Heather Modlin

I recently read an article about the negative effects of coercion and control in working with young people, and the need to use more collaborative approaches. It got me thinking about the fine line between coercion and encouragement, between controlling young people and holding them accountable for their behavior, and the way in which we each interpret these concepts based on our own experiences.

I remember my first job as a youth care worker. I was hired to work in a group home with six “severely emotionally and behaviorally disturbed” adolescents. The program was in chaos at the time I arrived, and there was not much provided for staff in the way of supervision. We were all left to fend for ourselves. This meant developing our own styles of practice, based on what worked for us, with no feedback or direction to ensure that what we were doing was actually healthy or effective.

I was, at the time, a passive people-pleaser who wanted everyone to like me and avoided conflict at all costs. This showed up on the floor. I hesitated to set limits, being wishy-washy, ambiguous, and giving second and third chances when there should have been none. I rarely enforced consequences, and often gave young people “breaks” by not following through on pre-established disciplinary measures. I talked to them instead. We had some good chats.

I thought my approach was very positive. I lavished the young people with praise and encouragement, negotiated and problem-solved my way through every shift, was always willing and ready to participate in any activity they desired, and went out of my way to respond to all their requests (which included, on one occasion, going to the drugstore at 8:00 in the morning to buy shampoo for a young person who was refusing to go to school because he did not like the brand of shampoo in the house). I read all the child and youth care material I could get my hands on, and latched on to the concepts of collaboration; empathy; flexibility; doing with, not to; and meeting them where they’re at; and embraced them as if they were the Holy Grail. In my naive interpretation of these concepts, and my desire to fit new information into my existing story, I used them to validate my developing belief that the role of the youth care worker was to do whatever you could to prevent the young people from acting out. Don’t rock the boat.

I thought I was being helpful and developing therapeutic relationships. In retrospect, and in reality, I was anything but helpful. I was an enabler. I was a slave. I was my mother.

I had taken my own experience of being parented and used that as a prototype for youth care work. In the absence of any other information on what I should be doing, I relied on what was familiar. I was comfortable with my approach because I stayed within my comfort zone.

As I progressed in the field and had the opportunity to work in other programs, with other staff, I began to realize that I had a lot to learn. There was a whole other side of child and youth care that I had shunned. It was the side that involves being firm, setting limits, teaching responsibility, and holding young people accountable. Because of my own discomfort with tension and conflict, I had avoided anything might result in a less-than-pleasant response, and perceived the same as negative and controlling. In doing so, I was cheating myself and the young people of the opportunity to create truly healthy, therapeutic relationships.

In order to grow and develop, we all need to be challenged and, at times, confronted on our beliefs, values and actions. I did not grow as a youth care worker until I received feedback on what I was doing wrong and how I needed to change. I had to experience the anxiety that came from knowing I had made mistakes, and the consequences of my actions (there were many), before I was ready to move forward and try things that were new and frightening to me. Our young people need the same.

In my fifteen years in the field, I have worked with hundreds of youth care workers. I have observed what works, and what doesn’t work. From my experience, I have determined that those youth care workers who are most effective, who promote the most learning, develop the strongest relationships, and facilitate the best outcomes, are those who understand that child and youth care work is about balance. It’s about balancing firmness with flexibility; caring and support with accountability; praise and encouragement with honest, respectful, challenging feedback, and empathy and understanding with realistic, growth-oriented expectations. Getting there is not easy, but take it from someone who knows – it’s much easier than not getting there.

From: CYC-Online, 69: October 2004