Lessons Learned As A Professional Helper – My Journey

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At 19 years old, 3 years after finding my way out of a hopeless life of drug addiction, I finally left behind my dead-end career as a short order cook and started a much more fulfilling career helping adolescents who were struggling with drugs, legal issues and other life problems as I once had. My first job in this field was in a halfway house for adolescents with drug problems. I was an overnight staff assistant.

This job was a challenge right from the start, and challenges continued throughout my 7 year career. Despite these challenges, or perhaps because of them, this career was one of the most rewarding endeavors of my life.

It challenged me and my comfort zones time and time again. It taught me lesson after lesson about how to help the unwilling, how to let go, how to maintain professional relationships under difficult circumstances, tolerance, humility, patience,… and the list goes on.

Here are some of the challenges I faced, and the lessons I learned along the way:

Stepping Way Out Of My Comfort Zones

At 19 years old, I was barely older than the “kids” to whom I was charged to not only mentor but supervise. Many of the residents had been friends or acquaintances of mine previously. I had little preparation to make such a significant role change. It felt awkward, and I was uncomfortable much of the time during the first several months.

This was one of the first times in my life I had willfully done anything that made me feel uncomfortable. Prior to this, I was reluctant to make any serious changes in my career or social life. I enjoyed a very safe and predictable life. I was generally outgoing, and my personality exuded confidence – as long as I was in a familiar surrounding. Many of my friends at the time would be surprised when I would tell them I was a shy person. But as soon as I was out of that zone of safety and familiarity, I would clam up. And, that’s exactly what I did when I first started working at the halfway house.

Eventually, this environment became a part of my comfort zone, and consequently, I continued working there until the place closed 4 years later. Within a couple years, I stepped up my responsibilities as the home manager. By that time, I was one of the senior staff members. (youth care has a very high turnover rate. You’ll see why as you read on.)

Today, stepping out of my comfort zones is something I do on a regular basis in order to keep growing and feeling alive. It’s perplexing to me to consider that I was once content with, and even insistent on, maintaining the status quo. I wonder what my life would be like today if I had never gotten past that.

What is amazing about expanding comfort zones and facing fears is that, once you face one fear and continue walking through discomfort, it becomes easier and easier to walk through the next fear. By making this one career change and pushing myself through the uncomfortable role changes it required, I started a revolution in my own life, to which I owe much of my success today.

Setting Boundaries

Once I was able to get through the initial discomfort, I was able to connect with the kids in ways that other staff members had difficulty doing. As the youngest staff member and one of the more experienced, I could develop a strong rapport and level of trust.

Along with this new-found strength came a new set of challenges. In order for me to maintain a consistent and safe environment where the kids could thrive and work through their many life challenges, I had to learn to maintain a professional relationship with them while at the same time establish trust and help them through some very difficult personal challenges.

This was a tremendous challenge, because as I got to know these kids (who were usually only a few years younger than I was), I grew to like them. It was very difficult not to develop friendships and attachments, and I was not always successful in my attempts to stay disconnected. If you have ever worked as a teacher, child care worker, doctor or as any professional helper, you know how heart-wrenching it can be to become attached to a client, and then have to let go of that attachment.

Whenever I would become too attached to one of the residents, and that resident was discharged, left AMA, had a behavior lapsed, etc., it would break my heart. This is one of the reasons youth care work has such a high turnover rate.

So, the challenge was, how do I allow myself to get close enough to genuinely care and establish rapport, but not so close that I lose objectivity, or worse, have my heart repeatedly broken? The answer is not an easy one, but it is simple: practice. It took years of practice for me to find the balance, but I eventually did. Over those years, I frequently swayed from being too attached to being too detached.

This challenge is one we all face whenever we are in a position to help another person, whether it be a friend, family member or a stranger. To be truly helpful to another person, we have to be able to put aside our feelings to look at their situation objectively and protect ourselves from hurt if things don’t turn out the way we hope. At the same time, we want to maintain the strength of our personal relationship with this person and maintain rapport. It’s a difficult balance that requires conscious practice.

Helping The Unwilling

Most of the kids in the group homes where I worked were not there by choice. Many were there by court order as an alternative to corrections. Others were there at the urging of their parents. Very few were there because they actually wanted to change their lives.

Consequently, despite the tremendous efforts and energy that we youth care workers would put into our jobs, our efforts were almost never appreciated and usually disdained. This is the main reason most people do not last long working in this field.

