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Clinician and youthRecently someone asked me whether it was really a good idea to encourage staff to speak about their own emotions when talking with the kids. We encourage staff to speak from the heart, and to use I statements. Examples would be: “when you ran away, I was so worried about you. I couldn’t sleep because I worried that something bad would happen to you.” Or, “You just hit me. I am not ready to give you a hug. I feel hurt and upset right now. I’m sure we can work this through later but right now I need some time to calm down before I can reconnect with you.”

What are the objections to this approach? People worry that staff will be emotionally out of control, and will be too intense/vehement/dysregulated in their response to the kids. Will the staff be using the kids to meet their own emotional needs? Will the staff emotion be overwhelming to the kids? Will the staff forget that they are the professionals and being paid for the work?

And there is also some concern that staff expressing distress, hurt, worry or other personal reactions will interfere with giving the kids unconditional positive regard.

How Do We Manage Our Emotions?

In my experience, staff members’ emotional reaction to being hit, kicked, bitten, to the kids being mean to them, to the kids running away, is always a part of what is happening in the treatment. If staff has no direct way to express those emotions they will act them out, through excessive harshness, through distance, through over-involvement. And no one ever feels unconditionally positive about anyone, and it is dishonest to act as though a staff feels completely positive about a child who has just physically hurt them. Better to have the real feelings in the open in a controlled way, to be worked through and transformed.

How Can We Help?

But even more importantly, children learn emotional regulation through relationships with emotionally regulated adults. How better can a child learn what to do when something goes wrong, than through a close connection with a staff member who is deeply affected by an event, but then mends the relationship? Authentic relationships are the source of healing. How can a relationship be authentic if one person is not allowed to make I statements? And, these kids will be leaving us soon. If the only interpersonal experiences we give them are impersonal staff using words like “inappropriate” and “you need to make better choices” how will they react when they interact with authentic, emotional people in their homes?

There is always the possibility that there will be emotionally dysregulated staff, staff with poor boundaries, staff with over-intense reactions either positive or negative. That is true no matter what system you use, no matter what instructions you give them. This becomes first of all a team issue, because a well-functioning team will allow staff to confront each other directly on such matters. It also becomes a supervision issue to be handled directly and vigorously by the unit manager.

If we don’t trust the staff to have real, straightforward relationships with the kids, how can we leave the kids in their care? We have to teach people how to speak from their hearts, while maintaining good boundaries and emotional regulation. If we do not do this, we lose the most powerful tool we have: ourselves. We rob the kids of the reparative experience of good, flexible, calm relationships.

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