Taking time for reflection in residential child care.

Date Posted: Tuesday, 17 November 2009

“The truth hurts”.  “You’ve got to be cruel to be kind”. “ “We’ll see. It all depends on how you behave”.   Those of us who have worked with troubled young people in children’s homes will have heard colleagues use expressions similar to these when they are speaking to and about children. Indeed we may have used them ourselves interspersed perhaps with notionally positive comments which are expressed with irony and sometimes sarcasm. “You’ve really excelled yourself this time”. “Thank you very much, that is just the kind of help I really need right now”.  I am sure they are used hastily and in exasperation and so I wonder too if our haste has a meaning. Is it a way of brushing something swiftly aside as if to put it out of sight and mind because we do not wish to look at it too closely ?  Do we hide behind our words to protect us from the primitive anxieties which children can arouse in us ? Certainly they are comments  which allow us to absolve ourselves of any responsibility for what is happening for the child. We use them perhaps to avoid painful self-reflection and to distance ourselves from the emotional  pain the children are suffering. Why are we reluctant to give ourselves the time to consider what the things we say to and about a child may mean to a child ? What does it make the child think about us ? What memories does what we say  arouse for the child. How much does a child experience the things we say as adult, and therefore thoughtful, supportive expressions ? How often do we take time to think about what these comments say about us ? If we are hiding behind the words of “an adult on a pedestal” script is it possible that we are finding it too difficult to look at what lies behind a child’s behaviour ?
As an aid to exploring the answers to these questions, I have listed below a few amongst the many comments which over the years I have heard care workers and their managers make while they were engaged with children in the life space ; when they are talking about a child in staff meetings, and in their supervision.
I have not remembered them because I am critical of them all, but because when I heard them they arrested me sufficiently to make me take time to think about  how we do, and how we should, communicate with the children in our care. They also gave me an opportunity to think about how our communication with children influences our capacity to make relationships with them. I hope that reflecting on them and other comments you may add to them are helpful to you.
I think my job is that I am required to look after Alan.

I’m expected to get Bill to change the way he behaves.

It hasn’t taken you long to get your feet under the table – we’re really going to have to watch you.

I will like Charlie, whether he likes me or not.

I can’t deal with them as individuals when all they do is merge as a group and do whatever they like.

If Daisy can’t respond to me, the relationship won’t work.

I know the rule we all agreed was not to let Jack have a cigarette when he gets up in the middle of the night but this time

I can’t talk to you just now, I’ve got to go to the office and make some ‘phone calls.

She continually misbehaves, even after all that I and others have done for her, but she blatantly smoked in front of me when I told her not to. We’re at an end.

I don’t care if Ernie verbally abuses me I’ll turn the other cheek. It will be like water off a duck’s back to me.

I told Frank as far as I’m concerned I’m colour blind. The colour of someone’s skin has no meaning to me.

I know Gillian doesn’t mean what she says to me but I need to get in touch with what it is she’s really trying to say.

I wanted to re-assure him. I told him I’d taken drugs when I was his age and I’d got over it.

Harry says he thinks I’m just like his mother when I tell him to wear proper clothes. I thought his mother had rejected him.

I understand Iris should have an experience of a man who is not abusive, but given her behaviour with her foster father, I’m a bit worried about being her keyworker, that’s all.

Juliet seems not to want me near her. I tried to put my arm around her shoulders to comfort her but she got really angry, What chance have I got of making a relationship with her.

She’s refusing to use the placement here properly or my offer to help her.

I know the kids are not supposed to have a late snack but I wondered if given Ken’s experiences at home, we might be able to make an exception for him.

More than anyone else at this place I know the kind of abuse you’ve suffered, so if you feel as low as this again just come and talk to me.

I told him that if he didn’t mend his ways there will not be a place for him here. Sometimes you’ve got to be cruel to be kind.

He’s a dream. He’s absolutely no management problem to me or other staff. If only the others were like him – real low maintenance.

We can be as tolerant as we like – and I’m not putting that down, I am as therapeutic as the next person – but there comes a time when for the good of all the kids – we have to say enough is enough. Don’t get me wrong I like him – he’s never a problem to me but I think he has to get a taste of reality and I say this reluctantly, I think he’s got to move.

I said to Lucy that I was worried about her and that she should try to look after herself better. She didn’t say anything but I think she heard what I said.

Mona keeps her room tidy. In fact it’s pristine. She’s an example to us all.

Nigel says I’m always checking up on him and I don’t give him any space.

Olive said, ‘Who do you think you are – my mother or something’ ? I told her what a joke that was. As if I wanted to be her mother.

I’ve only met her a couple of times and then only for a few minutes and she is giving me so much lip. What have I ever done to her ?

Poppy’s started taking an interest in her appearance. Last week I mentioned I’d help her with it but she hasn’t said anything about it.

She checks all her cutlery and examines the food with a magnifying glass. When I told her we weren’t trying to poison her she walked out of the room.

We’d achieved so much over these last two years and now just when it seems right for Rita to move on she goes on a drinking binge and gets herself arrested. It’s as if we’re back to square one.

I never have any trouble with him.

Charles Sharpe 2001 ; revised 2007 and 2009

© goodenoughcaring.com and Charles Sharpe