By Richard Devine, Social Worker for Bath and North East Somerset Council
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In Part 1 explored the following: Time Management, Presence, Ruthless Pragmatism and Reframing Stress. In Part 2, I explore You are only as good as those around you, Reframing how we support parents, Principles and Humility.
You cannot receive what you don’t give. Outflow determines InflowEckhart Tolle
Making the most of those around you is aided in two ways. Firstly, by bringing out the best in those that surround you. Secondly, actively elicit feedback so that you can improve.
- Bringing out the best of those around you: Our job is to position ourselves and our relationships in such a way that emphasises and brings forth pre-existing strengths and abilities. I think the underlying principles governing our interaction with children and families need to be no different with our colleagues, whether your manager, the administrative worker, or a headteacher. In other words, you want to be strengths-based with your colleagues as much as you do with children and families. One way to do this is to praise and express gratitude as much as possible whenever you observe good practice – whatever someone’s position and profession, positive feedback is rare, and often delightfully received. If your manager has some positive qualities, tell them! If your admin worker typed up your notes, thank them! If a teacher of a child offers you helpful information, express gratitude that they’ve done that in the context of their insane workload! In my experience, you are only as successful as those around you. Therefore, you have a vested interest in bringing out the best in your colleagues.
- Eliciting feedback: Regular and honest feedback is the fastest and most effective way to improve as a social worker and as a person. For the first 3 years of being a social worker, every assessment, care plan, report, and chronology I wrote was read by my manager, and I was always advised on how to improve it. At first, I found receiving feedback painful, but this feeling was eventually overridden by a positive association being made between receiving feedback and having an improved piece of work. Even now, after 11 years, my work is read by my supervisor and comes back filled with red pen. I wouldn’t want to have it any other way. Providing high quality, constructive feedback is time expensive, and you should always be grateful to anyone who is invested enough in the quality of your work to do that. When you are writing about children and families’ lives, then you want your writing to be as clear, coherent, and compassionate as you can make it. My first manager used to say, ‘no matter how good you get, you can always improve’.
In Working with Denied Child Abuse by Turnell and Essex (2006), they illustrated a vital idea that changed my approach to working with parents. I learned from this that there are two ways I can help a parent and increase safety for a child. Firstly, we can support the individual (i.e., the faulty bulb). Secondly, we can create safety that lessens the risks derived from a parent’s behaviour.
For example, if a parent is misusing drugs and/or alcohol, we encourage them to access treatment for their addiction (individual). This is where our relationship as social workers can be vitally important. Our job is to engage in conversations that maximise the chance that parents will want to change, then function as a bridge between the parent and the services that will facilitate their endeavour in making those changes.
However, we should also support the family and their social network to mitigate the risk that stems from the parent’s issues, especially if the parents are unwilling to change. This might include, for example, convening an FGC to look at the support the wider family could provide or arranging for the child to access after-school clubs or extra-curricular activities. It is surprising how many problems that children encounter can be resolved, or at least considerably ameliorated by improving the QUALITY and QUANTITY of relationships.
From this I changed my perception of what it meant to help children and families. My role was to encourage and support the parent make the changes required, but also recognise there are severe limits on my capacity to make someone else change. In instances where the parent, for whatever reason is unwilling or not ready to change, I can therefore consider what aspect of the system can be changed in a way that would ameliorate the harm for the child. I have to remind myself often that it is not our job to eradicate risk, instead our job is to reduce it or increase the protective factors, so the child is sufficiently protected and shielded from undue, significant harm. Recognising this can release you from having unrealistic expectations about what you can achieve and the self-incrimination that often proceeds. As pointed out by Munro:
‘Child protection workers have a duty to promote children’s welfare as well as protect them from maltreatment. They cannot just work to avoid risk. They never face a choice between a safe and a risky option. All the possible avenues hold some dangers and they involve making complex assessments, balancing risks and deciding on the safest path’ (2020 p. 107).
