“She prioritises her own needs above her child’s”

A reflection, by Richard Devine; Social Worker for Bath and North East Somerset (19.06.20) (Vacancy in BANES currently for deputy team manager – just click on the job title and it take you directly to the website).

I am cautious in analysing the meaning of words, statements, and phrases in children’s social work. Language is fundamental in shaping and defining our own experiences as well as the experience of others. I worry however that, at times, disproportionate attention is given to language because it is relatively easy to adjust, at least compared to the system, which generates the language. In A New Health and Care System, Alex Fox (2018: 25) writes: 

‘Changing the language used within organisations and systems can often be a substitute for changing behaviour and beliefs, with the new softer sounding language adding a coat of irony to unyielding bureaucracies’  

To give one example, there has been recent attempts to change the language used for children in care. ‘Family time’ has been advocated, and adopted in some Local Authorities, as a more preferable term than ‘Contact’. ‘Family time’ certainly does sound less detached and clinical than ‘Contact’. However, neither terms are used within common parlance. When a person who is not in care spends time with their family, you would never hear them say, ‘I am seeing my mother this afternoon for ‘family time’’. Crucially, however, the term doesn’t change the experience for children in care spending time with their family. The term ‘contact’ or ‘family time’ will mean what meaning the child attributes to the word as a result of his or her experience. I think that children in care would prefer that we improve the quality of the relationships they have with their family (as well as improve some of the settings) rather than simply change the term used to explain the time they spend with their family.

With that said, some phrases are commonly used, and often without much awareness, that have significant connotations. Consequently, they are deserving of attention. The phrase “She prioritises her own needs above her child’s needs” is one of those phrases. I have used this term countless times. I am not therefore sitting on a pedestal and condemning those that have used the term, rather sharing a recent evolution in my thinking. Such a development was aided by some of the comments and reactions to this tweet: 

Click here to see comments

It’s not that the phrase is untrue. But it is true for everyone irrespective of circumstances. Every parent prioritises their own need before their child’s – it is hard to care for children unless you are psychologically adjusted and relationally supported. For some parents however, the options available to them to tend to their own needs, in order to tend to their children’s needs, is compromised because of domestically abusive relationships, unresolved psychological distress, and/or limited resources available to them (relationally, materially and financially). To explain this further, I will explore two areas in which this term is commonly used. The first is domestic abuse and the second is substance misuse.  

Domestic abuse: There are different types of domestic abuse (Johnson, 2008), however, for this blog, I will be referring to coercive and controlling domestic abuse perpetrated by men against women. The term in question is used almost exclusively with women in which she is alleged to place her need to be in an abusive relationship above her need to safely care for their/her child. It now commonly understood that domestic abuse, that is, controlling and coercive (and in some cases, physically violent) interpersonal behaviour, has insidious, pervasive and devastating effects on women’s sense of self. This pattern of behaviour by the perpetrator often renders the women highly fearful, hyper-vigilant, and predisposed towards placatory behaviour as a way of avoiding and/or minimising psychological or physical harm. In other words, she prioritises the need of the abusive partner above her own. 

Inadvertently, because domestic abuse is harmful to children, the claim in this situation is that she is prioritising her need to be in an abusive relationship above the children’s need for safety. Aside from placing disproportionate responsibility upon the women for the child’s safety, we have also established that she is not necessarily prioritising her need. Furthermore, some research found that some women implement strategies in the context of their abusive relationship that functioned to protect their children, and compensate for the harmful effects of domestic abuse; referred to as ‘adaptive maternal compensatory behaviour’ (Holden et al, 1998: 327). That is, mothers, attempt to protect and mitigate against the effects of domestic abuse, often in extremely difficult circumstances, and sometimes with an increased risk to themselves. They prioritise the child above their self. This is often overlooked and instead, mothers can be judged as ‘prioritising their needs above their own’, ’failing to protect’, and experience child protection services as ‘blaming and punitive’ (Featherstone et al 2018: 129).

Substance misuse: It is perhaps harder to make the case that parents who misuse drugs and/or alcohol are not prioritising their needs above their children’s, in part, because of the widespread and often implicitly embedded societal view that alcohol and/or drug addiction is borne out of  self-determined decision making. A conscious, albeit morally flawed, desire for hedonistic pleasure. Remiss from this viewpoint is the obvious and inevitable outcome of chronic drug and/or alcohol use; misery, unhappiness, poor mental and physical health, poor relationships, and early death, to name just a few. You would have to be an absolute pathological sadomasochist to choose this**. 

An alternative perspective is that drug and/or alcohol use is an attempt, and an effective one in the short term, of dealing with overwhelming feelings, such as fear, anxiety, depression and loneliness especially in the context of any other accessible alternative means of resolving those feelings. As pointed out by Gabor Mate ‘the question is never “why the addiction” but “why the pain”’ (2008: 34). With this understanding, problematic drug and/or alcohol use can be (re) conceptualised as the solution to a deeper underlying psychological problem. 

