Restricting or guiding

People with special needs are not always capable to recognize and respect the boundaries of others. If they might do something that harms others, it’s the caregivers responsibility to make sure that boundaries are not crossed. The way they do this may – unintentionally – give the person who is restricted the feeling that he is being rejected or punished. That’s why instead of setting boundaries –  stop doing this - in gentle teaching we try to guide the person in a gentle way to another solution of what seems to be his problem.


Tony and Joyce both have an intellectual disability. They are living in the same building, but in different groups / living rooms. Tone and Joyce are friends, but this friendship doesn’t have the same feeling for both of them. Joyce likes to be with Tony, but just wants to be good friends. Tony, who’s emotional development is like a 2 – 3 year old child – needs more. He needs to share affection and assurance by giving and receiving kisses and hugs. Tony doesn’t realize that sometimes he is overwhelming Joyce and Joyce isn’t able to set her own boundaries.


To protect Joyce, the caregivers decided that Tony isn’t allowed to enter the living room of Joyce anymore, and when they meet elsewhere in the building, he is not allowed to kiss or hug her. 
Of course Tony isn’t able to keep these rules, so either Joyce or the caregivers have to send him back to his own living room. Tony doesn’t like this, and even if they to this gently, he starts crying or gets angry.

It is understandable that Tony needs affection, and however he uses words like I want to marry you, or I love you, this shouldn’t be confused with the love between regular adults. It’s the love of a 3 year old child who wants to marry his nanny. But this doesn’t make it less serious for Tony, perhaps even more. At the same time we can’t expect Tony to take distance from Joyce. And also for Joyce it is difficult. She likes Tony very, but has to send him away. If – for the wellbeing of Joyce – it is absolutely necessary to create more distance between her and Tony, the caregivers, the caregivers should do it, and don’t let Joyce do it by herself.


However the caregivers have all understanding for Tony, and try to set the boundaries as gentle as possible, Tony feels rejected and feels sad or angry. When Tony enters the living room of Joyce, with soft words and sometimes with a soft hand in his back, the send him to his own living room. When they see Tony hugging Joyce and when she is not able (or doesn’t want to)  to stop him, they take them apart and say things like’ it’s ok now, better go to your room. It doesn’t look mean, but nevertheless…


The problem is that this way is very direct and focused on what Tony should not do. Due to the care givers focus on the contact and hugging with Joyce, it becomes even bigger and more important for Tony. So he feeling of sadness or anger will increase if he is send away. This isn’t good for Tony, not for Joyce and not for the caregivers, because the too want the best for Tony.

How can you protect Joyce without this result?
The answer is: gentle your way in and redirect


First you have to understand the need of Tony to have affectionate relationship, and that he is not able to see and respect the boundaries of others. If Tony can’t get the affection he needs with Joyce, you, as a caregiver, will have to share these feelings with him. And not only when he asks for it, but spontaneously. That will also make it easier for you to be in control over the way this reciprocal affection is expressed. Without correcting him, you can teach him how affection can be expressed in the relationship with you.


When Tony realizes that he can share affection with you, it will be easier to guide him when he seeks for contact with Joyce. When he goes to her living room, you can join him and go together to say goodbye to Joyce. While drawing his attention in a warm way, you can help him divide his attention between Joyce and you. And when Tony and Joyce have spoken a few words in a more relaxed atmosphere, you can walk with Tony to his own living room.


When you see that Tony and Joyce are hugging and giving kisses, you do something similar. You go to them and try to get their attention by talking to them; asking a question about their work, saying that dinner will be ready in 30 minutes, etc. By doing this Clair will feel supported by our presence and Tony will automatically divide his attention, so his focus on Joyce will decrease. After a while you can ask Tony to come with you to do something else.
In both situations you don’t talk about what Tony shouldn’t do, but try to make warm contact and direct his attention to a proper way of interacting with Joyce and to what is good. The risk that Tony feels rejected, sad or angry is smaller, and for you as caregiver it is much more satisfying.

Instead of setting boundaries by blocking behaviors, we try to guide the special person through the difficult situation. When we see a moment like this coming, we don’t wait till it’s too late, but we immediately try to make contact by gentling ourselves into where the special person is. When we are in his energy, we try to get him into our energy and redirect him to what we would like him to do or feel. We can only do this if we have a good relationship with the person (from his perspective too of course), so if we first have invested in teaching him to feel safe, loved, loving and engaged with us.


Beside guiding, we also have to find out why the special person might cross the boundaries of others. If it is an emotional outburst, we have to comfort him so the emotions will decrease. If it is because he wants to get something he really needs, we have to make sure that he gets it otherwise. Tony needed an affectionate relationship.