By Richard Devine by Bath and North East Somerset Council
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These are five books that have profoundly influenced my social work practice. These books have been selected for their practical usefulness in our endeavor to be better, more effective social workers. I have not listed them in rank order. I am going to share one every day this week. So far I have Working with Denied Child Abuse by Turnell and Essex, Effective Child Protection by Munro and The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog by Perry and Szalavtitz.
One line review: A remarkably rich and systemic overview of childhood development, attachment, and the ways children and adults cope with adversity.
What I learned from this book: This has been, without doubt, the most influential book in shaping my understanding of how some parents develop the challenges they do and how we can meaningfully help children and their parents. It is the book I refer to the most, and rarely, in the past several years have I not referred to it when writing an assessment. It is now hard to imagine how I would do my job effectively without the DMM and the ideas in Raising Parents.
When I started social work, I would ask parents about their difficulties, and I was consistently taken back to their childhoods. A central claim in Raising Parents is that through our attachments with our primary caregivers, we develop ways to deal with our thoughts, feelings and navigate relationships. The challenges we face and the degree to which our parents contributed to those challenges, or supported us through them, influence how we learn to cope. Ways of coping, in Raising Parents, are called ‘self-protective strategies. Self-protective strategies developed in childhood often remain unchanged in adulthood for at least two reasons. Firstly, strategies often form in childhood, a vast amount for which we cannot recall, thus tend to be stored in our implicit memory. In other words, we don’t have an awareness of them. Secondly, if we have experienced adversity, the strategy we develop protects us from the hurt and pain while helping us find ways to make the most out of a difficult situation. Therefore, we often don’t want to learn about the strategy because, by default, we would have to confront and process the pain that the strategy helps us avoid.
I found this book especially appealing because it helped me understand how my experiences shaped my functioning, helped me understand the behaviour of children I was visiting and provided a lens to interpret parents’ behaviour.
To give one example. In some families I worked with, where there would be severe domestic abuse, drug and alcohol use and/or poor parental mental health, children would react differently even in the same family.
One child would present as emotional, volatile, aggressive, and demanding their parents’ attention. The school would describe them as difficult, hyperactive, and obstructive. The sibling, however, would present unaffected, emotionally contained, albeit reserved. The school would report that they were well behaved, compliant, and eager to please (thus academically achieving) – a delight.
How could two children with the same upbringing develop such different coping methods? Maybe one of them was more resilient? Perhaps, the issue was with the first child who needed help? How could it be related to the parents when one seemed to be doing perfectly fine?
The answer to these questions I found in Raising Parents. I learned that some children find that amplifying their feelings, being provocative, or engaging in risk-taking behaviour was an effective way of getting their parents to pay attention. Other children develop a strategy of minimizing and concealing their feelings in response to their parents being unavailable. Instead of placing any demands upon their parents, they will try to be a ‘good boy’, either doing as they are told or attempt to please their parents (by meeting their needs). One strategy highlights the difficulties, albeit in a way that might lead professionals focused on trying to ‘fix’ the child. While the other strategy conceals the extent of the child’s distress, leading professionals to overlook their needs.
I could probably write 50 examples and lessons such as this one based on reading Raising Parents (that might be a future blog!). I have written about some key ideas already, such as an overview of the DMM, how we conceptualize parents’ difficulties, and how I have used the DMM for self-understanding and the relevance of DMM in the children’s social care review.
‘Supporting – cherishing – parents is central to caring for their children. Doing so makes emotional sense, functional sense, and economic sense; parents are the only resource that is never cut back. Moreover they are the architects of society; let’s value all parents and assist those who need help’ (2016, p. 3)
‘When does a victim of repeated abuse who should be protected become a perpetrator who should be punished?’, … We, the professional community, turn victims into perpetrators and we punish them accordingly. We strip a complex and painful situation of its complexity, reducing it to a simple, albeit unrealistic, dichotomy. Why? Because it makes our job easier. One thesis of this book is that understanding human development accurately and dealing realistically with the complex reality that some parents are both victims and perpetrators may be essential to helping children and their parents’ (2016, p. 8)
‘Today’s parents are yesterday’s children, each as valuable as another, with the success of each generation inextricably tied to that of those who came before and those who will follow. Understanding this and acting with humility in the face of such immense complexity is the role professionals have assigned to themselves. Can we respond with mercy – even grace – when faced with the harm that some parents create? Can we apply wisdom to the interventions we offer to correct the harm? Can we acknowledge ignorance when we don’t understand and don’t know what to do, particularly when we don’t understand the terrible tragedies humans impose on each other? Can we comfort those who have destroyed their world and that of others, even when we don’t understand and even while we protect them from themselves?’ (2016, p.12)
A question: What has been the most influential book, in terms of practical usefulness you have read? Please get in touch or leave a comment below.
An invitation: If you read any book I recommend and you are interested in sharing your learning, I would love for you write a blog post. Just get in touch.
This is a wonderful blog by summarising DMM principle by Louise Aitken. You can join the DMM community for free, see here. Lots of free resources and interviews by DMM trained practitioners. Finally, Clark Baim also provides an engaging and accessible introduction to the DMM:
By Richard Devine (20.01.22)
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