Anyone Can Make a Relationship ?

Date Posted: Tuesday, 1 July 2008

This is the text of a talk I gave at the SIRCC National Conference ‘Sustaining Relationships : A Residential Child Care Task’ at the Crieff Hydro Hotel on June 12th, 2008 . Time constraints did not allow me to deliver the full text so for anyone who was there – and indeed for people who weren’t there –  here is what I said and what I wasn’t able to say. It includes some discussion activities for small groups.


Anyone can make a Relationship ?

Legislation, legislative guidelines, every report which follows the latest crisis in  residential child care impresses upon us that the basis of the residential child care worker’s task is to develop trusting  relationships with the children and young people in their charge. I think  there is a generally held assumption that most people are capable of making a good relationship. This assumption is one of the main reasons why  the status of residential child care workers has remained unacceptably low compared to other  professions with a role to work with children and young people. As an aside I would say that a large part of the responsibility for this must be taken  by those who should have known better  –  those who have had responsibility for setting the standards for the training of residential child.  Of course we are all  capable of making a relationship of some kind  and most are capable of developing positive relationships with most people. From this it is easy to conclude that since most people are capable of making a relationship then most people are capable of  being a residential child care worker. Now look how in one simple statement I’ve massively reduced the cost  of the  residential child care work force’s training budget !  I could make friends in high places.

“No man is an island”  wrote John Donne. Complete individual independence  is an impossible idea. We always stand in the need of others. The social nature of our being  – our need to live alongside others –  is governed by our biological nature. In the first six years of our life and beyond we are dependent on others who are older than us, and by the time this period has passed, we have deeply rooted social characteristics. Throughout our lives those elements which define us as human  –  self-awareness, sympathy, conscience, a capacity to care, a need to be empowered,  a need to  communicate with others  –  are dependent on how we relate to our fellow human beings.

We are social creatures and relationships with other people – and of course the right people – are  necessary if we are to  become a mature, coping  person who can manage the vicissitudes of  a human life. Yet it is so easy to take the capacity to relate healthily to another person as a given  – something we don’t need to think about too much –  even though  the  structure, the quality, the function and the dynamics of human relationships are complex and fraught with difficulties.. How can we understand relationships ?


Our need for physical and emotional care

When our lives begin and indeed when they are coming to a close, the care given to us by others is fundamentally necessary. In the middle of our lives, it is our turn to give physical and emotional care to others. During the years when we are most capable of looking after ourselves  – when we are able to be on our own –  it remains important to be in some way engaged with another human being. We relate to life partners, our children, our grandchildren, our work colleagues, our fellow students and in our case other people’s children. If in our lives we lose touch with other people who are important to us we are in danger of losing touch with our own identity. What may appear to be complete freedom to be on our own would actually place us in the middle of a senseless maelstrom of humanity.

The giving and receiving of emotional and physical care is vital. Not only do we need someone to care for us, we also need to care for others.

A useful question for the residential child care worker to consider asking  herself is what the answer would be if she asked a a young person she looks after,

“Who takes care of you?”

Who keeps an eye on you?” –

“Who cares if you’ve cut your knee, or if you have a cold or you’ve lost something that you treasure?”


Small group discussion

How would the young people you are responsible for look after answer these questions ?

In the context of your work who do you feel it should it be ?


Why we relate to others in the way that we do

I want to state the obvious here :  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 emotional and social relationships with others. Being able to make relationships with others allows us to survive.

As we go through life we discover that others  need relationships with us. I am being repetitious and deliberately so because these are things which we all know but which in our day-to-day work we all too frequently forget or deny. Good relationships are mutual. They give satisfaction to each participant.   I want to stress here that our capacity to form satisfactory the relationships throughout our lives is influenced  by those which  we form in our very early childhood. Early childhood relationships are the prototypes for all our subsequent relationships(see Winnicott, 1965). 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 argued, our parents should not be perfect but they must be “good enough”(Winnicott, 1965).  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 healthy 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 consistent support and encouragement they offered in their relationships with us enabled us to be confident to engage with others.  Our experience of our parents’ concern for us helped us to be 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 we as residential child care workers face in establishing consistent and mutual relationships with the children and young people we look after.