A key idea I learned when I read 7 Habit of Successful People by Covey was learning to be responsible for my reactions, irrespective of the conditions I faced. Covey breaks down the word responsibility to ‘’response-ability’’, that is, the ability to choose your response.
Covey makes a distinction between ‘pro-active’ and ‘reactive’ people. He writes ‘Highly pro-active people recognise responsibility. They do not blame circumstances, conditions, or conditioning for their behaviour. Their behaviour is a product of their own conscious choice, based on values, rather than a product on your conditions, based on feeling’ (2004: 71)
A key challenge in social work is to remain calm, measured, and compassionate even in the face of a parent who might be hostile, upset, aggressive or behaving in a way that might be causing harm to themselves or others. It’s a very sophisticated and professional mature position to adopt. It involves acknowledging the feelings derived from difficult interactions without supressing or letting them unduly influence your response to parents’ distress or anger.
In a fascinating paper by Ferguson et al (2020: 15) he noted that there was an organisational investment in not fully acknowledging negative feelings invoked in child protection practice was found: ‘feelings were suppressed and ‘suspended self-preservation’ practiced due to the need to keep going to ensure the work got done; and it was psychological, unconscious and defensive arising from the need for organisations as well as individuals to defend the self from unbearable feelings’. However, the unacknowledged and ‘suspended feelings’, ‘remain repressed…[and] can easily be unconsciously acted out against service users in retaliatory ways and that ultimately traumatise workers and burn them out (Ferguson et al 2020: 16).
This points to a key challenge in social work and perhaps an insurmountable one, which is to separate the response from parents resulting from our interpersonal approach with the response from parents directed towards us because of our role as a representative of a statutory organisation. Failure to do this means that we will interpret strong negative feelings towards us as statutory agents personally. That is, we will mistakenly believe that the parent’s anger is directed towards us personally, when in fact, it would be directed at whoever was stood in front of them as a representative of the agency at that point. With that said, we should not confuse their anger and frustration directed towards our personal flaws, poor communication, or lack of empathy, with anger towards us as a representative of a statutory organisation. In other words, it may have nothing to do with the fact we are a representative of child protection services and everything to do with our interpersonal approach, in which case we need to take responsibility and adopt a more conducive way of building a relationship.
In response to this, I have always worked from the presupposition that parent’s behaviour, including their dissatisfaction and negative feelings towards me are justified and reasonable from the context from which they are situated in. Therefore, whether a parent is frustrated/angry with me because of my role as a statutory social worker or because of my interpersonal inadequacies, then I attempt to not react defensively, rather recognise that their reaction is understandable from their perspective. Secondly, I convey empathy for their frustration, which usually abates it, and then I attempt to develop a further understanding of their dissatisfaction. Attempting to understand how they formed their view is just as important as what their view is.
There have been many times when I have felt that I couldn’t do this job. It’s too difficult; I keep messing up, too complex, too stressful, etc.
One of my all-time favourite quotes, which I have in a frame on a wall in my house is by Mary Kay Ash,
‘Aerodynamically the bumblebee shouldn’t be able to fly, but the bumble doesn’t know that so it goes on flying anyway’.
I have considered a critique of the approach I have proposed here. Perhaps I am placing too much responsibility on the self – and thus by sharing this I am tacitly encouraging others to adopt a hyper-individualist approach. This can potentially lead to self-blame when we are not being ‘resilient’ instead of recognising the intensely relational and contextual nature of what it means to be resilient.
Final note: I would like to thank Elaine Atkinson, a wonderful and kind Deputy Service Manager from Westminster Council who invited me to a team meeting with her colleagues to discuss Resilience in Social Work. The blog is a written summary of the ideas I shared in the presentation. Her team were incredibly welcoming and provided some excellent and thoughtful commentary afterwards.
By Richard Devine (24.03.2022)
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I intend to write every fortnight about matters related to child protection, children and families, attachment, and trauma. Or you can read previous blogs here.