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.
As humans we can be quick to answer without always taking the time to consider the bigger picture. As a social worker, the questions we ask can encourage others to pause to think and look at life through the eyes of others. In the world of social work, viewing the world in terms of the relationships people have is called systemic practice. It sees people as one part of a wider context, shaped by experiences over an entire lifetime. Responding to a person with this understanding is vitally important; it fosters empathy which is especially helpful in situations that don’t appear to merit it.
One particularly poignant example of the importance of this approach was a case involving 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 he was found eating from bins in the street. Nothing was done. The rest of his childhood shows a trail of missed opportunities by the authorities to protect him. The chronic neglect he experienced distorted his understanding of what constitutes acceptable behaviour towards another human being. As an adult, this developed into feelings of paranoia towards others and a tolerance of violence that was terrifying for his daughter to be around.
Although he was never violent towards his daughter, the weapons stored in her home to the kinds of people who frequented the property cemented 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. The assessment I submitted told the father’s story as well as that of his daughter; I wanted to ensure that the judge had that three year old boy in mind when they made the final decision.
When this little girl grows up, she will be able to look back at her files and understand why she wasn’t raised at home. She’ll see the danger that her father put her in, his tendency for aggression and why he wasn’t able to ensure she was meeting expected developmental milestones. However she will also read about the series of events before that, before she was born, 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 so important, especially for children and young people in care. When humans are born, our brains are still developing and growing. The foundations upon which a person learns how to engage with and relate to others are laid down far earlier than is widely understood. Trauma and during the early years of life can have acute impact, including preventing a child from learning to walk or read, and is something children’s social workers see on a regular basis.
When working with parents, I often ask questions designed to encourage them to think about their childhood, and how they talk to people about it. Thinking about their experiences inadvertently leads them to consider what life is like for their own child, and the stories they will tell about their upbringing later in life. Looking at things from another perspective has the power to make a real impact.