If you accept  these observations,  it is evident that  those of us  whose job is in some form or other to provide, to support, to promote, and to encourage the care, education and general wellbeing for troubled youngsters, can only be effective if we ourselves at some time in our lives have not only  been the recipient of  support and encouragement  but also that we have recognised, understood and  valued this. We cannot take our part in a nurturing relationship if we have no understanding of nurture ourselves. This is expecially significant because we work with children who have seldom experienced consistent healthy nurture from their parenting figures and so they are rarely well-disposed to accepting support and encouragement. All too often they are attracted to seeking the ‘spurious support’ of  behaviours and activities which may temporarily give them release, if 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 silent withdrawal,

of manipulative disruption,

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 children more vulnerable.  This resistance and sometimes hostility towards the process of relationships is an obstacle which  we must help a young person overcome. If you can’t make satisfactory relationships in life you will not be fufilled. 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 adult’s overtures of help.

The residential child care worker therefore needs  to be better than a ‘good enough parent’ because she is working with children who have not received good enough nurturing and this must in some way be compensated for. The child in residential care is dependent, his cry for help may come at any time, and be expressed in many different ways. Residential child care workers need the insight and skills  to tolerate and contain unresolved fear and terror from children who are still dealing with primitive early anxieties or traumatic abuse, or loss and separation. 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  worker must temper unqualified positive regard for a young person by keeping them in touch with their responsibilities to themselves and to others.


Small group discussion

Reflect on the ways in which your support and encouragement is resisted by the young people you are trying to build relationships with 

What do you do when this happens ?

In what ways do you directly or indirectly offer support and encouragement in these circumstances?

Think of a time when your support and encouragement has helped a young person to acknowledge the realities of the wider social world and helped the youngster and you to make a trusting relationship.  


The significance of consistency, continuity and mutuality in our relationships with children and young people 

We are all aware of our desire and need for continuity in our relationships and all that this means. It implies the certainty of attachment, the security of predictability and a feeling that our life has a narrative that joins together in time and space and so makes sense to us. As we have been observing, the young people with whom we are engaged  often have a resistance to dealing with the pain of issues from early childhood.  This is invariably linked to a lack of consistency, continuity and mutuality in their significant relationships. The infant or child who loses or is abandoned by their most significant parenting figure, or the child who is squeezed out of a family in order that a new step parent’s demands are met can suddenly find that his attachment to those who should have been close to him, and his attachment to his wider community has been devastatingly disrupted. Children traumatised by such an event are so confused by events, so shocked by their loss that they find it difficult to understand or make any sense of what has happened to them. They can no longer trust their world.

For all young people the nature of  their attachment relationships  influences the way they feel about their world.  Children who are overly dominated by parenting figures may withdraw. Children who are over-protected may be reluctant to face new experiences. Children who are left to their own devices may be indifferent and children who are carers may miss out on necessary stages of their childhood and adolescence. John Bowlby, backed to a large extent by the research of Mary Ainsworth has demonstrated how children who have  unsatisfactory attachment relationships are affected by this for the rest of their lives (Ainsworth and Bowlby, 1965). More recently Peter Fonagy (2001) has shown how our early attachment experiences influence our own capacity as parents to attach satisfactorily  to our own children.

