Despite the challenges, lockdown can strengthen our relationships with families

21st May 2020

More check-ins, more phone calls, more reassurance. Although lockdown has massively reduced the amount of time we social workers spend in the same room as families, it certainly hasn’t reduced the amount of contact. Building a strong relationship with a family is now more important than ever, to ensure families stay connected with their social worker.

Recently I have been supporting a family of four: mum, dad, a one-year-old and an unborn baby. Mum left dad shortly before lockdown. Dad has a complex history and was abused as a child. The breakup, followed by the isolation of lockdown and not being able to visit his son, has brought to the surface old traumas and feelings of abandonment. These reached their peak when he started experiencing suicidal thoughts.

As child and family social workers, our role is to safeguard children, but to do this we have to support the wellbeing of those around them. Despite the fact dad’s coercive behaviour towards mum is a cause for concern, he is still an integral part of his children’s lives. This was made abundantly clear when mum was admitted to hospital with chest pains, resulting from her anxiety about dad. My primary concern was to shoulder the burden of worrying about dad, so mum doesn’t have to. By showing her she has the support of a wide professional team to “do her job” of providing emotional support to dad, I enabled her to focus on caring for the one-year-old and unborn baby.

But how do you support someone experiencing suicidal thoughts, when you can’t even visit them in person? The answer in this case has been frequent and lengthy phone calls. Without body language, it’s important to replace reassuring looks with verbal reassurance. It helps to acknowledge that it feels weird for everyone, navigating this new remote world, and it’s fine for there to be pauses and silences.

Despite the challenges it brings, the experience of supporting dad during lockdown has allowed me to build a really strong relationship with him and the rest of the family. I speak to him much more regularly and conversations have become more natural. He now messages me to let me know when he won’t be available to speak, even before we have a call booked in. It’s really brought to light just how much professional support he needs with his mental health and I’ve been able to direct him to services who can help. As a consequence, dad is now in a much more stable place emotionally and that stress which was previously there for mum and impacting the one-year-old and unborn baby has been reduced. Ultimately, this has improved the quality of life for his children.

Families are often reluctant to engage with social workers, but under the current circumstances there seems to be a shift towards families valuing their social worker more and recognising that we are here to support them. I hope that more regular contact will continue post-lockdown and that families such as this one will be so used to contacting their social worker, that it will feel more natural for them.