Published in Blog by Honor Rhodes, OBE on April 11th 2023
Honor Rhodes, relationship, families and children’s welfare practitioner, is experienced in supporting couples and families. Here she outlines how the working relationship of parenting and family workers can help parents to be the best that they can be.
It is through the relationships we form with parents that change is made and sustained. So, what helps to establish this critical relationship, quickly (as we haven’t any time to waste) and effectively (we can’t waste resources on ineffective things either)?
We need to hold in mind that parents may be anxious about us as workers. They wonder if we will judge them or talk about them to other people. We can offer reassurance in our first meeting by explaining who we are, what we do and how we do it. We should invite them to reciprocate by telling us who they are, how they go about their task of parenting and being a family, and what it is they want help with. We can then co-create a plan with tasks for the parents and tasks for ourselves. What we are striving to do, in our earliest meetings with parents, is to avoid misunderstandings.
When parents are misunderstood it attacks the trust they need to have in us to be helpful.
When parents are misunderstood it attacks the trust they need to have in us to be helpful. This is why it can be really useful to double check our understanding -
“Let me check this with you so I have it straight in my mind; you’d like my help in thinking about how to work better together as parents so that the children can’t play you off against each other?”
Parents will correct us if we have got it wrong and be reassured that we now have the issue right.
We show this by meeting on time and being prepared, by giving the meeting enough time so we don’t have to rush off, and, very obviously, ensuring that we do the tasks we set ourselves for the family’s benefit. If we are late, flustered from seeing another family and have to apologise for not having the time to do the things we had agreed to, we will be experienced as disrespectful or careless. The parents can feel that they were not important enough to us to have been held in mind when we were not with them. This matters, as parents can withdraw trust, or never offer it, if they feel we may not treat them properly. For many of the parents we are working with, learning to trust us may be a crucial task. We know that for many parents their own early lives were coloured by poor parenting, inconsistency and small or large cruelties. We owe it them not to repeat these experiences, but to help them come to believe, through their experience of us, that they can be helped by us and by others who will follow us.
This is at the heart of feeling understood. It doesn’t mean we have to agree with parents’ behaviours or beliefs, but we can show that we can see why they behave in these ways or hold the views they hold.
If parents feel that we can empathise they will be more ready to trust us when we introduce new ways of behaving or believing.
If parents feel that we can empathise they will be more ready to trust us when we introduce new ways of behaving or believing -
“I know it is really hard for you at the moment, I can see that from what you have told me. I wonder though if it would be worth trying this in a different way? What about if you both agreed how you could tackle the bedtime issue together beforehand? We could try that now maybe?”
The parents who need our help will have tried lots of other ways of dealing with the problems they face, and may well feel that they have failed. Our suggestions and plans should be rooted in evidence of what works, and more importantly, what works best for families living with many disadvantages. We need to take account of their everyday experiences, of being poor, of being Black, of having a disability and so on.
A focus on building from strengths is often the first place to start. We can ask parents to tell us about a time when they felt they succeeded in a task.
A focus on building from strengths is often the first place to start. We can ask parents to tell us about a time when they felt they succeeded in a task. Our job here is to work out with them what it was that helped, and find a way to build that into our joint planning -
“Tell me more about that day when it all seemed to work so well and everything was organised. What had you both done before that? Who did what? What did it feel like? Let’s think about tomorrow when you have the appointment, what would help it to feel like the good day?”
Some parents feel we are just getting started, and a difference is being made, at the point where we are planning to stop our work. Be clear from the start about how long the relationship will last -
“If it is helpful then I can visit you at home, or you can come to the centre to see me, for three months. That is how long it takes most families to feel confident they can manage without the help of someone like me.” -
We need to remind parents all the way through that the work will end, not in a way that makes them feel anxious or sad, but to help them to focus on the work we are doing together and not to procrastinate.
We need to remind parents all the way through that the work will end, not in a way that makes them feel anxious or sad, but to help them to focus on the work we are doing together and not to procrastinate. It can be useful to do this during our visits too. -
“I’m aware that the clock is ticking and I will need to go in half an hour, so, what is the most important thing for us to think about now?”
By using a relationships lens to view our work, holding in mind how parents see and experience us, we can help them trust us more and be more ready to change - even when it is hard and painful. Our role is to walk alongside them, with a steady supporting hand, to give parents the confidence that things can be different and better.
What a remarkable and honourable job we have.
For information on the Family Hubs and Reducing Parental Conflict training Tavistock Relationships provides local authority practitioners, visit our Training for Organisations web page.