The quality of attachment relationships made in their early childhood from secure to insecure  largely defines the developmental pathways and the life experiences of all young people. The securely attached young person has both an internal and external secure base to which he can return when under threat. This in turn provides  him with robust  inner and outer worlds which he can use to  navigate safely through the difficulties he may face in life. Jeremy Holmes (2001) has shown the connection between secure attachment in childhood and the capacity in the adolescent to make sense of his life.  The young person who  throughout his childhood has experienced consistent parental care and the stability which this brings him has the capacity to develop trusting relationships in which he is a healthily critical, yet cooperative partner. Such a youngster is able to make sense of  his life  history, and is fluent, coherent and insightful when describing his childhood attachments. The youngster who has not had the continuity of care which a secure attachment brings and so has not experienced the mutual stability afforded by a good attachment relationship has no secure base to return to, and is encumbered by unresolved attachment issues. Such a young person has little or no inner or outer resources to help him deal with any threat in a socially helpful way.  His disorganised life patterns brought on by severe deprivation or trauma creates a propensity to be resistant to support, and an inability to trust when help is offered.

If the  insecurely attached and therefore the emotionally deprived young person living in a residential care setting  is to be helped , those gaps in his life story have to be breached. In a children’s home this is provided by a supportive professional adult who can  provide the therapeutic space, and substitute nurturing and parenting which are  both consistent and cooperative. Such care must be tolerant and far more tolerant, certainly to begin with, than any he might expect to find in the wider community. Residential child care workers have time and time again to be able to accept protest which is a residue of past experience. By avoiding a recriminatory or indifferent response to this protest, the carer can begin to help the young person to develop a sense of trust from the fragile shoots of this new attachment relationship and both the young person and the supportive professional can achieve the mutual stability which is the foundation of all good relationships. Not just anybody can make this kind of relationship.


Small group discussion

Reflect for a moment on the experiences of a young person whom you have supported or looked after and who you feel has not had the kind of secure base which would help him or her to cooperate in a mature relationship.

Consider some work which you have done in your relationship with a young person in which you have tried to breach the gaps in his or her life and so helped the youngster more able to make sense of his or her life.  


The Use of Instruction and guidance in our relationships with young people

So far I’ve been concerned with the emotionally containing aspect of the relationship between the child and the residential child care worker and now want to turn some attention to the worker’s use of instruction and guidance in her relationship with a child. It can be a contentious area of our work. In the 1980s Denis O’Connor, a Newcastle-based  psychotherapist, who amongst many other things he did, ran a project for youngsters whose presenting problem was solvent abuse, told me that despite being a  therapist of  the humanist persuasion, he did  not necessarily see himself constricted  by its ethos. As a humanist he believed that we all have inherently good qualities within ourselves which could be used to solve our emotional and social difficulties. Certainly Denis always hoped that young people could overcome their problems and could gain insight through their belief in themselves, through exploration and discovery, and through negotiation. Denis found that progress in personal growth of this profound kind was often the work of months and years  and he discovered that it was sometimes expedient in the short-term to use other forms of intervention. He would say that as long as it was legal and effective in holding the line while longer term goals were being achieved he would use any technique if it helped to make a young person feel better about himself or indeed stopped him becoming involved in dangerous situations. Amongst these he included material reward for short-term goals,  but most importantly in what for Denis as a humanist was a form of ‘extra-curricula’ intervention he risked using direct instruction and guidance in his relationship with the young people he worked with. I have often wondered if instruction and guidance have a place in the relationships between young people and their residential child care workers.

Let’s look at these two terms

Instruction can mean on the one hand teaching, training and tuition. On the other hand it can mean an order, a command, or a directive.

Guidance can mean helping, advising, supporting and counselling. It can also mean leading, managing, directing and controlling.

As you can see these terms travel along a continuum between what might be called a ‘soft’ definition to a ‘hard’ definition but when we think about them alongside what we mean by relationships they all imply a notion of one participant in a relationship having knowledge and wisdom gained by experience which the other participant has not. Immediately we become aware that if instruction and guidance are to be functions of the role of the residential worker they are  functions which need to be sensitively exercised if they are not to be perceived as an abuse of power. Nonetheless it is important that adults do stand up to adolescents in the face of the latter’s most outlandish fantasies. This is not to say that a young person will always accept the advice, the guidance or instruction an adult is giving them but I agree with DW. Winnicott (1965) that it is important that the young person experiences an adult sustaining a mature adult position otherwise what is to all intents the young person’ adolescent fantasy of omnipotence can become a dangerous reality which can make both young person and staff vulnerable.

