A few weeks into social distancing, I was assigned to work with a teenager who has difficulty regulating her emotions. Arguments with her mother often ended in police callouts. Their relationship, turbulent at the best of times, had reached crisis point under the pressure of lockdown. The constant fighting was taking a toll on their mental health and there was l concern that the teenager might leave the family home to stay with friends.
We have had to change so much of our practice as social workers to ensure that families still receive the support they need during the pandemic. Wherever it is safe to do so, phone and video calls have replaced face to face meetings, to maintain social distancing. This shift to remote support presents many challenges, and high among these is building a close, trusting relationship with a family you have never met in real life.
It’s actually easier for mum. She’s used to phoning professionals for support and guidance. For a teenager more used to communicating through Whatsapp and Snapchat, however, phone calls are alien and uncomfortable territory. Mix in shyness and low self-esteem, and video calls become inconceivable.
This is where you have to get creative and not be afraid to try a different approach. I’ve been slowly building up communication with the teenager, starting with Whatsapp messages, where she is most comfortable. Whenever I ask her to do something outside her comfort zone, I always seek her permission. This gives her power and therefore helps build her confidence. Little by little we’re moving in the right direction.
Fortunately, I have the support of a family assist worker who has known teenager and mum for a year. With the time she’s invested building a great relationship between them, the teenager is much more relaxed and at ease with her. Typically, as a social worker, I’d interact with family assist workers and other professionals at formal meetings, where we’d hear each other’s opinions, with little in communication between. Now we are taking a much more collaborative approach, keeping in regular contact, sharing tasks and searching for solutions together. I’ve gained a much greater insight into and appreciation of my fellow professionals.
Normally, as her social worker, I would hold regular face-to-face meetings with the teenager. With my manager’s permission, the family assist worker has been temporarily holding these video calls. This allows us to safeguard the teenager together, while I build up her trust and confidence, through phone calls and messages, to the point where she feels comfortable speaking to me by video chat.
Mum called me recently, after she’d made an ill-advised comment which tipped an argument into a particularly vicious screaming match. Speaking to them both on speakerphone, I was able to calm things down to the point where the teenager was able to go for a walk to cool off – one of the strategies she has been taught. While I spoke to mum, I asked the family assist worker to call the teenager, so that both mum and daughter felt equally supported.
A few weeks later, their relationship is in a much better place. Mum is much more aware of the effect of her words. She thinks things through before saying them out loud. They are spending more one-to-one time together, slowly building their relationship at their own pace, much like myself and the teenager are. Of course, they have their ups and downs, as we all do.
Challenging times force us to look beyond our usual ways of working. Despite the difficulties, the pandemic is pushing us towards more collaboration, more creativity and an even greater focus on delivering the support that children and families need right now, whatever it takes.
If we can keep that momentum going, there might just be a silver lining to the current situation.