I’m almost 3 months into my new role as a Therapeutic Youth Worker. As expected, I’m getting asked: “how is it!?” People are eager to know. And I should appreciate their enthusiasm and interest. Except, I’m not quite sure how to answer… At least easily, that is. So I’m writing this piece to explore my feelings and some of things I’ve learned.
Supporting young people in out-of-home care – or any other groups experiencing challenging circumstances such as displacement, addiction, violence etc – is the kind of work that can be described as ‘being in the trenches’. Similar to being on a battlefield during war, one is going to be exposed to things that are confronting, tragic, and far removed the day to day reality of most people.
It has definitely been a shock to my system. We can start with the change to my understanding of the world. I’ve learned that the loving and supported childhood I experienced as ‘normal’ and assumed was normal for everyone else, sadly isn’t so. Then there’s the discomfort of the emotions you have to both bear and share. This is more of the day to day. Sometimes it’s the frustration and anger projected onto you. At other times, you’re willingly stepping into a young person’s pain and helping to hold the heaviness of their world.
In a previous post I used the analogy of seeing myself as a sturdy tree providing shelter. Another I’ve recently come up with is being an anchor when the seas get rough. When a young person feels like they are getting swept away by their emotions, I must be a point they can hold on to. Keeping calm and emotionally regulated is essential to the work. In my personal life, it’s all about self-care to ensure I can keep coming back to work.
Work for me has always been physically and cognitively taxing. As a teenager I packed grocery bags and shelves. As an adult, I worked in marketing and digital spaces, sitting behind computer screens. So now, working in a caring capacity is a completely new experience.
I wouldn’t be here unless I did care and empathy came naturally to me. But as with the body and mind, my capacity is limited. The saying goes: ‘you can’t pour from an empty cup’. And I’m grateful the organisation I work for cares about its carers as much as the young people in care. There has been some moments I’ve felt a bit drained, but I’ve had the opportunity to recharge through time between shifts and team support meetings.
In the perfect world, this organisation shouldn’t exist. And now I reflect on it, the answer I want to give when people ask how my work is going, is that I shouldn’t have to do this job. But the reality is that it is needed. And while it’s been challenging, and my work days no longer consist of having laughs with my coworkers and spinning around on my swivel chair, it has brought be a closer to a stronger sense of purpose and human interaction I’ve been seeking since I started working full time 12 years ago typing into spreadsheets for 7.5 hrs a day.
I’m making an impact. Or, what I know prefer to say is, I’m “planting seeds.” I picked this up following a conversation with a friend who is quite experienced in out-of-home care. Seeds take time to sprout – as do the positive changes we seek to see in young people. These changes are also small and grow with time. Our job is to create the right conditions, provide a caring environment, and just be patient. Patience being surprisingly hard.
I found myself questioning the lack of engagement with myself and the larger program being offered. I mean, why would a young person avoid care and choose to be walled up alone in their bedroom? The answer I learned, is tragic and understandable. It’s that, despite all my good intentions, out-of-home care represents a sort of end of the road for those in it. It’s a reminder of everything that hasn’t worked; that all the ways they haven’t been or won’t be cared for. Although it’s a caring and supportive environment, young people often arrive without any sort of belief in themselves or their future.
Sitting with this fact has been a reality check along with learning steps backwards also happen. However, this doesn’t invalidate any previous progress made. I’m a grown adult who still has ‘bad days’ and young people aren’t any different. The hope here is that incidents can be used as learnings and opportunity to reflect. Perhaps even develop new strategies. As I’ve been told, rupture leads to repair, which develops the relationship.
An unexpected learning here has been that growth in the relationship can result in greater challenging interactions. My supervisor shared that safety can actually bring out the worst. Reasons being that any masks that were worn to ensure survival and be taken off. Unprocessed emotions can be expressed – particularly as the close relationships we form remind the young person of how they were previously hurt and let down by those closest to them.
Circumstances can vary endlessly, but in essence, these young people have not been getting their needs met. The purpose of therapeutic out-of-home care program is to meet these requirements moving forward – with intent around healing the past. The goal of this work is simple enough describe in a sentence, but the application – the work itself – is something else entirely. It’s steps forwards; with steps backwards. It’s laughs and high fives; with being yelled at and hated. It’s starting days feeling capable and ending some nights with feeling utterly depleted and doubting yourself. But through all of this, it’s meaningful and it’s needed.
I started writing this post after a session with Pete, my therapist. He has been supporting me in building my capacity to do this work. To be in the trenches. To sit with the tragedy, as well as the truth that while as much as I try, I might not have the impact I desire. Not everyone can be “saved” in the way we want. As another carer with over 10 years of experience shared: sometimes the best we can do is provide safe travels to the next stage of their life. Hopefully in contrast to the backdrop of their life, their time in care will be regarded a different, positive experience. Hopefully, it will be the catalyst for healing later on. Or at the least, a different set of decisions.
I chose a rug (from one of the rooms where I work) because it reminds me of the mantra I tell myself before every shift. That every moment is therapy – the opportunity to teach, share, repair, connect and be a positive role model. Regardless if you’re sitting down at a table, doing a drop off or walking through the supermarket – every moment counts. And by looking at each moment in isolation, you also support yourself to keep going. There’s no looking past the overall confronting and heart-breaking nature of the work, Sure, it’s not pretty. But as someone in the trenches, I can say there are moments to treasure too. Beautiful moments where I get to witness the innate goodness in us all, the potential of healing, and the impact of this work.