Working with Families
There can be no doubt that child and youth care practice with families is complex and demanding. In this chapter we provide you with some ‘food for thought’ as you begin your work with families. We want to offer some stimulus to encourage you to begin to reflect upon various aspects of working with families.
Child and youth care practitioners who engage with
families are not family therapists in the normal or traditional sense
of that term. Nor are they social workers, psychologists or some other human
services professional, although many of
the tasks, philosophies, and skills across the various professions are quite similar. Child and youth practitioners
are professionals in their own right and, as such, we believe, should practice within a child and youth care framework. We
are not therapists although our work is genuinely therapeutic. We do not follow the models of other professions, although we
learn from, and in many cases contribute to, them. We believe that in order to be an effective practitioner with families, the
child and youth care worker must know, and be fully grounded in, our own profession and the way in which we consider family in our field.
It seems simplistic to say so but all of us have
previous experiences that are relevant to our current interactions as
practitioners. These experiences greatly influence how we work with people. Our previous experiences of trying to be
helpful, of working with families, of receiving help themselves, or of working independently may be of importance to the practitioners. The same holds true for families. Previous experiences with social workers or with police or other helpers of trying to obtain help and of having strangers in the house may all be relevant for the family. And, of course, the previous history of practitioners and families are relevant to the others as are our own experiences as members of families. Family, in whatever form we understand it, significantly influences all of us (Fewster, 2004). The importance of history cannot be denied. When we enter in to a situation, or have an experience, we search for ways to make sense of that experience (this will be discussed more in the chapter on meaning-making). One of the most powerful influences on how we experience and interpret that experience is our previous experiences of similar situations. As an example of this imagine for a moment that a practitioner is going to visit a family who lives in a particular neighbourhood. The last time that this worker visited a family in this area she was thrown out of the family home by a mother, angry and possibly threatened with something she thought the worker had said. It is impossible for the worker not to be influenced by the previous experience she had when going now to visit this new family. She may be scared,
hesitant, determined, cautious and maybe even excited as she uses her framework of previous similar experiences to prepare
herself for this new encounter.
Imagine, too, that the family who is waiting for the worker to arrive has made numerous attempts to obtain help, although in a more traditional, office based, form. They did not believe that any of the previous attempts had been helpful.
The help has not seemed to resolve the problems they were experiencing. As they wait for the worker to arrive, they are likely thinking about these previous experiences. The question to ask then is how will their current expectations be influenced by these previous experiences? How might their expectations be different if all of their previous experiences had resulted in positive outcomes? How might this impact on their current expectations?
It may be helpful if we explained this a bit further. For example, how families initially see us is influenced by all of the other experiences they have had with ‘helpers’ before us. It is important to be aware that we are often not seen an individual when members of families first meet us. Rather we are seen as a combination of every other ‘helper’ they have every interacted with throughout their lives. If their experiences have been helpful then they are likely to assume that we will be helpful. If their experiences have been negative then they are likely to assume that their experiences with us will be negative. This may not be fair to us but it is just the way it is, not just for families but for all of us. We all often tend to initially judge what is about to happen by what has happened in similar situations in the past.
Can you think of a time when your first impression of someone was negatively influenced by your previous experience with someone else?
How did this influence your current interactions?
How do you think you can guard against this from happening again?
When we work with families we need to be aware of how we are influenced by our perceptions of previous experiences. As we prepare ourselves for our encounters with families, we need to ask: What am I bringing to this encounter from my own previous history? How might my experiences in my own family influence what I will be doing and ‘seeing’? What experiences have I had as a worker that might influence me? What similar situations have I encountered? And how do these help or hinder me now? As we work with families, we need to try to understand how our and their previous experiences may influence on our encounter.
THOM GARFAT and GRANT CHARLES
Garfat, T. and Charles, G.. (2010) A Guide to Developing Effective Child and Youth Care
Practice with Families. Cape Town: Pretext. pp. 6 to 9.