Questions that are met with a pause are often the most useful. A pause suggests that a person is thinking about something in a different way than before. I often ask parents “what stories do you tell about your childhood?” This encourages them to think about their childhoods. Thinking about what it was like to be a child can help them consider what life is like for their own child.
We can encourage this by asking “what stories will your child tell about how things were for them growing up?” Thinking about how their adult child will view their upbringing can alter their perspective on their child’s experiences at home in the present day. This conversation helped one mum I worked with see the importance of her children’s relationship with their grandmother. She recalled her own sadness at having missed out on this relationship herself.
Systemic practice is a way of viewing the world in terms of the relationships people have. It views people as one part of a wider context. The experiences of our entire lifetime shape the person we are today. Responding to a person with this understanding is vitally important in social work. It fosters empathy, which is especially helpful in situations that don’t appear to merit it.
One particularly sad example involves the father of a five year old girl. Due to his violent and criminal behaviour, we unfortunately had to take his daughter into care. The police told me about their experiences with the family. Understandably, they had a very negative opinion of the father. It softened, however, when I told them about his early history.
The father was just three years old when authorities missed the first opportunity to protect him. He was found eating from bins in the street. Nothing was done, which seems hard to believe now. The rest of his childhood was full of repeated missed opportunities. The chronic neglect he experienced distorted his thresholds for what is acceptable behaviour towards another human being. As an adult this developed into a paranoia of others and a tolerance of violence that was terrifying for his daughter to be around.
Although he wasn’t violent towards his daughter, my view was that she could not safely return home. The reasons why adoption or long term fostering were in her best interests started long before she was born. I wrote the assessment to include a sense of how things came to be as they are. I wanted to ensure that the judge had that three year old boy in mind when they made the decision about where his daughter should be raised. Doing the right thing for his daughter in a way that acknowledged what he had suffered seemed important.
When she grows up and looks back at her files to understand why she wasn’t raised at home, she’ll see the danger that her father put her in, from the weapons stored in her home to the kinds of people who frequented the property. She’ll read about how she wasn’t meeting her developmental milestones and that her father was aggressive with health professionals. She’ll also read about what happened before that, and what happened before that, stretching back to her father’s early life. Her adulthood can be lived with an understanding of how things came to be as they are. Developing a coherent narrative of your life is important for anyone, and especially for children and young people in care.
Humans are born early relative to other animals, our brains are still unfinished. Trauma and neglect in a person’s early years can be as life altering as preventing a child from learning to walk or read. The foundations on which a person builds their relationships are laid down early. Child and family social workers come to know this very deeply. It’s an understanding that should be known more widely.