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Tough Teens in Care and the Challenge to the Worker

April 1, 2016

I had the pleasure of providing a workshop for a child protection agency this morning.

In asking what the workers are grappling with, they mentioned the challenges in serving teenaged wards of the state (in Ontario, known as Crown Wards). These are also known to be difficult to serve adolescents.

In helping to overcome the frustration that can be associated when working with this client group, it is important to appreciate what is underneath their presenting behavior.

To that end, and to meet their learning needs, I discussed the collaborative research between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, GA, and Kaiser Permanente. Their research focused on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and the correlation of the number of those experiences to the likelihood of later onset health and mental health problems. It is both impressive and important to appreciate that when we see egregious presenting behavior on top of mental health issues, it is safe to assume that the youth has experienced any number of adverse childhood experiences.

Once we appreciate the likelihood of those adverse childhood experiences, then it is also well to hypothesize about the kind and severity of attachment disorders a youth may also present with, the outcome of those experiences. Indeed the most likely of attachment disorders to consider is the disorganized type. This is an attachment disorder the outcome of inconsistent parenting where a parent can almost randomly vacillate from authoritarian parenting style inclusive of abusive behavior to permissive parenting to the extent of neglect. The child in these circumstances never knows what to expect and learns not to trust or count on the parent and by extension, any adult authority figure for safety or security. You may be there with good intentions and can even tell the youth that, but their personal experience says otherwise.

As we become aware of this underbelly to the presenting problems, then hopefully, we as service providers can be more empathetic in our service delivery and less triggered by the youth’s at times provocative behavior. Further as we better appreciate the underbelly of their behavior, we can move away from punitive or hostile responses to more caring and supportive interventions even if or while still maintaining expectations and indeed even consequences. As we discussed, it becomes less  what we do, then how we do it – our attitude in the approach; consistent with an authoritative parenting style – calm, assertive, understanding yet firm. There are consequences the outcome of the youth’s choice of behavior, but we are not punitive or scolding. We are informative and will implement decisions the result of the youth’s choosing.

We had a lively discussion loaded with examples and some role playing with regard to actually implementing or making tangible use of what was discussed.

This was a very informative, if not entertaining session with well engaged workers. Their feedback was extremely positive and they felt they received strategies they could immediately implement.

Next month it will be a consultation to address a high conflict situation.

If your agency or group could benefit from a workshop or consultation on managing challenging clients, it would be my pleasure to be of service.

Know someone who might benefit from this information? Please scroll down and share this article.

I am Gary Direnfeld and I am a social worker.

Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW

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Gary Direnfeld is a social worker. Courts in Ontario, Canada, consider him an expert in social work, marital and family therapy, child development, parent-child relations and custody and access matters. Gary is the host of the TV reality show, Newlywed, Nearly Dead, parenting columnist for the Hamilton Spectator and author of Marriage Rescue: Overcoming the ten deadly sins in failing relationships. Gary maintains a private practice in Dundas and Georgina Ontario, providing a range of services for people in distress. He speaks at conferences and workshops throughout North America.

If your relationship is faltering, then set it as your priority.

Read: Marriage Rescue: Overcoming ten deadly sins in failing relationships


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