By Richard Devine (01.09.2020), Social Worker for Bath and North East Somerset Council
Originally I had intended to write a blog with 10 pithy lessons from my experience of being a social worker since I qualified in 2010. What I have done instead is write 10 lengthy (ish) lessons, each amounting to the equivalent of a blog. Therefore, given the length of each one, I am going to share one every working day for the next two weeks (hoping that I can finish the final two before next week!). I cover a range of topics from relationship-based practice to decision making and removing children and time management. Each of these topics reflects my current understanding after a decade of working as a children and families social worker. If I were to imagine myself writing this 10 years ago, or even 5 years ago, I suspect I would be embarrassed at how little I understood. Therefore, I can only assume I will think the same about what I have written in these 10 lessons in a few years’ time. Some of you will be further along with your understanding than I am, and if this is the case I would appreciate feedback and critique. None of what I write about is static – they represent my best understanding of issues in a moment in time.
Lesson 2. ’Yesterday’s children’ are ‘today’s mothers and fathers’ (Crittenden, 2008: 3)
When I began social work in 2010, I was curious about how individuals had come to develop the problems that had led to social care involvement. Perhaps as a consequence of growing up with my dad who misused drugs and alcohol, I never conflated an individuals morality or intrinsic worth with their behaviour, even when that behaviour was objectively destructive for themselves and/or others. Whether a parent was suffering from depression or severe anxiety, misused drugs, and/or was controlling and coercive with their partner, I was intrigued into what they considered the benefits of such behaviour, and importantly, when it first emerged. For the latter question, I was always directed back to their childhood. Once I had a better understanding of the developmental and social context the behaviour emerged, then the behaviour that seemed irrational, destructive, and incomprehensible made sense, and subsequently seemed rational, self-protective, and comprehensible.
Development and false distinctions:
Once, I went on a long drive with a young person. This young person had experienced considerable adversity and had engaged in behaviour that caused considerable harm to another. As a consequence of this young person’s behaviour and emotional and behavioural presentation, terms such as ‘dangerous’, ‘intimidating’, ‘violent and unpredictable’, ‘high risk’ and many other alarming terms that would reflect concern about his/her functioning were used to describe him/her. Whilst driving, this young person was rummaging through my glove box, which is not an uncommon place for investigation if their curiosity or desire for distraction is still unsatisfied after pressing every other button in the car! Inside the glove box, this young person found a children’s book of a with an accompanying C.D. in which the story could be readout. It was aimed at children aged 3,4-year-olds and lasted 15 mins. This young person listened attentively to the C.D. whilst following the pictures in the book. This was repeated again and again.
At that point, I saw a small child, who needed desperately to be looked after, nurtured, and offered care that would compensate for his/her earlier harmful experiences. This young person would soon become an adult and probably a parent. If he/she didn’t self protectively conceal all signs of vulnerability with anger and bravado, then we almost certainly would, as the terminology we used to define him/her would function to distort the lens from which we would view this person; a great deal of perception is projection. We would lose sight that the same behaviour that we consider to be ‘dangerous’ was once a necessary and unavoidable attempt at protecting the self. This young person, now an adult and perhaps a parent, still has a need to be looked after and nurtured. We easily forget in our attempts to be “child-centered” that parents have needs too. Can we expect a parent to look after their child if no one is looking after them? Can we expect a parent to empathise with their child when no one has empathised with them?
Understanding human behaviour, in particular behaviour that is self destructive, unusual or harmful to others is complex, and so we have heuristics and mental short cuts. For example, we have ‘a penchant for binaries’ (Melnikoff and Bargh, 2018: 1). We think of perpetrators and victims, self and other, good and bad, psychology and sociology. The reality however is these dichotomy’s fail to deal with complexity. Perpetrators were almost always victims in the not so distant past, and often still are in some sense (Crittenden, 2008); we are individuals (self) but we do not know who we are without others (others) (Fonagy, 2004); we are all a mix of good and bad, and; our psychological functioning is inseparable from our social context and our social context is shaped by our psychological functioning (Bronfenbrenner, 1979).
I have learnt that to help parents, we need to situate their psychological functioning and behaviour in their developmental and social context. In my experience, compassion is a manifestation of understanding. We need to embrace complexity and avoid linear, simplistic or reductive explanations. We need to see parents holistically by taking an interest in their wishes, desires and needs, as ‘opposed to seeing them existing solely in terms of their ability to fulfil their children’s needs’ (Crittenden, 2016: 4).
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Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Crittenden, P.M. (2008) Raising Parents: Attachment, parenting and child safety. Cullompton, Devon UK: Willan.
Crittenden, P.M. (2016) Raising Parents: Attachment, Representation and Treatment,(2nd ed.) Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge
Crittenden, P,M & Baim, C (2017). Using Assessment of Attachment in Child Care Proceedings to Guide Intervention. In Dixon, L et al. What works in child protection: an evidence based approach to assessment and intervention in care proceedings. John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
Fonagy, P., Gergely, G., Jurist, L.E. & Target, M (2004). Affect Regulation, Mentalization and the Development of the Self. London. Karnac.
Melnikoff, D.E. and Bargh, J.A. (2018) The mythical number two. Trends in Cognitive Sciences. 22, 280–293
By Richard Devine (01.09.2020)