If not an unmet psychological issue, then consideration can also be given to the social context (typically, it’s both). Johann Hari, in his brilliant book, Chasing the Scream (2015) described a study by Canadian Psychologist, Dr Bruce Alexander referred to as the Rat Park Experiment. To summarise, in one study rats were placed into a cage with water and heroin or cocaine. The rats compulsively devoured the heroin or cocaine, and eventually died. From this initial study, it was concluded that drugs are inherently chemically addictive and anyone who consumes them will follow a linear unidirectional pathway to addiction. In a subsequent study, rats were placed in a cage once again with water and heroin or cocaine. This time, however, the rats were provided food, a hamster wheel and toys, a comfortable bed, friends, and sexual mates. They did consume the drugs, but only intermittently and none of the rats died. To further illustrate his point, Hari (2015) referred to the Vietnam war. Up to 20% of American Troops used Heroin regularly during their duties in Vietnam. It was anticipated at the time that hundreds of thousands of troops were going to return to America with problematic and serious drug addictions. Instead, all the evidence indicated that the vast majority stopped using heroin once they returned home. When the troops were no longer in a dangerous and deprived social context they were no longer compelled to use drugs to cope; it’s the human equivalent of the Rat Park Experiment. This leads Hari (2015) to conclude that the opposite of addiction is not sobriety, rather, the opposite of addiction is human connection.

Therefore, parents are meeting their psychological and/or social needs through the only effective means at their disposal. Arguably, they were deceived into believing that drugs and/or alcohol could remedy their difficulties, drawing upon them as a self-protective coping mechanism. Subsequently, they become addicted and in some cases incapable of reducing or abstaining despite the deleterious effects and a whole host of secondary problems unconnected to the original problem they were attempting to resolve. In Memoirs of an Addicted Brain, neuroscientist and former drug addict, Marc Lewis (2011: 305) writes addiction is ‘an attempted shortcut to get more of what you need by condensing “what you need” into a single monolithic symbol. The drug (or other substances) stands for a cluster of needs…needs for warmth, safety, freedom, and self sufficiency’.

Conclusion: 

More than half a century ago, John Bowlby (1951: 84) wrote; 

‘Just as children are absolutely dependent on their parents for sustenance, so in all but the most primitive communities, are parents…dependent on a greater society…If a community values its children it must cherish their parents’

Bowlby understood that for a parent to care for their child, they need to be cared for themselves, economically, practically, and emotionally; they need to be cherished! When we claim that a ‘parent is prioritising their own need above their child’ we cast a moral condemnatory stance that implicitly assigns conscious intent and agency. When we recognise however that they are attempting, or more accurately, being compelled to deal with dangerous relationships and/or unresolved psychological distress often in the context of deprivation and/or relational impoverishment,  then we can reframe the issue and hopefully from this develop more ethical and meaningful interventions. Crittenden (2016: 4) suggests that ‘to help parents, we need to understand them as people who have children – as opposed to seeing them existing solely in terms of their ability to fulfill their children’s needs’. In other words, parents have needs other than caring for their child, and opening up dialogue about those needs, desires and wishes is perhaps the first step we could take. Such a step may just take us in a radically different direction than we would otherwise.  

**Some would still argue, that they do make a choice. The concept of choice however can not be divorced from the developmental experiences, exposure to trauma, and social context. This idea is pervasive however and is a cognitive bias, called the fundamental attribution error. Fundamental attribution error is when we judge others behaviour as defects of personality instead of their social and environmental context influencing their behaviour. Ironically, when we evaluate our behaviour, we don’t have this bias. We consider our behaviour in context.

By Richard Devine (19.06.20)

If you have found this interresting/useful, you may wish to consider scrolling down further and signing up for free blogs to be sent directly to your inbox (no advertisements/requests/selling). I intend to write every fortnight about matters related to child protection, children and families, attachment and trauma. Blogs I have coming up include one about my father’s drug and alcohol use and how this influenced my decision to become a social worker and a book review of Bronfenbrenner’s Ecology of Human Development. Or you can read previous blogs here

Published by Richard Devine's Social Work Practice Blog

My name is Richard Devine. I am a Social Worker in Bath and North East Somerset Council. After I qualified in 2010 I worked in long term Child Protection Teams. Since 2017 I have been undertaking community based parenting assessments. I obtained a Masters in Attachment Studies 2018.

10 thoughts on ““She prioritises her own needs above her child’s”

  1. Excellent and thought provoking blog.
    I can think of many times when I’ve heard that phrase or seen it written in reports. Maybe we should think less about what we consider it means to be meeting ‘own needs’ and more about what factors impact on preventing parents from being able to safeguard and protect. I will think more about this. Thank you!

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  2. Has got me thinking about what I say in reports. I have often seen and written myself mum or dad prioritises their own needs however after reading this blog I will go away and reflect on how I can change what goes into my reports- what is going on or has gone on for parents that prevents them from keeping their children safe

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  3. Excellent blog Richard.
    Language is so important.
    I wonder, in the context of child protection, how often we are clear on what a parent must / should/ could do? How clear is that to the parent?
    “You must clean the kitchen”. Do we clarify exactly what that means? What will the kitchen look/smell/feel like when the entire task is complete. Are we specific on the steps required? How far do we need to drill down (instruct) for that individual parent?

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  4. Interesting reading Richard. It will certainly encourage me to explore the use and context of language with students and NQSW .

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  5. When the mother of our children began a monologue with “In this house the children come first” I knew that what she really meant was “My opinion counts: your’s doesn’t” but she was believed by everyone (including judges) and so, eventually, her third husband became “the preferred father figure” and I was excluded from my own family. I still am – my children are 20 and 24.
    This article “struck a chord”.

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