past experiences offer you a helpful blueprint of what hasn’t worked for him in the past, with some clues about new things and different things you can plan. Too often youngsters come into care and we offer them no more than a rerun of their past conflicts and power struggles. All we change is the cast of characters; the story stays the same.

2. Examine the stance of your predecessors in Shane’s life. When he comes in the door for the first time, figure out the stance (position, attitude, role) he will expect you to adopt — most probably, judging by his past experience, that of an opponent bouncing out of your corner for the start of Round Four, gloves at the ready to protect and jab out. If this is so, be certain that he will be ready for you. He will by now have developed quite some skills to handle himself in this head-to-head, pugilistic role. And think of his despair as he thinks, “Oh, no. Not this again!” Think of the hope, the possibilities you would present to him if he were to meet something quite different in his next adult — someone who appears not to have read the advance publicity, or is unaffected by it. Psychologist George Kelly was not a great supporter of the concept of motivation, and he believed that (his italics) (“a person’s processes are psychologically channelized by the ways in which he anticipates events”) (Maher, 1969, p. 86). We have to add more experiences — widen their repertoire of possibilities — to children’s ability to anticipate, so that something different might happen.

Your stance to a great extent decides the baggage we permit Shane to bring with him into the placement. Beedel (1970, 54 ff.) insisted that we “admit the whole child” to the unit. This means that it is wrong to let in only the “acceptable” feelings and behaviour; that way we never get to see the problems we are meant to be helping with. But it also means that it is wrong to have a program in which the child is encouraged to bring along only one set of “gear”: for example, protective gear for a bullying or abusive environment, achievement-oriented gear for a competitive environment, or fighting gear for a combative environment. If we truly hope to use a holistic approach and offer an opportunity for rounded development, Shane must be helped to bring along more than artillery and ammunition. He must be allowed to bring with him his metaphorical teddy bear, his vulnerable side, his affectionate side, his co-operative side.

3. Examine also the direction in which your predecessors were moving with Shane. Very often we child care workers are standing in the path of the kids, arms outstretched, trying to stop them doing what they are doing. We become little more than an obstruction for them to find a way past, and we limit our opportunity for contact and influence literally to a passing moment. Lodge (1991) offers some moving words in his “Letter to a Kid”:

We will not meet you head-on; instead we will turn around and walk your path with you. While you are here, we will show you that we can feel what you are feeling and that we will respond to you, instead of reacting to what might be going on inside us ... While you are here we will not stand over you and constantly hold you in check. Instead we will build conditions around you that will eventually lead you to stand on your own ... It would be easy for us to form you to the way we want you to go, yet we choose the less comfortable and more difficult way, and that is to stand by you as you make your choices, and interpret with you the consequences of what you have chosen, to allow you to learn from that for life. (Lodge, 1991, p. 12)

4. Don’t be pressured into thinking that all of your moves must be memorable. At the times when we are interacting with real-live youngsters, few of us are able to deliver the master stroke, the brilliant mot juste or the ultimate strategic side-step. (We usually only think of those afterwards!) Mostly, we can act with simple sincerity and as adults, doing what we think is best. Hoghughi, writing in the context of a highly technical manual on treatment, reassures us by saying that “any human activity can be regarded as a treatment activity if it fits in with an articulated, purposive plan of action aimed at reducing a problem” (1988, p. 5).

5. Don’t be pressured into thinking that you must produce instant results. There is a chemistry in working with troubled children. Did you ever get to see a titration in the school chem lab, whereby we neutralize an acidic solution by adding an alkali drop by drop? We add an “indicator” that has a certain colour that will change dramatically at the point where the liquid is neutralized. We add the alkali drop by drop, expectantly, waiting for the pH to reach the exact level  required ... and with each drop the colour indicator remains stubbornly unchanged. Another drop, no change; another, another ... then miraculously the colour changes. One last drop changes it all. So with children and young people. No single intervention “works.” Rather, our interventions stack up, one by one — and one day the penny drops, the balance turns over to the other side. I remember once being challenged by a colleague along these lines when on the point of despair with a particular kid. “Did you ever think,” he asked, “that the next drop might be the  one, that the present test this kid is putting you through might be the final test?”

This “drop-by-drop” analogy reminds us that we have to wait for Shane to change. The change, when it comes, will look miraculous, but there is no trick to it; it will have been something toward which we worked, day by day, over many months. Just as all those people (his last school, his mother, the state department, or your colleagues) cannot expect instant gratification from your efforts, so you cannot expect this from Shane. However, it is often said that the quality of a treatment program is measured not so much by the behaviour of the youngsters toward the adults, but by the behaviour of the adults toward the youngsters. To this extent Shane deserves from you not fancy footwork to impress anybody, but the basic belief that he can do better, and your commitment toward that end. From Masud Hoghughi again:

Underlying our actions is the belief that intervention is likely to ameliorate, or at least contain, the unacceptable condition (the problem) which has provoked it. This is more frequently implicit than explicit. However, it can be regarded as the most fundamental “article of faith” of the healer. The creed is usually unvoiced but, if it were, it would be something like: “Every problem can be resolved, or at least its impact made tolerable, by the helping process; no child, however serious his problem, is untreatable; our failure to find effective treatments is indicative of the quality of our efforts so far, rather than the child’s condition, so let us try more and better; our next effort may well bear fruit; we cannot and must not give up”. (1988, p. 7)


Beedel, C. (1970). Residential life with children. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Hoghughi, M. (with Lyons, J., Muckley, A. and Swainston, M.). (1988). Treating problem children: Issues, methods and practice. London: Sage.

Lodge, B. (1991). Letter to a kid. The Child Care Worker, 9, 5. p. 12.

Maher, B. (Ed.). (1969). Clinical psychology and personality: The selected papers of George Kelly. New York: Wiley.


This feature: Gannon, B. (1995). Situations in child and youth care: War stories. Journal of Child and Youth Care, 10, 2. pp. 63-66.