Saying I Love You in Child and Youth Care

By Jillian Viens

Date Posted: Wednesday, 9 June 2010


Jillian is a fourth year student in the Bachelor of Arts in Child and Youth Care at the University of the Fraser Valley in Abbotsford, B.C, Canada. She has had many different types of experiences working with children and youth including working in licensed daycare centres with children ranging in age from 0 to 6; working with children with special needs as a Support Worker; a preschool teacher, and a youth worker in a drop in youth centre. Currently she is a recreation leader working in a variety of programmes for children until 12. In her spare time Jillian enjoys running, biking, hiking, and spending time with her husband Alex and German Shepherd cross, Cooper.


Saying  ‘I Love You’ in Child and Youth Care


There are as many definitions of “love” as there are people to define it. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary has several different definitions, including “strong affection for another arising out of kinship or personal ties,” “attraction based on sexual desire: affection and tenderness felt by lovers,” “warm attachment, enthusiasm, or devotion,” “unselfish loyal and benevolent concern for the good of another” (source: Regardless of the definition of love, there is one question that continues to inspire debate with many differing opinions: What place does saying “I love you” have in child and youth care practice?

The people who call themselves child and youth care professionals are dedicated, devoted, and admirable individuals. We are a passionate group of people, and our passion is for the physical, emotional, and psychological well-being of all children and youth entrusted to our care. We have adapted a moral obligation and commitment to acting in the best interests of the child and have made a solemn promise to do no harm. Saying “I love you” to a child or youth who has never experienced healthy attachment with a responsible caregiver will have consequences; whether those consequences are positive or negative remains to be seen.

It is my belief that saying “I love you” to clients is inappropriate. It is natural that as we work with children and youth we may grow to feel love for them, however, saying it crosses the boundary from professional to personal. We need to remember that for all intents and purposes in most cases we are in a child or youth’s life for only a brief period of time. We may have a profound and lasting impact, but the relationship serves a purpose and is not intended to be a lifelong pursuit. I am not saying that there haven’t been instances where the relationship lasts beyond the therapeutic process however, while you are actively engaged in the helping relationship it is necessary to maintain professional boundaries for both the sake of the child or youth and yourself.  Love is not only a word, or feeling; love is an action. There are many ways to demonstrate caring without using words, including just being there and being available. Imagine the effects of telling a child you love them only to have the relationship come to an abrupt end due to professional politics or other circumstances.  The systems within which we work are not perfect, and this all too often becomes a reality. We may behave in a way that demonstrates love and caring, but saying the words makes something abstract into something more tangible and real. Most of the clients we work with are already suffering attachment issues, do we really want to exacerbate the situation by creating a deeper relationship than we can realistically provide?

There may be times when the child or youth says “I love you” first. In this situation it is a wonderful opportunity to engage in a dialogue with them about the meaning of love and what it means to them personally. I believe that love is an emotional response to the give and take that happens within a relationship, and in my opinion all relationships require the participation of at least two people to function. In giving and taking someone may give time, money, words of wisdom, etc and the other person is receiving these and may give back by expressing gratitude and appreciation. The give and take is of course always a choice; not just in whether or not to participate, but also what to give and what to accept. If you say “I love you” you need to be prepared to make a lasting commitment to remain in the child’s life. Many of the children and youth we work with have had people come and go from their lives much too easily. Their idea of what love means may be very different from our own.

I would like to give an example from my own life to provide a basis for where my point of view comes from. When I was 12 I went to a summer camp. I grew very attached my cabins counsellor. We never exchanged the words “I love you,” but I do remember feeling a great fondness for her and her teenage daughter. We wrote a few letters back and forth for a few months after camp finished, and then one day my last letter did not get a response. A number of years went by and when I was 16 I happen to encounter this family again. They were housing a friend of mine while she was in school. They had moved to a town closer to me and had been living there for 2 years and I didn’t know. On top of that, she did not remember me. It really took the specialness out of the relationship and made me realize that they were never as attached me to as I was to them. Although the relationship had ended before this encounter I was still deeply hurt to have to consider that all the good times, kind words, hugs etc may have been false or less meaningful than I had interpreted them to be. It is sad to say; however, my self esteem suffered greatly. The response of this family, although unintended, told me that I was not as lovable as I had thought and in fact was quite forgettable. To put this in perspective, I come from a wonderful, stable, loving family environment. If this situation deeply affected me, and the words love were never said, can you imagine the impact of saying “I love you” to a child who has never felt loved in their own family only to have the relationship end abruptly?
Saying “I love you” is a deeply personal decision in any context. Due to the sensitive nature of our profession and the unique individual needs of the clients we work with it should not be said without careful thought and consideration. Unless we are prepared to make a lasting commitment to not only verbally expressing love but also showing it by being a long term participant in the clients life; it is best reserved for close family and friends.