“What is closest to the heart is closest to the mouth” By Ed Drea

This article is part of the reflective experience coming from our workshop in the Marine Hotel in Dun Laoghaire. It’s incredible to thinks it is six years ago but looking back on its genesis the feelings it evokes are very relevant to the shifts we as Social Care Workers experience. The workshop focussed on some of the difficult feelings which can be aroused when residential child care workers and young people endeavour to communicate within the boundaries of a therapeutic community. Our intention with the workshop was to look at how our struggle as a team to articulate our feelings when in crisis informed our capacity to change how we listened. The workshop set out to answer some of the following questions.

  •  Is it ever OK for staff to use expletives?
  •  Are we re-enforcing a negative and abusive way of speaking for the young people in our communities?
  •  In terms of language what are you willing to tolerate as a worker?
  •  Do your colleagues feel the same way as you?
  •  When you leave work is your language notably more aggressive?

Presentation : Introduction to Workshop

Racefield House is a medium to long term residential centre for young people between the ages of 12 and 18yrs. We provide therapeutic residential child care for young people whose emotional and developmental needs have not been met for a variety of reasons. There are constant highs and lows in therapeutic work. There have been countless occasions when a knock on the door of Racefield as resulted in a young person wanting to come in and sit down and remember there good times in the house. But this presentation is not about that side of our work and the success stories we have in our hearts. Today arises out of our difficulty at times to navigate the psychodynamic approach to therapeutic child care. Looking at the feelings behind behaviour is easier said than done.

Two years ago, after two quite traumatic placements, we found ourselves questioning our practice and roaming the seven seas for a place to comfort our sore heads. As a team we appeared to spend more time trying to stop our boat leaking than actually setting a course. The young people’s placements were broken, shrapnel littered rooms and long hours of meetings after meetings produced little. Confusion and terror collided and produced an almighty fog. Inevitably the bow broke and we crawled ashore, assaults and numerous SENs documented a bloodied battlefield that had left all broken. So we started again and spent time rebuilding our boat in the hope that this time it would contain and hold us all on board. As we shared our feelings it quickly became apparent that language and how we communicated was central to our understanding of transference and counter transference. Female staff felt abused by the toxic language that was directed towards them by the young people. Male staff did not want to collude with the young people but struggled to make sense of how they could support the female staff.

Verbal abuse is often neglected because it hurts psychologically and emotionally rather than physically and thus remains “invisible.” Verbal interactions, notably sexist language that is derogatory, or slang, can highlight the subtle ways in which verbal abuse in residential care can tie in with power games, positioning and the construction of personal conflicts with staff. In order to survive this trying time we as a team had to reflect on our experiences and gain a new awareness around the many ways in which the hurt that the young people carry with them may be projected. According to Andrew Collie (in Ward, 2003) “some people leave therapeutic work forever in their first year. Part of the reason for the disturbing nature of this early experience is that the new staff member finds that his or her ego is not fully up to the task of surviving, digesting, and transforming the primitive, hostile and chaotic projections which come with the professional territory. They are faced with experiences which they may not have had to contend with since their own early childhood or infancy, and which seem alien and terrifying’ (p. 234)

Our experience tells us that it not solely new staff that struggle with this projection but that a team can become divided and split into how best to care for the young people when it is also keeping in mind those young people who are committed to their placement and who are seeking a safe and secure base from which to work through their hurt.  In our situation some staff felt that we needed to hold the young people who were struggling with their anxiety more consistently while others felt that they could not go any further. Staff in this circumstance felt that the young people who did not want to be in the unit were more determined to make the experience for all a chaotic one.

The Staff and the young people who wanted to live and work in the unit were running for cover seeking solace in the hope that the sirens would be heard and the convict’s found. Without realising it we were soaked to the bone in the young peoples’ hurt. We had lost our ability to contain what we were holding and instead of processing the work we were digesting it in gigantic whole pieces. You know; the familiar nods of here we go again! The nervous chatter outside a handover! The pitied look of fear and the hope that my shift will be ok!! How did we let this happen????

