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Lost Words Of Residential Child Care – Self

Lost Words of Residential Child Care – Self

Extract: Use of Self in Residential Child Care

Fiona Feilberg SIRCC

For the full article In-residence-a_series-of-12-papers.pdf (

It is often said that the best tool that a residential child care practitioner has is their own self. ‘Use of self’ is an umbrella term covering elements such as empathy, critical thinking and appropriate use of the personal within a professional child care context. It includes openness, self-reflectiveness, attunement to others, commitment and emotional maturity. Use of self is linked to relationships, which are of key importance for the residential child care practitioner. It has long been recognised that relationships form the basis of effective working, regardless of the theoretical orientation or organisational structures within which services are provided. For example, Dewane commented that the relationship is ‘the cornerstone of change’ (Dewane, 2006, p. 543).

This is particularly evident in residential child care where shared living adds to the potential depth of working within a relationship. The most meaningful work with children and young people takes place within the context of the relationship and ‘no matter how knowledgeable, skilful or creative workers are, they can do nothing for their clients without a nurturing medium of human interchange’ (Gilbert, Miller and Specht, 1980, p. 45).

In residential child care, the use of self is uniquely complex developmental work. It is undertaken by practitioners within the context of young people’s past experiences and serves as the vehicle for developing attachments which help young people to heal. For many young people in residential care ‘repeated painful interactions with a primary care giver’ have led to ‘despair about ever being known and understood’ by themselves or by others (Mollon, 1996, p. 13). This may lead them to test relationships to the limit. If a practitioner can understand why this testing takes place, this can help him or her to recognise why it can be so difficult to manage the emotional responses of the young people. It can also help the practitioner to recognise the powerful responses evoked in themselves in response to the despair, anger and rejection of the child. Furthermore, it can allow practitioners to see behaviour as communication, giving cues about unmet needs and the unconscious search for these to be more adequately attended to (Casement 1990, p. 110).

No-one can ever come to a new relationship completely free of past experiences. In psychodynamic terms, transference and counter-transference occur. This means that present relationships are coloured by issues from other (often past) relationships, and it happens for both practitioners and young people. For instance, a child may respond to a staff member according to the way they were treated when their mother did not meet their needs. At times, because of this, they will unconsciously attempt to sabotage your work with them, which confirms to themselves that people do let them down. Mattinson (1975) sums this up as an unconscious need to make the present relationship fit into the psycho-dynamic structure of a previous one. The practitioner is ‘invited’ to behave in ways that others in the young person’s circle have behaved in the past. If the practitioner does not understand the communication in this situation, he or she might become frustrated and angry at the young person’s neediness and inability to do what they have agreed to do. The practitioner may begin to respond internally, and perhaps externally, in a dismissive or punitive way. If practitioners can learn to be more aware of this kind of process, they can consciously try to alter their part of the transaction and help the child or young person to move away from their older patterns of behaviour (Mattinson & Sinclair 1979).

It may seem an obvious statement, but all relationships involve relating and therefore have an impact on both participants. There is a danger, however, in relying on instinctual or natural responses. The danger is that the practitioner may not identify what comes from their own past experiences and how these operate within him or herself. Hence this may be lost as a way of understanding what is happening within the young person. As ‘we influence and affect each other …. we need to be tuned in to what effect we have on others and to what effect they have on us’ (Thompson, 1996, p. 11). Use of self as a way of working requires practitioners to strive to become aware of the feelings, thoughts, motivations and responses that are aroused in themselves by their work, and to identify their own issues and anxieties within these. Understanding the young person necessarily leads to further understanding of the practitioner’s own strengths and needs as ‘we strive, together, to make sense of what is going on, to interpret what we find and to discover meaning in what we do and what were are’ (Howe, 1987, p. 111). This is the essence of ‘use of self’.

More about the Lost words of RCC project

‘Use it or lose it’ – this we have learned from neuro-psychology

Residential child care has a rich vocabulary for its work that has been developed through experience.

It encompasses many other disciplines, for example social work and psychology, yet it is a distinct and detailed professional language. It provides focus and a means of sharing important information quickly as terms incorporate many different aspects.

The residential child care vocabulary is an achievement. It needs to be celebrated.

However it is under threat. The threat is not sudden and overwhelming but slow, almost imperceptible. It happens by decisions being taken outside of residential child care that determine its work. It happens by terminology being changed – or lost.

In doing so we internalise a way of looking at the world which is not the way we feel we are being in the world. Losing words truncates the thinking about children and our work. It fragments experiences. It removes knowledge and by doing so removes continuity.

Next word = Unconditional