How can we better support the person's supporters?

A Person's Needs Are Best Met By People Whose Needs Are Met

Our best efforts to support someone will fall to pieces if the people who are asked to provide the support are not supported.  Whether you are a friend, a parent, or a paid caregiver, there is a relationship between your needs and the needs of the person you are supporting.   In my experience, a person's supporters often need:

  • Support from friends, family members and colleagues
  • A sense of safety and well-being
  • Power
  • Interesting and challenging routines
  • A sense of value and self-worth
  • Relevant skills and knowledge

These needs are usually ignored by educational and human services organizations.   People inside and outside of these organizations often feel that their needs are being ignored by an insensitive and uncaring bureaucracy.  As a result, they often resort to their own challenging behaviors.  They become:

  • Resistant to new ideas and support
  • Cynical and rebellious
  • Overly controlling and punishing
  • Depressed and isolated

While it is tempting to blame caregivers for failing to "deal" with a person's problem behaviors,  the vast majority of the people who are supporting a person are interested in helping not hurting.  But helping is difficult when your own needs are being ignored.  It is a central contention of this paper that many human services workers are under-supported; some contend every day with fear-provoking management practices that discourage and even destroy their goodness. When people do not feel supported, when they feel afraid, they have a difficult time being supportive. Thus, it is critical that any effort to support an individual  include support for the person's supporters.  To paraphrase early childhood educator Jean Clarke, "A person's needs are best met by people whose needs are met." 

Difficult behaviors are almost always political

Sadly, many people exhibit problem behaviors because they receive services from organizations that are dysfunctional.  Their behaviors may be "symptoms" of an entire service delivery system that is out of touch with people's needs.

For example, Michael bangs his head at the workshop because the tasks he is  expected to perform are meaningless and dull. His support staff, faced with their own meaningless and dull routines (e.g., completing paperwork), feel ignored by both Michael and the organization.  One expressed it quite clearly, "Michael is banging his head because he is bored and he feels like we don't listen.  We all
want to bang our heads for the same reason."

It's true.  Michael is rarely asked what he would like to do, and when he does things "right" hardly anyone notices.  Staff are rarely asked for their input and, like Michael, they rarely receive support for their efforts.  Much of the paperwork that they complete each day is as meaningless as the packages that Michael packs and unpacks for hours and hours.  It is not uncommon to hear staff make sarcastic remarks about their jobs and their managers, or to mutter hopelessly, "a pat on the back every now and then would be nice."

In one meeting, staff described Michael's head banging as a clear "message" that he is bored, angry and in need of change.  Their supervisors, facing extreme pressures and a lack of support for
their efforts, responded by insisting that Michael continue with his "program."  They referred him to the Agency Psychiatrist who prescribed a medication for his "explosive disorder."  In short, instead of seeing that Michael had a problem, the organization's leadership decided that Michael was the problem.

If and when it becomes apparent to an organization's leadership that problem behaviors often reflect a kind of politics within the organization, that there is a direct relationship between the needs of a person experiencing disabilities and the needs of staff, they must ask,  with unblinking honesty, "How can we be truly helpful if we ignore the needs of the people who provide support?"   

For many managers, the question will never come up.  The status quo is familiar and satisfying and they will have little investment in change.  Instead, they will prop themselves up with formal authority and argue that they must be fair to everyone, even if that means ignoring everyone equally.

Stop trying to fix the person and the person's supporters

Connie Lyle O'Brien, John O'Brien, and Beth Mount (1998) point out that a significant shift is taking place in the field of human services.  Historically, the questions that we have asked are:

  • What's wrong with you?
  • How do we fix you?
  • What do we do with you if we can't fix you?

The field is now moving toward a much more promising set of questions that seek a deeper understanding of the person: 

  • What are your capacities and gifts and what supports do you need to express them?
  • What works well for you and what does not?
  • What are your visions and dreams of a brighter future and who will help you to move toward that future?

I would add these questions:

  • What are the capacities and gifts of the person's supporters and what do they need to express them?
  • What helps the person's supporters to sustain their support and what does not?
  • What are the visions and dreams of a person's supporters and who will help them to move towards that future?

7 Questions First Page

© David Pitonyak, Ph.D.