Young people can feel insecure when  confronted with new situations and look to model their responses to new situations on those  who seem  more familiar with them. The model may be helpfully offered by a young person’s peers but it seems to me that in all circumstances this should be provided or reinforced by the caring adult. I have found that in situations where issues of personal safety arise and a young person needs direct instruction from an adult figure  that these will be accepted if  they are delivered sensitively and with respect. By this I mean that adult and child have a sound though not necessarily close trusting relationship.Occasions also arise when a young person has a moral dilemma which is both new and confusing to him. At these times the guidance of an adult is helpful to young people.    If a residential worker is to use instruction and guidance as a method for helping young people I believe that she should  exercise it sparingly and on those occasions when it is are  inarguably necessary. On balance I am with the great Scottish  educationalist AS  Neill on this. We should  not deny young people the freedom to make their own decisions or  seek to control their actions in such a way that they become so inhibited they cannot take considered risks.  Yet Neill, arch and purist democrat though he was, was not averse to giving directives. Following a community meeting at Summerhill School in which there had been a discussion about sexual relations between residents, a boy and girl who were both fifteen years old and very much in love with each other suggested to Neill that there seemed to be no reason why they should not be able to move out of their single sex dormitories and have a room where they might sleep together. Neill responded that he was not himself  unsympathetic to their idea but that if he allowed them to do so the school would be closed down and weighing things up he thought it was for the greater good that the school remained in existence and so he would not allow them to sleep together. According to Neill the youngsters accepted this with good grace (Neill, 1971).


Small group discussion

Do you think that a professional carer should be prepared to offer instruction and guidance ?

If so in what kind of situations ?

If not, why not ?

If your answer is yes and no then suggest why you have come to this conclusion?


Culture, values, outcomes and relationships.

In its Green Paper,  Every Child Matters  (DfES, 2003) the government proposed that in England and Wales there should be five paramount positive outcomes for all young people who are looked after in the care system. These are their health, safety, enjoying and achieving, and economic well-being.  If we agree that a caring relationship between a child and  a parenting figure would influence these aspirations, it  may be useful for us as residential child care workers who in our  working roles are expected to nurture, support and teach children to consider what these aspirations mean. They are objectives laden with values which I imagine it is  assumed residential child care workers in a children’s home would wish to pass on to the children in their care. Yet residential child care workers like everybody else are unique individuals coming from different backgrounds which may have imbued them with different personal and cultural values. This being the case it may also be  useful for us to explore our different as well as shared values in the interest of providing the children with a level of adult consistency which will be helpful to them.

When establishing and making clear what a children’s home’s basic philosophy is, the staff – and I mean all the staff  – should consider what fundamental values lie beneath the relationships they are to have with the children. In most families these values are generally understood as they are passed down from parent to child, from elder sibling to younger sibling in the context of the social culture in which the family is situated. In children’s homes these matters are more complex. The children in children’s homes may come from families in which emotional and social disruption has meant that these values have not been clear, and they may also come from different cultural backgrounds which have different expectations of children. I have brought this to the table because it seems to me that the outcomes demanded by government are related to political expediency and political aims at this particular time in our social and economic history. rather than being specifically related to the unique individual emotional needs of these children.

