As a social worker I have seen many changes of local authorities approaches to working with families. For those who stay in social work long enough see changes go full circle, the shiny new approach can feel like a dusted off version of previous approaches! In my experience on both sides of social work practice, as an adopter and social worker, the most important and powerful approach to working with and supporting families, that delivers the best results, is often the least celebrated or championed, and that is, the relationships we build. It has been great to see hashtags such as #RelationalActivism #ToLoveIsToAct on social media and events such as ‘Relationships Making A Difference : Love Shows Up’ happening in Camden on 14th February 2020, raising the profile of the importance of relationships in social work and supporting families and individuals.
“Being loved, respected, understood and connected to others can have a positive effect”
Positive relationships are healing and where growth and change can happen. Being loved, respected, understood and connected to others can have a positive effect on your health, just as feeling alone, judged and overwhelmed shuts down our brains and bodies to function effectively. It’s sad but true that often social work intervention leaves too many families alone judged and overwhelmed; is it any wonder they struggle to make the changes local authorities expect to see?
Social work, just like many relationships, can be complex and difficult but the benefits of working through the tough bits helps us to learn a little more about ourselves and each other. Trust, honesty, and compassion are key elements of a healing relationship, these are also key skills for us as social workers. Social work is best undertaken when we acknowledge that we are not perfect, we too have made mistakes and are willing to learn from others. None of us know how we would cope if we were in another person’s shoes until we too have walked their path, therefore it is critical we work to understand, their journey, its impact on them, and how it shapes their view of the world.
“Social workers need to see behind what is on the surface, to do this takes trust, openness, and understanding”
It’s the relationships we build, not the boxes we fill in, that sees past the yell from the vulnerable young mum who says “Just take my kids I’ve had enough” to recognise that what she is actually trying to say is; “I’m scared, lonely and overwhelmed, I need a hug and some time to heal my own wounds”. The parent who can’t acknowledge their actions may have had a negative impact on their children as they are too frightened to admit they may have made a mistake, as the physical consequences they experienced when they were younger continues to paralyse their adult bodies with fear. To really make a difference, social workers need to see behind what is on the surface, to do this takes trust, openness, and understanding, all of which comes through the relationships we create.
Supportive relationships can come in many ways we might not expect. When I adopted my youngest children I could never have envisaged that their natural mum, whom I had been told was too volatile for me to meet, would become my biggest parenting support! It is extremely powerful to be able to come together from the opposite side of what brings us together and build a relationship, a relationship that supports not only our children but each other. We’ve forged a relationship that allows us to be honest, open and vulnerable. It is speaking to my girl’s natural mum after one of my less than finest moments of parenting, wracked with guilt, she makes me feel heard, acknowledged and human, whose difficult moments aren’t the whole of who I am and don’t define me – I wish I could bottle the generosity, compassion and love she has for others, despite all the pain she’s been through. The woman who embraces and supports me as part of her family is not the woman in the adoption paperwork I was given!
“Exploring possibilities together with the families we work with that the best (and often unexpected) solutions can be found.”
Often the support the families might need doesn’t come from the social worker but might be the TA in school who offers a listening ear or simply just a simple hello or positive feedback without the judgement the parent feels from other professionals. Support can come from a previous foster carer, a friend from high school, with one family I worked with the parent and I explored a violent ex partner’s family member as a possible supportive relationship! Each of us are the experts of our own lives, it is understanding and exploring possibilities together with the families we work with that the best (and often unexpected) solutions can be found.
As an adopter I have had social workers visit me at home with a form that needs filling out, boxes that need ticking, the form has sat between us like a wall, her concentration on finding the relevant question was a distraction from hearing what was really happening to us as a family. I understand that forms are part of the process that needs completing to access services, in my case at the time the Adoption Support Fund for support we desperately needed, however the focus on the form and filling in isn’t building a relationship or understanding. How will the form get us the help we need if you don’t take time to connect and understand what we actually need over what your form thinks we need. The social worker who told me they had been involved in setting up a local adopter support group but had better things to do than attend the group, obviously had a very different view to me about the power of connection and relationships in managing stress and healing from trauma, neither of which can be achieved in a ticked box. For me the support I received from the small monthly support group, one where I could share difficult feelings and emotions, just ‘dump’ them on the caring workers who showed up every month and held the pain I was carrying has had a lasting impact on me and in turn my family. Attending a group and feeling heard and connected, where I could say the things I was thinking, some of which I felt bad for thinking let alone saying about my parenting difficulties, but they could see I was struggling, they supported me to work through the emotions that were overwhelming me and helped me find my own answers. The support wasn’t judged, measured or quantified in a form but was, and is, some of the most powerful support I have received.
“Before we label families or individuals as ‘complex cases’ with ‘challenging issues’ lets remember that life is complex and challenging for many of us at different times.”
Relationships aren’t always easy, as a social worker I have worked with individuals I haven’t necessarily liked, many families have probably not particularly liked me either but we have had to overcome this to build a working relationship, if I hadn’t been able to do this I would have been letting them down. Building relationships is often harder given the reasons we may be involved with the families and the very difficult conversations we need to have. Hearing things about ourselves that need to change or aren’t positive is never easy but these are always much easier to hear if the person sharing the information can do it with compassion and humility. A previous manager commented about my connection and reassurance to parents who we were in court with as part of care proceedings, it was her comments that she wouldn’t be able to do that which surprised me and made me wonder why she found offering compassion so difficult, especially given she had previously worked with the family and knew them well. We are all human whatever our difficulties, and when we remember that the interactions we have with others we are more likely to forge relationships that heal rather than relationships which damage further.
Returning to social work after adopting my children was a challenge for me, I found myself frustrated by systems that don’t seem to focus on investing in healing relationships and at times actually preventing them, and, to be part of a system which let my children down (they did not have the relationship they needed with their social worker to be able to talk about the difficulties they experienced in foster care). My adopted children have stated that they want me to change the world for children like them, who have experienced relationship trauma, it’s a tall order but I do hope in some small ways I have made a positive impact on the families I have worked with. I have built relationships with families labelled ‘difficult’ by colleagues, been thanked for listening by individuals who felt they hadn’t previously been heard. The hug from the parent who initially didn’t want to hear my thoughts about the impact of his own past on his current parenting, but with time and patience not only did we get to the point where we could talk about it but we found ways to help him move forward and build a better relationship with his child, was a huge moment. I am only human and both in parenting and social work I have made mistakes, I hope I have learned from these and shown that I am only human and getting things wrong and moving forward is part of our life journeys.
Before we label families or individuals as ‘complex cases’ with ‘challenging issues’ lets remember that life is complex and challenging for many of us at different times, what helps isn’t the forms we need to fill in but the relationships we forge.