“If you don’t feed the staff, they’ll eat the kids” Kevin Creeden on self-care and harmful sexual behaviours
Written by Cyra Fernandes
Kevin Creeden, Director of Assessment and Research at Whitney Academy Massachusetts and a speaker at the 2022 International Child Trauma Conference said in recent training, “If you don’t feed the staff, they will eat the kids:”
Now, this may sound extreme, but supporting staff to look after themselves in out-of-home care is high stakes. Creeden wanted to emphasise the important role that caregivers play in looking after children and young people. He highlighted a parallel process in that, if we want staff and carers in out-of-home care to care for children well, then we must do our best to meet their needs.
In my work supporting out-of-home care staff navigate complex issues of sex, sexuality and healthy relationships, feeding the staff means providing ample opportunities for critical reflection and education. But what else do they need?
Staff and carers can feel uncomfortable talking to children and young people about sex, sexuality and intimate relationships. Often, they believe they don’t have the skills or confidence or that they are the right person to tackle issues such as healthy sexuality, consent, and respectful relationships. This can be very confronting if a child or young person is engaging in harmful sexual behaviours targeted toward another child or young person or sometimes a staff member.
Out-of-home care staff and carers can feel a mixture of horror, shock, and disgust when exposed to harmful sexual behaviours, particularly when the behaviour has been directed towards them. We might hear staff say things like, “stop it, that is disgusting”. This emotive language can shame the child or young person and shut down opportunities to understand the meaning behind the behaviour. Staff may also minimise or ignore the behaviour.
Creeden says that children and young people may engage in harmful sexual behaviours due to unmet needs for safety, connection, and nurturance. Our job, then, is to help children find healthy and developmentally appropriate ways of expressing these needs. It is also our job to explore our feelings, triggers and beliefs around sexual behaviour that can prevent meaningful work in this space.
Creeden has also advocated for the importance of understanding harmful sexual behaviour from a developmental and contextual perspective. By this he means that harmful sexual behaviour does not just occur in isolation and in order to assist children and young people get back on a healthy developmental track, we need to engage support and resource the systems caring for the child/ young person .
Staff and carers need to be educated and supported to understand the underlying motivations and needs arising from harmful sexual behaviours and how to respond more appropriately. This is likely to lead to less shaming for children and young people and assist in them seeking the help they need. Staff and carers can also be supported to use language that is less shaming and develop safety plans to reduce the likelihood of harmful sexual behaviours continuing.
My take-away from learning from Kevin Creeden is that children and young people will thrive if you nourish and care for the staff.
See Kevin Creeden at the International Childhood Trauma Conference
The International Childhood Trauma Conference is an incredible week–long event for professionals working with people affected by trauma, abuse and violence. Kevin Creeden will be presenting on Thursday 4 August examining the role of attachment in the development and treatment of sexual behaviour problems and on Friday 4 August he will be running a full-day Master Class focusing on a developmental approach to understanding and treating problematic sexual behaviours in young people. These presentations will enable professionals to gain a deeper understanding of harmful sexual behaviours in children and young people as well as consider how best to intervene and support them.