Thursday, 13 February 2014

Lessons of the trade

A thousand apologies to anyone I'm lucky enough to have as a regular reader: I have been struggling to manage the stresses of the job and the resultant exhaustion I feel coming home after a day's work, that, and managing my personal life which includes making sure I have time for the simple pleasures in life (like wearing a onesie), is the reason this is a little later than I'd hoped.

Let me update you on what I have been learning during the past 2 months of blog silence.

Since I started I have definitely developed as a practitioner and grown a thicker skin and can say I have learnt the following lessons...

Lesson One: Don't be a hero

In the early weeks of my job I must admit I felt pretty tired. The reason was that every single case I had, and all of the challenges and struggles those families were facing, I saw as my responsibility to "fix". I'll give you an example:

A teenage girl with a history of running away and putting herself into risky situations that left her vulnerable to sexual exploitation.  Even after being raped, she still continued to do so. Her relationship with her mum had broken down and both often ended up in physical fights with each other, resulting in mum kicking her out of the house. I get a call one day stating that her daughter had become physically aggressive towards her and the police, and that I needed to come and talk to her. Deedeenatter to the rescue I thought..I got into my car and rushed over. I walked into the house with the general feeling that it was completely my responsibility to change the situation, I felt responsible for the actions of that girl as well as her mother and thought, I must make a positive change right now and leave the family with something they can hold onto and use, something that was almost tangible. I took that to the point where, when that girl ran out of the house and began to fade into the distance, my instant reaction was to run after her down the street to try to find her. 

That evening although I had found her, I couldn't help but question whether I had done the right thing.

After several discussions with my colleagues and some time to reflect on my actions in the situation, I realised my feelings were right. Taking each case as your responsibility not only puts a heavy load on your conscience, but it damages a families ability to be resilient and strong in the face of struggle, it takes away the opportunity for a mother, to run after that young girl, in order to not only protect her, but more importantly in this case, to show her daughter that she cares. It turns out that deep down this girl misses her mum, and all the verbal abuse, risky behaviour, running away, was all her way of shouting "Mum! I'm here! Look at me!" in the middle of her step brothers and step sisters she had gained as a result of her mothers new relationship. Don't misunderstand me, I'm not suggesting that we're all to just let people get on with it, otherwise the idea of a social worker would never have been born and suggests that social workers are pointless beings, which for obvious reasons, I would never believe.However, it became obvious that, that girl didn't want me running after her, she wanted mum, and mum needed to not only see and understand that, but show her that she cared by going after her, sounds simple but you'd be surprised how many of us get it wrong. 

This type of 'superhero' mentality I had however, can disempower families from changing their own situation, and reinforces the distorted perception of social workers being the miracle workers, the ones that are here to 'fix'...everything. Actually no it's not my responsibility, it's yours, I can show you the way, but I'm not doing it for you.

Once I had learnt that, I was also able to step back from cases more and view them objectively, this of course meant that I was not taking things so personally and felt a little less anxious and therefore less exhausted (ish).

Lesson Two: Be the difference

This leads me on to how I learned the value of what social workers do, and the difference this makes to children in particular. When I first started I went through a period, up until recently, feeling that I could never make a genuine difference to families, that I was making suggestions at best, but never instigating that change that some families need to turn a child's life around.

Don't under estimate the impact you have on someone's life, even if you feel you haven't done much.I learned my lesson with the little magicians case.

Little magician had been a very violent 7 year old boy, with tendencies to physically hurt his mum, punching, kicking and attempting to take his own life. I began direct sessions with him to try and unpick the reasons for his behaviour and gain an insight into his world. It turned out he actually had Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Once he had started his medication, he was a changed young boy, a happy, focused, loving boy and there was no longer any need for my involvement. During my sessions with him I never really thought I'd made a difference or that he even enjoyed seeing me, so when I abruptly ended them, thinking he would be pleased to see the back of me, his reaction was a sad and disappointed one which took me by surprise.

It made me realise that as a social worker, you're in a unique position where you can actually make a difference to a child and be the difference that will change their direction in life, do not look past that and let yourself get bogged down with the politics and everyday chores of the job, do something that matters. Some people might think it's enough to just be a social worker, but being is more than just having the title, it's actively and whole heartedly stepping into that child's shoes for a moment, be it 16 years old or 8, looking past the labels they have been given "Brat","Spoilt", "Attention Seeker", "Aggressive" and think, how did they get here and what would I want if I had been dealt the same cards and had arrived at the same place, what would make me happy? Some of that might mean changing the parents approach to bringing their child up, it might mean shattering and putting back together the distorted image the child has of themselves and make them realise they can actually be whatever they choose to be with a little help. It also might mean holding a mirror up in front of a parent and showing them the reality of their actions but as a result being the turning point in their actions.

Never underestimate the impact you have on any given situation, use it to make a difference.

So two valuable lessons in the bag, I look forward (and partially am in fear of) learning a few million more.

Next post I should probably talk about it being my assessed year of practice for you social work students, in case you wanted to know about what it actually means. Stay tuned folks.


  1. Hello Dee Dee!

    I just started my social work education and I find your blog really inspiring and informative! Like you, I will (hopefully) be doing work with children and families, hopefully as a child protection worker.

    Keep up the good work! I will continue checking in with your blog! :)

  2. I really hope that you'll be posting again soon.......!

  3. I really enjoyed reading all your posts. I'm a freshman studying social work, and I'm really excited (and scared)to actually begin working.

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