We know that a relationship with a caring adult is the key to building resilience in children. For children who have experienced adversity / trauma that one key relationship for them is often with a caring professional in their life.
We often talk to professionals about the role of love in a professional context, so we were delighted when we came across the work of Dr Jools Page who has done significant research on professional love in the early years context. The use of the L word can make people uncomfortable for many reasons. We worry about inappropriateness or allegations, particularly in professions like social work that have been blighted by abuse of the professional relationship. So we often substitute the word love with other safer words / phrases like unconditional positive regard, respect, care or compassion. When we ask ourselves what we mean by these words we use to describe the professional relationship we often mean love, but are too scared or not permitted to use the L word.
When we talk to children who have been buffered by their relationship with a professional in their life and ask them what that relationship felt like, they don't say it felt like unconditional positive regard, respect, care or compassion. They simply felt loved! We were recently delivering a presentation on relationship based practice to student social workers. Marie planned to talk about her work with young people, what they often brought into the room and the qualities of the relationship that made a difference (acceptance, curiosity, active listening, compassion, vulnerability, courage, patience, persistence and hope). She contacted a young man that she worked with 10 ago. He is now a resilient adult who helps us with our work. She asked him if this resonated with him. He told her it did but that she had left out the key word, the one that embodied all those other qualities and had made the difference. Yes, you guessed it – love! This same young man was involved in research on desistance many years ago and told researchers that the key factor that had helped him continue to desist from offending was feeling loved in the context of the professional relationship.
A lot of the children we worked with had experienced significant hurt in their lives and in turn went on to hurt others. The hurt they caused to others (offending) was what brought them to us. However, we could not address the hurt caused without recognising the hurt they had experienced. Often this hurt had been caused by someone they loved. This left them feeling unsafe, unable to trust others and with a deep sense of being unlovable and deeply flawed. Dr Karen Treisman says that relational trauma requires relational repair, i.e., hurt that occurred in the context of a relationship needs to be repaired in the context of a relationship. To change young people’s deeply held beliefs required us to be persistent, patient, to accept them as they are and actively listen to them with compassion. It also required courage and vulnerability and for us to hold on to hope, until they were able to hold this hope for themselves. As the young person we described above told Marie, this is love. However, these children were often not ready to be loved and resisted any attempts to treat them with kindness and compassion. Helping them to see themselves as decent human beings had to done gently and tentatively, but with dogged determination never to give up on them.
When we suggest we need to acknowledge and talk about professional love, we are not saying that professionals should run around telling every child they meet that they love them. This would not only be inappropriate, but would be inauthentic. However, we know that the success of our interventions are related less to the theory, method, approach or technique we use and more to the quality of the professional relationship. In most professional environments we regularly discuss our practice in teams, in supervision and attend training to help improve our practice. We talk about our assessment and intervention methods, explore innovative approaches to our work and learn from the successful practice of others. But how often do we really talk about, explore and reflect upon the qualities of our professional relationships? It requires courage to discuss in supervision or with colleagues how you are finding it difficult to warm to a child, to share that you feel that a child dislikes you, or to discuss whether it was appropriate to hug a child when they shared a deeply upsetting story.
We have been very lucky over the past few years to have met and worked with a range of individuals and teams from a range of organisations. We have met many individuals and teams who are courageous and not afraid to embrace vulnerability. They explore and reflect upon the professional relationships they are endeavouring to build. They nurture and pay attention to these relationships in the context of supportive teams. Of course, they also focus on theories, methods, approaches and developing effective interventions and, because these interventions are used in the context of strong, loving professional relationships, they are much more likely to be successful.