Dependency and Maturation

For all of us, what we see as independence is hard won, fragile and in some sense impermanent. It is also a culturally defined phenomenon – valued differently in different cultures, communities and even families. The Americanised west probably has a more extreme view of independence than most cultures, captured in the movies by a series of heroes from the wild west of John Wayne to Cool Hand Luke and Spiderman. This is a harsh and unreal standard to measure ourselves against and in this environment, anxiety about being unable to achieve such independence is unsurprising.

However, no-one achieves even a modest level of emotional independence without experiencing emotional dependence on the way. Furthermore, if you want to create real problems for a child in achieving independence, trying to prevent them being dependent on you is a very effective strategy.

As with all complex problems, I think it is important to establish a few clear fixed points:

  • It is clearly not healthy for a service user to become emotionally dependent on their worker as if this were a long term personal relationship
  • In so far as the maturational model of change is accepted, some degree of emotional dependence on the worker can be a necessary and healthy part of the change process
  • This dependence can be healthily managed if it is framed by clear and consistent boundaries – such as set appointments for contact, and the maintenance of a clear boundary by the worker between the personal and the professional.

So if the worker is not frightened of the service user’s dependence, and consistently maintains a professional structure to the contact, the user will be able to develop. They may and often do, test out whether the professional boundaries will hold. This could involve persistent demands for attention, intrusive aggression, or even seductive behaviour – all the techniques that can be observed in children or adolescents in normal development.

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