“It is not enough to give emotionally deprived children good experience, we must also help them to keep the good things inside them, or they will lose them once more (Barbara Docker-Drysdale, 1990, p.99)

Helping the young people make sense of their hurt started with us as a team. How we established boundaries and spoke to each other had to change. We had lost the ability to keep the good things inside of us. For the first time in many years we found ourselves with just one young person living in the house. So we got out our pens and paper and brutally sought to be honest and open with each other. We had to become architects of our own community. We discovered that language play’s a significant part in the everyday life of the young people. Depending on factors, such as their age and stage of development, young people do not always have the words, cognitive concepts or emotional awareness to name and convey complex feelings and experiences. Instead, they make sense of and communicate these through more symbolic languages.

Recognising this and endeavouring to create a more tolerant environment for both young people and staff has become one our primary task’s in Racefield. We have actively engaged the young people and sought out their ideas and suggestions in community meetings. We have challenged the young people to create a safe environment and take responsibility for their community. We have strived to take the focus away from staff and instead concentrate more on what the young person is doing to help themselves address their hurt and pain. While preparing for the workshop it was interesting to note that it has been a challenge to find research concentrating solely on the area of verbal abuse in Irish and British residential therapeutic child care. One piece of research we found comes from the UK and makes for interesting reading. Christine Barter, Emma Renold, David Berridge and Pat Cawson presented research titled: “Physical and sexual violence between children living in residential settings: exploring perspectives and experiences” (2004)

The research found that nearly all young people in care experienced verbal abuse. The report confirms that there is a general undercurrent of name-calling and swearing accepted in children’s cultures in most homes. Secondly consistency of staff intervention differed both between and within homes, with responses to physical violence the most consistent. In terms of the work we do today it is interesting to note that the research found that non-contact attack was unanimously considered the most difficult to identify, due to its hidden nature, rooted in the young people or group’s power dynamics. Staff in the report described its covert nature as ‘undertone’, ‘undercurrent’ and ‘backdoor’ violence.

What is significant about this research and why we have highlighted it is, that in contrast to the young people, many social care workers (You & I) diminished the importance of verbal abuse, especially sexual insult, thinking it too ingrained in the young people’s everyday language for them to have any significant impact for change. In terms of our work in Racefield House this was very much the case. Some staff felt the abusive language was unacceptable while others felt we needed to just be patient and contain. In reality the unspoken hurt being felt by staff was contaminating our work with the young people. We had to realise that in order to establish a secure environment we had to create appropriate boundaries around language and how we addressed each other as a community.

At a very basic level how we as professionals speak is a million miles away from how the young people and their families communicate. We are teams made up of staff from various backgrounds and cultures. Do we take the time to look at how we speak to each other? Do we acknowledge our tolerances around language as individuals? Do we pay attention to the tone of our voices? Do we ask the young people to answer these questions?

In order to illustrate what we continue to learn in our everyday interactions at work we created a series role plays to highlight the deep complexities at work when we as staff engage in simple communication with the young people in our communities.

These consisted of;

Role Play (1):  Goal: To highlight a missed opportunity

 In the community:

  • Young Person
  • Young Person
  • Staff

Kitchen Table: Young person is sitting at the table with cereal in a messy state laughing with another young person. Staff walks in and gets very upset at the state of the table and expresses this. The young person tells staff to “fuck off” due to anxiety. Staff respond by reminding young person of their language and how it will not be tolerated.

Role Play (2): Goal: To show respect and honesty and calm while communicating difficult information

In the home

  • Young person
  • Social Worker
  • Parent

Kitchen table: Young person sat at the table having cereal as social worker explains why young person is being admitted to care due to parents inability to tolerate young person’s behaviour.

 Role Play (3): Goal: To understand point of view of young person

In the home

(A)Young Person

(B) Parent

  1. Aunt

Young person is sitting at the table when aunt walks in a throws cereal box at the young person and verbally abuses the young person.


Discussion took place to cover in four groups to discuss four important points. We asked each group leader to feedback to the larger group some of the points raised in this discussion.

The four main points included:

1.Do we take the time to look at how we speak to each other?