The cultural complexities of a group of children in a children’s home demand that the team of residential child care workers in a children’s home need to clarify what their expectations are for the children. It is important for the staff to have considered, and to be sure of, the particular values they want all the children to learn without unduly impinging on the cultural values which each of the children may already hold. These are not straightforward matters. For instance if we think of  the value ‘telling the truth’. Some staff members may hold the absolute value ‘Always tell the truth’, and others may say ‘Yes, but not in all circumstances’. We might also consider if  telling the truth means making truthful replies only  when asked a question? Or does it mean frankly stating our opinion when we have a dislike for someone or a situation  even though our statements will hurt someone else?

It can be argued that working with absolutes and procedures makes the work of  residential child care easier because it is more straightforward than identifying values for individual children. The question to be asked here is what approach is most conducive to the establishment of healthy trusting relationships between the young people and the adults looking after them.

Some residential child care workers object to putting a particular set of ideals into a child’s mind.  They consider it contradictory to the notion of individual freedom and would rather stress values which children can select for themselves. Others might argue that many of the children residential child care workers look after are dependent or have not as yet developed a clear set of norms or values. Those holding this position argue that until personal values become part of a child’s pattern of functioning it is neither appropriate nor possible for that child to start taking his own social initiatives or to begin working out their own beliefs.  Whereas negotiation and flexibility are possible with children who have internalised personal values, it is not so possible with children who, though they are physically mature, have such extreme self-centredness that their ability to make good social relationships is limited.

Can the young people in children’s homes be given time to work out their own values ? This idea attracts the criticism that it allows residential staff  to absolve themselves from the role of adult in their relationship with young people. The outcome would seem to be more promising  and would certainly promote the building of relationships if  the young people are helped to develop their value system through their relationship with residential child care workers.

To explore this further let’s consider some values which might not be controversial.

Stop and think (before acting or responding).

Listen to what others say.

Do to others as you want them to do to you.

Face up to others. Your views and ideas are important.

Respect yourself and respect others

As  residential child care workers we should find little difficulty understanding what these values mean in terms of our practice.  The social realities of residential life make it important that we consider the operation of these values carefully. Complex situations may arise which will persuade us to guard against rigidity, stagnancy and the institutionalisation of these values if we act upon them strictly in relation to individual young people in particular circumstances. Sometimes there is a need  to be flexible if we are to allow children to grow.  Nonetheless, these values may help us support decisions made in a children’s home through the use in the life space of stories, recollections and metaphor.  At the same time this more intimate reinforcement of values allows us to develop our relationships with the young people.

This is a labyrinthine area of our work, but if the staff are confused and unclear about it, then so will the children be. Such confusion will serve to make already anxious youngsters more anxious. It also makes anxious staff more anxious and it will certainly create an environment where healthy relationships may not flourish. It was I think Isobel Menzies Lyth, the Scottish psychologist who died earlier this year who observed that  insecure staff will make insecure children feel even more insecure, more anxious, and inevitably, less predictable (Menzies Lyth 1989).

In reflecting on these issues we begin to bear in mind that all children have rights which should be protected, but also that it is vital for children as they grow up to be helped to understand that they increasingly have responsibilities towards themselves and towards others.


Small group discussion

Consider two basic values you feel children should have ? In thinking about this do you believe your reflections demonstrate differences in social and cultural background which exist between you and other workers in your team ?

What happens in a relationship between a child and a residential child care worker and what gets in the way of making relationships.

I want now to  think a little more about what is happening in the relationship  between a child and a residential child care worker and to help me do this I will introducing a psychodynamic term – transference. I introduce it because,though it is a phenomenon which was first discovered by psychoanalysts, it is one which is now acknowledged by most schools of psychotherapy. Its therapeutic value beyond the the counselling room is now generally recognised. (See for instance Ward & McMahon,1999).  Transference is the notion that the child transfers or displaces feelings which it may have had towards another adult (usually a parenting figure) on to another adult.  In this case the residential child care worker. These feelings may be hostile feelings or they may be positive idealised feelings. The child may for instance unconsciously associate the worker with an idealised attachment figure or at the other extreme with an  abandoning mother. When these feelings are transferred the recipient experiences what psychodynamic theorists describe as counter-transference and through this feeling the recipient can gain insight into the feelings of the child. What workers must guard against is responding literally to these phenomena. This may lead to un- therapeutic developments. We must not respond as we immediately feel when we are told by a youngster that we are hopeless and useless and in the same way we must not respond as we immediately feel when we are told we are wonderful. As the relationship between the child and the residential worker is sustained and the worker  is able to contain the transference as well as interpret it for the child then the child becomes able  to see an adult as a whole person and not a part-person – that is on the one hand the perfect carer or on the other the hateful withdrawing carer. At this stage the opportunity for a healthy nurturing relationship becomes possible. This may sound straightforward but it can be a lengthy and at times emotionally painful process for both child and worker.


