The Learning Zone
Back  Print

LZ/A/8-2

Values and Attitudes in Family Work

Lyn Dimotoff

 

The family is the single most important influence in a child's life. Recognition of this has influenced the way in which the child welfare system deals with the care and protection of children. Placement of children outside of the home is now more often viewed as a support to the family rather than as substitute care. Child and youth care workers, whether working in a residential or community setting, have a valuable role to play in working with the child's family.

The values and attitudes which child and youth care workers display will have a significant impact on their ability to affect positive change within the family and, therefore, their ability to provide for the needs of the child.

Values about families

The child and youth care worker, in working with families, must hold the basic value that families are important to the child's treatment, and that child and youth care workers have a role in working with children's families. So often child and youth care workers, in their admirable desire to protect a child, align themselves with the child in a manner which is damaging to the child/parent bond. They believe that the family has, after all, created the child's problems and so they, the child and youth care workers, become in a sense the family. Child and youth care workers often recognize that the child is a product of his family system, but they must go beyond this to seek out knowledge of the dynamics of this system.
They must believe that the parent is doing the best that they can given their skill and knowledge of children, and that in most cases the parent has a genuine desire to adequately care for the child's needs "if only they knew how, if only things were different."

Contacts with family

The child and youth care worker must have contacts with the family and use these contacts in positive ways to the benefit of the child. He must show a desire for more child- family contact and a desire to reunite children with their families as expediently as possible. This should be actively expressed behaviour based on the value that contact with the family is a child's right, and not a reward to be given for good behaviour or withheld for misbehaviour. Permanent separation of the child from his or her family will in most cases cause emotional harm. The parental loss will be forever mourned. In the child and youth care worker's efforts to provide the child with a safer, better environment than his parents have been providing, there is a tendency to discount the emotional bond to the parent as non-existent or of lesser importance than the child's other needs.

Worker's skill levels

To strengthen the family bond and make it beneficial for the child, the child and youth care worker must demonstrate attitudes which facilitate the change process in families (Satir 1975). The child and youth care worker need not possess the specialized expertise of a family therapist in order to affect change; their attitudes towards the family's system and it's individual. members is the critical tool. The child and youth care worker must show an acceptance of the reality of the family situation, and be willing to view the family from the family's own point of view. The child and youth care worker must focus on the strengths inherent in every family and avoid over emphasis on the weaknesses. Most families, even before the child and youth care worker becomes involved with their children, already know that they have problems, that something is wrong with them, and that they had better change. They do not need to be told yet again.

Using a family's own values

Each family's unique qualities and dynamics must be recognized and appreciated by the child and youth care worker. Trying to force a family into the mould of what the child and youth care worker considers acceptable only causes resistance and hostility on the parent's part. Demonstrated respect for the innate dignity and worth of each family member, is essential. Child and youth care workers working with families must display a nonjudgemental attitude, free of assigning guilt or innocence to the behaviour of family members. Rather they should use behavioural description to help the family evaluate for themselves the effectiveness of their behaviour. Empowerment is an essential ingredient in working with any client population. The child and youth care worker must demonstrate an acceptance of the family's right to self-direction based on the values which they hold. The child and youth care worker helps the family to use their own external and internal resources for self-direction and empowerment. The family must be allowed to play an active role in the child's treatment. They must be encouraged to feel as if they are part of the treatment team, and that their opinions, concerns and needs will be heard and addressed. Things are done with them, rather than to them, or for them.

Comfortable with emotion

An intense level of emotional expression is often engendered by the child and youth care worker's involvement in the family's system. The parents' feeling of worthlessness, helplessness and anger often surface. The child and youth care worker must be comfortable with the degree of emotion, and also able to accept and respond to the family's purposeful expression of feeling and need.

Virginia Satir has suggested that another important aspect in working with families is our understanding of our own family of origin. Child care workers must understand how their experiences in their family of origin has impacted on their own development as children and as adults, their behaviour in everyday situations, their reaction to stressful situations, their relationships with others, and their beliefs and attitudes.
This understanding, however, only goes so far; there must also be some learning beyond this. To be effective in working with families, the child we counsellor must also have learned a variety of family roles, rules, communication styles, problem solving techniques and affective responses. A child and youth care worker who was abused as a child can be a very effective helper to an abusing family, but only if he has examined the impact that abuse has had on him, and he has learned a variety of healthy family roles. The individual who is stuck in the victim or family scapegoat role will not be helpful to abusing parents who are trying to change their behaviour. In addition, getting emotionally enmeshed with a family will cancel out any positive effect that the child and youth care worker might have.

Resistance

Resistance is often a difficult issue for child and youth care workers to deal with in working with families. Too often this resistance is labelled as the family's problem. The child and youth care worker must demonstrate an ability to identify the signs and sources of resistance to the helping process within a family. The child care worker must also be able to identify his/her own resistance to working with a family and be open to accepting responsibility. They must demonstrate a creative ability to work with resistance, not against it, based on their attitudes and values about families. They must not be blaming in confronting the resistant family, but must recognize that resistance is a natural response to change and serves to protect the family's system from disintegration.

Child and youth care workers who are very successful in managing the problem behaviours of children in isolation from their families, may not be effective in working with their families. However, the child and youth care worker who demonstrates an effective repertoire of skills and knowledge in child care, and whose values and attitudes in relation to families are congruent with those presented here, will most likely experience success in helping families to better provide for the growth and development of their children.