Defensive Adults

Cynthia Cross is a generous contributor to the goodenoughcaring Journal. Cynthia was originally intent upon becoming a veterinary surgeon and fortunately for us she had a committed and distinguished career in child care instead. She lives in Kent where she is nurtured and encouraged by her dog Lucy. Cynthia is also a member of the goodenoughcaring Journal editorial group.


Defensive Adults

by Cynthia Cross


John was a 10 year old boy who needed to deny everything. If he had been out playing football and you said to him have you been playing football he would shout “no I haven’t”. I remember on one occasion passing him on the stairs and saying “what have you been doing upstairs John”? To which he replied “I wasn’t upstairs” and for a moment I believed him!

We lived in a cottage home in the early 60s; one day the deputy superintendent ‘phoned to say that John would be late home from school because they were talking to him about a break-in to an outhouse in the grounds. I warned him to be careful, because if John had come forward with information he was probably involved. I was told that was not the case, and that John was being very helpful. Subsequently it became clear that John and another boy had taken things from the outhouse. The other boy was given a “good telling off” but John was caned (at that time the superintendent and his deputy could cane children provided they used the regulation diameter cane etc. etc.) I am quite sure this happened because he made the man feel foolish.

Over the years I have witnessed many children being “sanctioned” because they made an adult or adults feel silly. Possibly even more pernicious is when children are ignored or left uncared for because they “get under peoples skin” and/or made them feel inadequate.

Although I have always tried to guard against it I am sure there have been less than kind to children who have made me feel the need to defend myself.

I don’t know how much workers are aware of the above phenomenon; in children’s homes where I have acted as a consultant, I often did not feel it was recognised.

Good supervision can help adults be less defensive, but more importantly it is necessary to create an environment where adults and children feel able to talk to other about their feelings, and get help when they are finding them hard to manage.

I clearly remember an occasion, when in a community meeting, in a therapeutic community; an adult suggested a consequence to a boys “misdemeanour” and another child said “you are just being spiteful because he made you feel and idiot”

Say no more.

Cynthia Cross


John Fallowfield comments

I found  piece this piece defensiveness useful, Cynthia. It reminded me of the training I delivered on blocked care to a group of foster carers last year.

John Molloy writes

I was having a good read of Cynthia Cross’s piece on “Defensive Adults” today and thought how true to life it is. While the issue of using a cane is now long gone I reflected on how many other forms of consequences are used in this same context. I read the line “Good supervision can help adults be less defensive” and almost heard myself gasp with alarm. There is a “sacred-cow” aspect to supervision in social care that at times blinds workers to the fact that supervision when it is not good, can be just as painful as any caning at the hands of “defensive adults”.

Over the years I have worked within three different models of supervision. I have experienced supervisors who were insightful, inspiring and demanding. I have also experienced bluffers, bullies and ego-trippers. No doubt some of those who I have supervised have seen me in all of these categories from time to time. It is my experience however, that when some of those who supervised me felt insecure or defensive in my company there were attempts to belittle, to rubbish or attack me.

It may be unusual for a Director of a Social Care Service to make such a comment. Because of some experiences I have had, I try to ensure that in supervising others  I work in a way that does not allow for me to become negative or defensive in my approach. I am sure I slip up from time to time. Our policy and practice guidelines are very clear on recognising the individuality of all our children, and by implication all of our staff. Yet Supervision can be used by “defensive adults” in positions of power to deminish the individuality of workers because supervisors feel threatened or “got at” by those they supervise. It does not take a genius to realise that the knock-on impact of this is the “trickle down” impact on the children. The culture can become one where the “defensive adult” ethos thrives.

Because of the unquestioning reverence we show to supervision I cannot think of a platform that is more conducive to the phenomenon of “defensive adults”.

Cynthia Cross responded

I couldn’t agree more. It is also often very difficult to supervise people because they are so defensive, but it is probably with good reason because of their past experiences either with previous supervisors or during their childhood – life’s not easy.

To comment on this article or to contact the author email

Return to Journal Index