Small group discussion

When Tariq came to live in a children’s home his keyworker, Joanna introduce herself to him and told him that she would be a special worker who was there to help him while he stayed in the children’s home. Tariq politely thanked her for saying this but said he didn’t waste his time talking to women .From the start despite all her attempts Tariq not only seemed to refuse to talk to Joanna but would leave any room he was in when Joanna entered.

Celia said she knew right away that her keyworker Lisa was just the right person for her. Celia said Lisa would protect her from the other kids. Celia said that Lisa was the first person to really understand her and she felt she really understood Lisa. Have you experienced youngsters like Tariq and Lisa ? How have you engaged with them.


You as a worker may feel quite protective toward one child but with another  you may feel anger  because somehow it seems either you or the child is never quite good enough, while with yet another you may be left feeling quite helpless or hopeless.  These reactions may  turn out to be a reflection of the child’s own feelings about his experience of life. It is certain too, that we bring feelings originating from our own personal experience and this as I’ve said is our  counter-transference. .At times our own feelings resonate so powerfully with those of the child that we can be lead to over-identify with the child or indeed to do the opposite and withdraw from them. If for instance in our childhood we had been encouraged and taught to stand on our own two feet  from quite an early age, we might find a very clingy child irritating to work with.  Should a particular child tend to make us feel in a particular way, when normally we do not feel this way in similar situations, then we can be reasonably certain that this is related to the child’s own feeling. We need to make sense of our own feelings before we make can make sense of the child’s if we are to sustain a helpful relationship with him.   Learning to be in tune with a child’s transference and to be aware of one’s own counter-transference needs time and practice which should be maintained by regular supervision.   Supervision offers an opportunity to reflect on possible meanings and connections without jumping to conclusions or even worse, imposing these conclusions on the child. If  we do not allow time to reflect on what is happening for us,  our relationships with children suffer. We can begin to resist engagement with them. We find ourselves avoiding them or blaming them or indeed we find ourselves too stressed to come to work. For these reasons time for reflective supervision is necessary. One more broken relationship serves to reinforce a child’s negative view of adults who put themselves up to help.


Concluding remarks

Throughout our session together I have been thinking of a relationship as a healthy, dynamic, mutual, trusting,  emotional, and social connection which has been built up over a period of time between a young person and a residential child care worker. When I have mentioned engaging with a young person I have been thinking of  episodes of  the mutual occupying of attention or mutual efforts between a young person and a care worker to hear the other person.  I have implied that the development of  such  regular healthy engagements leads to the development of a trusting relationship. At the same time I have suggested that we must be awake to the possibility of repeating any unhealthy pathologies in any past engagements the young people have experienced.

When I have used the word healthy I have been meaning it to be descriptive of  a robust and sound  state of  body and mind which would result in a young person having the capacity to be creative in their lives and to survive emotionally, socially and economically.

