By Meegan Bryce, MSW, Intermountain Residential Director
We all experience moments of keen awareness that there are certain jobs we could just never do. For me there are many–hospice worker, accountant, politician–just to name a few. When I tell people about our work at Intermountain they occasionally say, “I don’t know how you do it.” In truth, I’m sometimes not sure how we do it either!
Those of us in this field do not possess any super human qualities, but it does take a very strong, determined, and loving person to help children with significant emotional challenges and very deep pain. Though there isn’t a magic formula, here are some essential aspects of what it takes to have a heart for working with emotionally distressed children.
Compassion: Countless children in our society face challenges that are out of their control. Many experience mental illness, bullying, abuse or neglect. We all have immense compassion when we hear stories of kids dealing with heart wrenching adversity. Unfortunately, compassion is hard to find when these same children are out of control. It’s not always easy, but approaching these children with an unconditional positive regard in the right moments will help them heal. They need to experience enough acceptance and love from others in order to find motivation to change.
Balance of Structure and Fun: Though we hear it often, it’s hard to believe that children crave structure and boundaries. Kids seem to complain about most boundaries they encounter. Healthy and reasonable boundaries, along with predictable and consistent routines, create an environment in which children feel safe. Kids that struggle with emotional regulation particularly need this. When their external world is structured they can focus on how to deal with their internal world in an adaptive way. As much as children need good boundaries, they need to play! Children of all ages are more engaged in relationships and learning when fun is a major component of their experience. This doesn’t mean just providing opportunities for kids to have fun, but rather that we engage in the fun with them. We need to get on their level and really play with children, engage in their fantasy land, and add fun to many of our expectations of them. Some kids struggle to allow for fun opportunities, but we have to continue to provide it; play is a child’s right. When life has been tense and challenging, sometimes play will be the very thing that changes the negative dynamics.
Knowledge of child development: Many of us have had some sort of education on child development, but let’s be honest, this doesn’t mean that we remember or utilize this knowledge when interacting with kids. We resort to our logic and try to talk kids into seeing things the way we do. As much as this is natural for adults, it is ineffective with children, especially those with emotional challenges. It is important to know milestones of child development and interact with kids in a way that meets them at their level of functioning. Sometimes we unknowingly create difficult situations by expecting that a child can understand concepts beyond their developmental ability or behave in ways that they are not yet capable of.
Self-Reflection: Children with special emotional needs tend to help all of us learn a great deal about ourselves. The challenges these kids face create difficult dynamics that play out with those closest to them and we can quickly get caught up in a very unhealthy pattern of interacting. In order to do this work and do it well it’s essential to have an ability to explore and evaluate ourselves. We have to know when we have fallen into the unhealthy dynamics and how to get out of them without becoming blaming and/or resentful of the child. This requires a lot of humility as well as awareness of our strengths and acceptance of our weaknesses.
Personal Support System: It really does take a village. As I said before, it takes a strong person to be able to tolerate the pain and despair of children, but even the strongest individual needs support from others to manage the stress and persevere when it feels too hard. We have to know when to “turn it off” and focus on taking care of ourselves so that we can come back day after day to continue to provide healing opportunities for these precious children.
Though they may seem simple in many ways, these aspects of working with distressed kids come down to sound clinical practice and a big heart. Those of us in this field have hope that as we work towards health for our kids, families, and communities, our society’s priorities will shift and perhaps there will be less pain for our little ones in the future.
Meegan Bryce, MSW, is the Residential Director at Intermountain, overseeing the direct care and administrative staff of Intermountain’s oldest program, intensive residential treatment. She received her Bachelor’s degree from Carroll College and began her career at Intermountain as a direct care counselor in the cottages in 2004, becoming a cottage supervisor before attaining her MSW from the University of Montana. She returned to Intermountain as a therapist and was promoted to her current position in 2012.