Building Relationships in Life Space Work with Children and Young People : a training exercise

Date Posted: Saturday, 15 December 2007

Building Relationships in Life Space Work with Children and Young People : a training document 

Why do we relate to others in the way that we do ?

We are all influenced by our past. Human beings are social creatures. We seek out others to whom we can attach ourselves.  From our birth we seek a relationship with another. We cannot flourish in a healthy way without having good social relationships with others. Being able to make relationships with others allows us to survive.
As we go through life we discover that others  –  our siblings, our parents, our partners, our children, friends and work colleagues  –  need relationships with us. Good relationships are mutual. They give satisfaction to both  participants.   The relationships which we formed in our very early childhood are the prototypes for all our subsequent relationships. Of course our experiences as we go along life’s path influence and change the way we relate to others but it is what we were given when we were infants which primarily   influences our propensity to make healthy, stable and trusting relationships. It is the level to which our parenting figures were able to absorb our anxieties and terrors when we were infants and then give the feelings back to us in a way we could tolerate that determines how well we ourselves can trust our world. If we can trust our world we can make relationships.


Consistent support and encouragement fosters the ability to trust 

As we get older and particularly when we reach adolescence most of us become very aware that our parents are not perfect !  This is how it should be. As D.W. Winnicott might argue our parents should not be perfect but they must be good enough.  Perfect parents could not prepare us to meet the realities of our world. Our realisation  that our parenting figures are not perfect enables us to build relationships. We are able to recognise and accept that others and we ourselves are not perfect. We are able to tolerate others.  We are able to make relationships because our parenting figures  protected us enough when we were children but left us enough space to do some exploring for ourselves. The support and encouragement they offered enabled us to engage with others.  We were certain enough of our world to trust that we would survive even if on some occasions we had to wait for what we needed in order to allow the needs of others to be met first.

The problems facing life space workers who have a professional responsibility to build caring relationships with those they look after

If we accept the thrust of the previous paragraph then it is evident that those whose job is in some form or other to provide care, support and encouragement to troubled youngsters can only be effective if they at some time in their lives have not only  been the recipient of  support and encouragement  but also that they recognised,  acknowledged and valued this. Yet for  professionals who work with troubled young people it is apparent from the start that unhappy young people are seldom well disposed to accepting support and encouragement. All too often they are attracted to seeking the ‘false support’ of  behaviours and activities which have temporarily given them release, but unhelpful release, from their deep seated emotional pain. I am thinking of  the avoidance of engagement with adults who might be able to help them, of aggressive behaviour, of all kinds of self-harm, of delinquent and criminal behaviour, of drug or alcohol abuse and of all the other means which only serve to make these youngsters more vulnerable.  This resistance and sometimes hostility towards the process of relationships is an obstacle which the professional carer must help a young person overcome. Yet  young people who have learnt throughout their childhood that putting trust in an adult can have painful consequences are extremely wary of yet another carer’s  overtures of help.

The professional carer has in part therefore to be better than a ‘good enough parent’ because she is working with young people who have not received good enough nurturing.  She will have to tolerate and contain unresolved fear and terror from young people who are still dealing with primitive early anxieties. This tolerance and containment should be offered unconditionally, but any support and encouragement which it provides to the young person should not be exercises in denying the realities of the social world. The professional carer must temper unqualified positive regard for a young person by keeping them in touch with their responsibilities to themselves and to others.

You will no doubt have noticed that I have  not written about what might be called the content or substance of support and encouragement.  In the exercise which follows you will be doing this. In my experience opportunities for therapeutic life space work can arise in both formal and informal settings and activities, but the spark for the opportunity is invariably spontaneous and it is important to grasp the opportunity when this  seemingly ‘ordinary’ moment arises. I have always found that such event initiates a change in the relationship between child and the worker and so it is therapeutic event for both the child and the worker. They both feel better about thmeselves. I believe workers can become skilful at this through practice, through reflective analysis of their work which is then used positively and creatively in the relationship between the worker and the child.

What do you feel  when your support and encouragement is resisted.
What do you do ?

In what ways can we directly and indirectly offer support and encouragement ?

Think of a time  in your relationship with a young person when it seemed that something new and helpful had been internalised by the young person which  helped her or him to acknowledge the reality of the wider world and move towards being able to make a trusting relationship. Analyse the event thoroughly.  Did it occur in a formal or informal setting or during an informal or formal engagement. What was said ? What were the feelings? How did this change things for the young person ? How did you and the young person feel about this afterwards ? Did it change your relationship ? and in what way ? In exploring this thoroughly what do you feel you have gained ?

Think carefully of an occasion  – and we have all experienced them – when you may have missed an opportunity to work therapeutically with a young person in the life space. Analyse this ? What can you learn from this ?  Do you think close reflection on a less positive experience is of value to you ?

© and Charles Sharpe