I think most people who are professionial carers will be aware of the ways in which young people try to avoid engaging with them.. It can seem as if they are suspicious of us, dislike us, are dismissive of us in a manner which can make us feel as if we are beneath their contempt. It can feel as if they are more attached to their peers or are under the sway of past relationships with other adults. Sometimes they can talk to us, or indeed shout at us in a fashion which suggests that the last thing they want to do is engage with us in any way that might be even loosely described as sociable. Sometimes it feels that despite all our attempts they are intent on avoiding building a relationship with us. I have suggested that it is the worker’s recognition of  what is going on in this process – her awareness of the transference – which might help her stay in touch with a child’s specific emotional needs and be able to make sense of them.

There are number of  important matters I haven’t covered  including the therapeutic potential of the group – a group consisting of workers as well as children – and the network of relationships which bind it together and seek at the same time to split it asunder. For those interested in this you might find it helpful  to go to where there are a number of articles which discuss these matters.

Another thing I haven’t discussed is the the notion of love in our relationships with children. We have become so professionally defensive about it. It seems to have such a fearful potential for us but I think we need to broach it. Is it possible for a care worker in her relationship with a youngster to have a healthy love for him ? In his article in week,s  Mark Smith (2008) begins an exploration of this difficult and sensitive area in his article ‘Loving or Fearful ?’.  I hope he continues with his exploration.

In conjunction with this I would  add that just as the young people we look after are influenced by their previous relationships so are we. Some of the experiences the young people we work with, some of  the ways they communicate with us will inevitably arouse feelings from our own past. Some of these will be good feelings and some may be disturbing feelings. How we respond to these feelings will have an influence on our relationship with individual young people.We need as caring adults to accept that relationships are mutual. If by denial we defend against these feelings by intellectualising or rationalising the behaviour of the child only, we run the risk as RD Laing might say of ‘divorcing’ ourselves from the child and  destroying any possibility of a helpful relationship developing.

Can anyone make a relationship in our work? In my meanderings here you may have guessed that I don’t think so. It calls for special people with the capacity for insight not only of young people but of themselves. In ‘Lost in Translation’ Jeremy Millar(2008) highlights the problems we face in trying to find, recruit,train and keep staff with these skills and attributes. I think many are already in post but I certainly don’t think they are sufficiently trained or supported.

To end I would like to emphasise again the importance of early primary caring relationships in the development of an individual and in so doing I am emphasising the critical place a primary caring relationship with a special worker may have in the life of the child placed in a children’s home. It is the residential child care worker’s role to introduce or re-introduce the experience of good primary care to the child in the face of any resistance she might meet from forces within and without the home. By close and assured involvement in the daily life of a child the worker has an opportunity to begin to make good emotional deficits. Winnicott (1965) suggests by being provided with this primary experience, the child’s dependency, independency and expressive needs are supported and he may become able to make and sustain relationships through life .

Charles Sharpe, June, 2008


Ainsworth, M. and Bowlby,J. (1965) Child Care and the Growth of Love    London :  Penguin Books                Fonagy, P. (2001) Attachment Theory and Psychoanalysis   New York : Other Press                                           Holmes, J. (2001) The Search for the Secure Base : Attachment Theory and Psychotherapy     Hove :    Brunner-Routledge
Laing, R.D. (1961) The Divided Self     London :  Penguin Books
Menzies Lyth. I (1989) Containing Anxieties in Institutions   London : Free Association Books
Millar, J. (2008) ‘Lost in Translation’ in goodenoughcaring Journal (ed.3)  Accessed online at
Smith, M.(2008) ‘Loving or Fearful’ in goodenoughcaring Journal (ed.3 ) Accessed online at
Winnicott, D.W. (1965) Maturational Processes and the Facilitating environment – Studies in Theories of Emotional Development   London : Tavistock Publications. p36
Winnicott, D.W. (1971) Playing and Reality   London : Routledge. pp146-147


Except in particular examples, it is a convention of my presentation  that residential child care workers are referred to as feminine and the young people who are the residents of children’s homes are referred to as masculine. This represents the national bias. The staff of children’s homes are described as residential child care workers, residential workers, professional carers or workers.

© and Charles Sharpe


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