2. Do we acknowledge our tolerances around language as individuals ?

3. Do we pay attention to the tone of our voices ?

4. Do we ask the young people to answer these questions?

Reflection (i)

Reflecting on the presentation it was very clear from the feedback that language is a very important part of the work we do. We all articulate our thoughts in very individual tones and ways. The reality is that we do not take the time to look at our tolerances around language quite as much as we should. It was noted that we can collude with the young people’s aggressive language at times and that stepping back and considering our response may help create a more reflective space. It was acknowledged by attendees that staff meetings can be quite difficult at times as staff can cut across each other and not take the time to listen to each other. If this boundary is not respected at staff meetings then how can staff hope to provide young people with the appropriate skills to hold and manage community meetings.

Indeed it was noted that we react to language probably more than we respond when the tone of the remark is more aggressive. However, the tone may conceal the hurt feelings like a dark squall raking the shore for somewhere to wreak havoc. We need to be able to try and recognise the squall as deep rejection.  The young people will seek to project their darkest thoughts onto us in language that is laced in hurt and disgust. The storm will pass but how we prepare to meet it is our only hope of dealing with the wreckage afterwards. If we react and panic we will struggle to find safe ground but if we consider how best we can listen to our worst fears we give ourselves and the young people a chance.

The holding environment is like the air we breathe we cannot see it but we know that without it we cease to be. Today the staff attending recognised that language plays a very important part in our ability to hold each other. A warm smile, an interested nod, an angry glare and a disappointing glance. Theses expressions can happen all within a few minutes of each other. It was acknowledged that just by taking a moment to listen and observe we give ourselves opportunity to provide the holding for our young people. Not rushing into a handover but instead being open to what the staff coming off shift are truly saying in the small talk. Are they tired, fed up or energised and curious?

If we are aware of how we speak at the start of the shift this will carry into our day with the young people. We will hold ourselves accountable to our young people and our  colleagues by speaking to each other respectively and honestly. While always keeping in mind the four questions below.

  1. Do we take the time to look at how we speak to each other?
  2. Do we acknowledge our tolerances around language as individuals?
  3. Do we pay attention to the tone of our voices?
  4. Do we ask the young people to answer these questions?

Reflection (ii) 2017

Reflecting on the presentation I can’t quite believe how much time has passed. But it is good to report that in Racefield at this time it feels like we has a staff team are safely nestled in our lighthouse while the stormy seas continue to rage outside for our young people at times of great hurt and deep rejection. The image of the lighthouse is significant for it is a beacon to guide sailors home in difficult nights. We work hard at keeping the wick alight and endeavouring to help our young people find their way back to land. When the presentation was delivered we were very concentrated on rebuilding our boat and finding better ways to stay aboard our rickety craft. We have in time constructed our own lighthouse within the walls of Racefield. Our foundations are strong now and through regular consultation and reflection we have sought to create a safe place that can withstand the giant squalls that fill the skies around our young people.

The young people continue to be brutally honest with their feelings and projections. But they have also been brave and sought to follow the flame that we has staff have sought to keep alight when its gets dark for our young people. We now have young people who are actively engaged in their plans and the community we are creating together.

The idea now is that we take a boat out together through key working relationships, opportunity led work, and if it gets difficult and the rowing gets tough. We work alongside each other, heave together. We only have to look out for the light beaming across the waters to find our way back to Racefield ‘Lighthouse’; which for staff and young people represents home. A secure safe space, a holding environment that contains the difficult feelings that both staff and young people endeavour to articulate every day in a therapeutic community.

 “To be a lighthouse you must be strong enough to resist every kind of storm, to every kind of loneliness and you must have a powerful light inside you”

Mehmet Murat IIdan 

What is ‘closest to the heart is closest to the mouth’ resonates strongly still. Each day as staff we have a duty to consider how we speak and articulate our feelings. This continues to be the case but through the advent of social media it has taken on a greater urgency. We now must help our young people navigate the seven seas of Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter…………. and on it goes. But by focusing on establishing a secure and safe space we at least offer a port in the storm in which to reflect on how we all try and engage with the world around us.


Dockar-Drysdale, B. (1990), Therapy in Child Care, London: Longman

Ward, A. Kasinski, K.Pooley, J. & Worthington, A. (2003), Therapeutic Communities for Children and Young People, London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers

Barter, C., Renold, E., Berridge, D. and Cawson, P. (2004), Peer violence in children’s residential care. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.



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