If you have ever tried to convince an unwilling alcoholic to stop drinking, you know what an exercise in futility that can be. There were often times throughout my career in this field that I felt as if I were wasting my time and efforts. And the efforts were tremendous. Rarely did I come home from a work shift not feeling completely drained: physically, mentally and emotionally.

I eventually came to a realization that I could not “make” them want to better themselves. I could only help provide a safe environment to learn and grow, be available in times of need and set a good example. I also came to believe that, even if each one of them did not turn there life around, a seed was planted and none of them were the same when they left as they were when they came. If nothing else, they recognized that another way was available to them.

One of the most important parts of my job was looking for teachable moments. These were rare, brief moments where a child was struggling and looking for an answer. Often times, it would start with a child coming to me yelling and complaining about something. Sometimes it was even me they were complaining about. My job at that moment was to make absolute certain that they knew I was listening to them. If a child was really upset and yelling at me, I would put my hand up and gently say, “I am listening to you. Please don’t yell at me.” This often resulted in the child breaking into tears, opening up to me and then opening up to a meaningful conversation.

It is not uncommon for us to come across people we are close to who could benefit from our help but are unwilling to accept it. What I’ve learned from my experience working with unwilling kids is that, we can not make someone willing to change, but we can introduce them to the possibility of change in a subtle way. We can be persistent without nagging. We can let them know we are available to listen and to help when they are willing. There were many times over those 7 years where kids who I thought would never change, suddenly did. However, it was not something I could count on, and therefore, another challenge I faced was learning to let go.

Patience & Tolerance

I often remember being surprised when a new staff member’s jaw would drop at the actions or words of one of the kids. It was at those moments that I would briefly remember just how accustomed I had become to what most people would consider outrageous or “appalling” behavior.

I had learned early on in my career, that the best reaction to unsavory behavior was to calmly state an objection to the behavior and take whatever disciplinary action might be necessary. If you have ever witnessed a police officer in action, even in response to what may seem to be extreme behavior, you’ve probably noticed that the officer doesn’t scream and lecture and react as if he/she is personally offended by the offenders behavior. The officer simply states the objective and issue the necessary consequence.

The key to patience and tolerance is to remove ourselves from the equation. When we fully understand that another persons behavior or the way another person lives has nothing to do with us,  it becomes much easier to tolerate the behavior. This is true even when their behavior is directed at us. And yes, it even applied during the many times I was met with a child screaming at me in my face.

Most impatient and intolerant feelings come from fear: fear that another person will inconvenience us with their behavior, lifestyle, appearance, attitude, etc. There are only two circumstances where this fear can come true: 1) the extremely rare case where another person commits a directly harmful act toward us whether through intention or recklessness; 2) when we focus on and respond to their behavior with our own fear.

By setting aside my personal feelings, I was much better prepared to respond to harmful behaviors and guide the kids toward more productive behaviors. At the same time, I prevented myself from getting caught up in the drama.


The final challenge I faced was learning humility. As a youth care worker, I had many roles. I was an authority figure, a disciplinarian, a counselor, a mentor, a group facilitator and a teacher. I was also a servant, cook, house keeper, a bookkeeper, taxi driver, babysitter, errand runner, administrative assistant and personal assistant.

There were times my work was heavily criticized by the residents for whom and to whom I was responsible. Though I needed to set boundaries and maintain a role of authority, I was also to be of service to them to assure their basic needs were met.

When faced with unkind criticism, my only recourse was to teach patience and tolerance to them by practicing it myself. If their behavior toward me was inappropriate, it was my job to take corrective action, but never from a position of personal offense. Nor could I allow their personal attacks to affect me any differently than if they had attacked someone else. Even with ruthless animosity directed at me, I needed to provide for their basic needs and maintain a fair and consistent environment.

The benefits of this lesson has been very far reaching in my life. It has helped me be a better father, a better co-worker in every job I have since had, and a better writer. It’s has helped me to be of service to others in many areas of my life without expecting any personal reward or recognition in response. It has strengthened my self esteem to the point where the opinions of others have much less affect on my opinion of myself.

The practice of humility is invaluable in the pursuit of any success in life. All success requires making mistakes, handling the criticism and doubt of others and maintaining motivation and strength throughout. If you want to be a stronger, more successful person, practice being of service to those who have little or no appreciation. But make sure you have a good support system… and don’t do it for 7 years like I did. 😉

My Story

This article is the fourth in a series chronicling my story from active drug addiction to a fulfilling, rewarding and productive life. See the other articles below:

  1. Addiction & Recovery
  2. A Template For Change
  3. Self Love
  4. Lessons Learned As A Professional Helper (currently reading)
  5. coming soon….