It was a chaotic scene that greeted Matthieu Davoine-Tousignant. When he arrived at the family home, he found a father hollering at his daughter, while the child was striking him with a ruler clutched in her hand.
As a social worker with expertise in helping youths in distress, Mr. Davoine-Tousignant had been summoned for an urgent nighttime visit. In light of his extensive experience in intervening during moments of crisis, he knew that “the next time, the child could be holding a knife.”
How to restore calm? Mr. Davoine-Tousignant glanced around the living room, searching for clues—a major advantage of being asked by the family to come to their home.
And there it was.
“I see Star Wars stuff everywhere,” he recalls, “so I grabbed their attention with my deep voice: ‘The force is strong in this family!’ It was a magical moment. The kid dropped the ruler and tugged me into her bedroom to show me her Star Wars toys.
“Her father followed quietly and watched from the doorway. It’s no longer daddy scolding his daughter, and her attacking back. Now everyone’s laughing together, seeing the lighter side.”
The ability to pull Montreal families back from the brink is what distinguishes Mr. Davoine-Tousignant and his colleagues, who are members of a dedicated team of social workers and educators known as CAFE (Crise-Ado-Famille-Enfance).
They recently joined with community partner Urgence psychosociale-justice to step in at any time of day or night when a crisis strikes, to help parents and their children up to the age of 17. Families in distress who contact Info-Social 811 may be referred to a CAFE team member, who depending on the circumstances is prepared to visit within two hours of a call for help.
“These families are in a very fragile situation,” says Sophie Ménard, Team Lead of the CAFE program. “A youth throws explosive tantrums and maybe even throws objects. They insult their parents and have no respect for the rules of the home.
“When there are no longer any positive exchanges within a family, a feeling of helplessness takes over that can trigger a runaway or possibly even a suicide attempt,” warns Ms. Ménard. “We want to avoid parents throwing up their hands and saying ‘I’ve had enough.’” It is not uncommon, she says, for parents in such instances to reach a point where they worry that their only option is to place their child with Youth Protection.
Instead, an on-call CAFE crisis expert hastens to the scene in the youth’s natural environment—school, community hangouts and, most frequently, the home—to keep the crisis from escalating.
Often, they find a family in a highly agitated state. “They might be screaming at each other and behaving aggressively, with the child being oppositional and rebellious,” says CAFE team member Kristanne Constant, a Social Worker at CLSC Benny Farm.
“At other times, even though family members are in the throes of a crisis, everyone is super-quiet and in their own space, collapsing under the weight of years of difficulties and unsolved problems. The teen might be locked in the bedroom and refusing to talk or come out. We often have to do interventions through the door!”
Just as no crisis plays out identically in two families, no two families in crisis are exactly alike. “A youth who self-harms or who self-isolates and refuses to go to school might be found in any family,” notes Orélie Cloutier, a Special Care Counselor at CLSC Benny Farm.
One feeling is shared by nearly all of the families when a CAFE team member arrives in the heat of a crisis: relief.
“The family is filled with adrenaline and desperately needs help,” says Mr. Davoine-Tousignant, who has worked at CLSC Côte-des-Neiges and Parc-Extension in the CAFE team since 2021.
“Everyone’s guard is down and they don’t censor themselves, so in the first couple of hours, you can get a lot of useful information about what may be causing the crisis. For us as social workers, it’s a game-changer, because under normal circumstances, it can take months to build that level of trust.”
Once the calming presence of a CAFE crisis expert has dispelled the immediate threat, that person continues to meet with the entire family, offering continuous, intensive support, with visits every week for up to three months.
During that time, the CAFE team relies on a broad range of strategies to help the family create a healthier home environment. “We teach them how to ease conflicts by resolving problems, setting routines, and negotiating rules together,” says Ms. Constant.
Most importantly, CAFE specialists work on strengthening the parent-child relationship. “Each side may think we’re against them,” Ms. Constant explains. “Or the parents expect us to tell the kids, ‘You must do this or that.’ That’s why we always make our role clear from the start: we’re an ally to everyone.
“We see tensions in families where the parents may have grown up in a different country, and their teens are not sure whether to accept or reject their parents’ way of life. In some cases, the kids are not religious, but the family is. Or the child may be LGBTQ+, but has to hide that identity. We help parents understand the reality of kids in Canada, as well as helping kids respect their parents’ values.”
As an educator, Ms. Cloutier says she often brings in age-appropriate board games, particularly for children under 12. “Games can reveal a lot to us by giving us a glimpse into how the family interacts,” points out Ms. Cloutier. “Are they competitive with one another or do they cooperate? Do they encourage one another or do they belittle?”
Bullying behaviours, where the youth can be an aggressor or a target, have become more prevalent with the advent of social media in recent years. “TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat… when it comes to the management of screens, parents don’t know what to allow or how to structure that time,” says Ms. Ménard.
“Socially it’s more difficult for the younger generation,” agrees Ms. Constant. “The idea of fitting in has always been a struggle, but even more so now, because young teens are feeling insecure. There is more tension in the house with parents, so being accepted by groups is even more important to them. Those same kids are exposed to cyberbullying, to intimidation, they’re posting inappropriate photos, the kids are really feeling the pressure—it’s a huge challenge.”
Parents should also be aware that their choice of words can be unintentionally hurtful, Ms. Constant advises. “We suggest they reformulate their instructions by using ‘I’ instead of using language that blames. ‘You didn’t clean your room’ can be changed into ‘I feel you could help more.’ We encourage mom and dad to see things from their kid’s perspective and to be better listeners. After all, even the quietest youths want to be heard.
“To help beleaguered parents, we assure them we understand what they’re going through. We also guide the child in managing emotions. During the COVID-19 pandemic, some outgoing teens who were unable to hang out with friends felt as they were living in a pressure cooker 24/7. Those with behavioural problems may act out aggressively, but they don’t see the dangers they put themselves in.
After the pandemic, meanwhile, youths who were more introverted or may have had learning difficulties struggled to emerge from the protection of their home and adjust to being back in school and extracurricular activities. “We’ve been seeing more children who are overwhelmed by anxiety and who isolate themselves and suffer in silence,” says Ms. Constant.
To help those who have been displaying anxiety earlier in life, the CAFE program has been extended to help families with children from birth, and not just starting at the age of five. “Each household has its own dynamic, spending time with the family in their home allows us to develop a recipe that works best just for them,” notes Mr. Davoine-Tousignant. “For instance, if siblings sleep in same room, they can’t ‘escape’ to their room if it’s filled with other kids.”
If the child feels unsafe at home, or they’re reluctant to open up for fear of disappointing their parents or of being scolded, they might find a sympathetic ear in a specific teacher they’ve built a connection with. “I often go to the school to meet with the youth’s teacher or observe them in class,” says Ms. Cloutier, whose team may also advocate for the child to receive extra services, such as a school social worker.
“We see so many children overwhelmed by schoolwork and grades, and who are very hard on themselves. Often parents are demanding and expect their teens to succeed, because they feel they’ve made sacrifices so that their kids can have a good education.”
The CAFE experts recognize it can be intimidating for families in crisis to ask for help. However, once the door is opened to a CAFE counsellor, progress can be rapid, Mr. Davoine-Tousignant says.
“Within a few short weeks, families that had been maladjusted for a long time start to see more moments of togetherness, more happiness. They start to regain their strength collectively and individually, which is really gratifying.”