I have recently been spending time reflecting on the past - how I came to this field of Child & Youth Care, the journey from where I started to my current place, the different learning opportunities I’ve enjoyed along the way. I have been spending time thinking about how much emphasis is placed on “relationship,” the use of it, and comparing it to when I first started. I don’t know that the word “relationship” was even used during my first orientation and training. A lot of time was spent focusing on safety, hygiene, behaviour management, physical restraint, the importance of clean homes. I don’t remember anything about the powerful tool we call “relationship.”
Jack was a youth who seemed to enjoy spending time with me. I understand now that it was based on my being honest with him, respecting him, and not being afraid of him. Jack was a large (6 foot and more than 200 pounds) angry 15 year old young man. He had spent years in training schools in Ontario, places that I now know had a history of abusing youth.
I was not directly responsible for Jack’s care, but we seemed to spend a lot of time together. When he was angry, I was one of the first to be called to assist in dealing with the crisis. Over time, Jack and I were able to come to some agreements that allowed us to work through the issues without involving physical restraint. He was able to turn over weapons, unlock doors, and stop property destruction - on the basis of verbal interventions that he and I had agreed to use. My co-workers thought I was crazy - may be I was - to get close enough to him to take away dangerous objects. At the time, I was confident he wouldn’t hurt me, and I think my confidence and trust reassured Jack and allowed him to act differently toward me.
Jack would invite me to spend time with him during other times as well. He had an old military surplus tent that he would use to camp out in and he would often invite me to camp with him. We had some good conversations during those nights. (Would I be allowed to do this today?) On my time off I would invite Jack to come fishing with me. (It seemed easier than to be called back from time off to deal with a crisis involving him.) We didn’t catch many fish, but we were able to have some laughs and talk about some of his concerns. Jack had an old motorcycle that I helped him work on. I did not know anything about small engines, but I found that Jack enjoyed teaching me as we got covered in grease and oil.
I can see now that at the time, by showing interest in Jack and spending time with him, I was building a strong therapeutic relationship with Jack. The essential elements were there without my realizing it - communication, being a positive role-model, social reinforcement. Unfortunately now that I know this, I can also see the opportunities that I missed with Jack. Opportunities to talk with Jack at greater length about his anger, his effect on other people during his outbursts, his effect on me during these times, how our relationship and his relationships with others were impacted by the different things he did and the choices he made.
I also know now that I missed the chance to speak with others about Jack and about how to connect with him so that other people could develop stronger relationships with him. I missed the chance to help Jack develop connections for when I wasn’t around. I could have helped Jack connect better with other people in our program.
This story doesn’t have a happy ending, as you can probably guess from my regretful tone. Jack lost control of his temper one day and ended up being sent back to a training school. The positive part of the ending, for me, is that rather than hurt anyone, Jack chose to run away. I still wonder about Jack, and if I could have made a bigger difference for him if I had understood about relationships and the role a strong relationship can play in helping youth.
Jeff Reid is a child and youth care supervisor with over 20 years' experience in three different provinces. He currently resides in Pictou, N.S. with his wife Catherine and four children. He is employed with C.A.S. of Pictou County.