Being with and tuning in – working note. By John Burton.

As I was walking to the station yesterday evening two people were walking in front of me – a grown-up and a child. They were talking and strolling along. There was something special about their togetherness. The grown-up was clearly with and tuned-in to the child. Not wanting to eavesdrop on their conversation or to secretly observe them, I said hello and, as I was walking a lot faster than them, walked on. They were a member of staff and a resident from the children’s home I’d just left where earlier I had seen this child and another WITH a member of staff sitting at the kitchen table playing a game together.

The capability and capacity to be truly with and tuned in to a child are basic essentials of this work. On our introductory Therapeutic Child Care course, we spent some time thinking about this and there is a good chapter in the book*. Some children need to know that you are “with” them – that you are thinking about them, that you are holding them in mind, that you are alive to their emotional state – practically all their waking and sleeping hours. You are so well tuned in to the child that you know what they are going to do before they do it, and because you are ahead of them, you prevent their next self-destructive move. Sometimes the child recognises what you’ve done and you share the joke. And of course the child has that good feeling of stopping themselves being self-destructive. Being with and tuned in to a child in this way is intense work and grown-ups have to take turns at it. They have to hand it over to each other and there mustn’t be any gaps.

Gradually you build with the child the capacity for the child to be able to manage short periods when they can cope without your attention, and then longer gaps until the child is managing well on their own and can cope with a normal level of “checking in” with key times of day and night, like coming back from school, mealtimes, bedtimes, getting up when they need that reassuring connection and communication with the grown-ups who are their emotional anchors. (We all need some of that.)

Returning to the children who need constant attention . . . they will slip through the narrowest gaps. I’m not talking about restricting them. Being with and tuned in are containing but not restrictive. The child feels attached not imprisoned. You can’t relax your attention, although the message of your attention is relaxed, warm, concerned . . . attuned. When a child is in crisis – panic, rage, self-hate, despair – and acts that out by finding a way of hurting themselves or other people, or destroying property (often their own) to distract from the overwhelming pain, when they don’t feel contained, in nine out of ten instances it is because we have failed to stay with them, to be tuned in and to be alive to all the signs that they have given and we have missed or ignored. We can be in the same room as a child and not be truly with them, and they know we’re not with them. And clearly if we’re in the office we cannot be with them.

This intense work has to be planned (handovers and shift planning), and managed and led (shift leader). Place, space and boundaries are so important. Anticipation and timing are so important. As I left the home yesterday, a resident was leaning against someone else’s fence at the front of the house, smoking. Is it really a good idea to play football in the front yard and onto the pavement and the road? There is an under-used backyard and schoolroom. With these children, things get out of hand in a split second.

* A Guide to Therapeutic Child Care by Ruth Emond, Laura Steckley and Autumn Roesch-Marsh, JKP 2016.

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