Objective: To enable children and parents to process family experiences together, within a structured and safe place, so that the different family members understand each other’s experiences and how they affect one another. Gaining insight about each other is critical to the process.
What are the key elements of practice?
What we do and why:
- Ensure that the previous stages of the process have been managed well before beginning this element of the work.
- Ensure the safety plan is updated and check on this regularly. This is a potentially dangerous time as it can feel threatening to family members who may feel blamed for the past and react as they did in the past, with violence, denial and/or other forms of retreat.
- Provide a safe space. Building on the previous stage above, ensure that the family feel comfortable with each other, and that limits and rules are in place around communication (e.g. not interrupting, using respectful language, ability to express and manage emotions).
- Identify, together with different individuals in the family, which issues and defences need to be worked through at group level, and which should be dealt with alone or between sub-groups of the family unit.
- Facilitate the processing of those experiences that are causing difficulties in the family as a group – guiding conversations which enable families to talk through issues. These talks are about acknowledging, revealing, apologising and expressing the feelings that others’ actions have engendered.
- Ensure that this stage is completed. In families where the members have damaged each other, this stage is essential to recovery. Yet, because it can be so difficult and painful, it is easily overlooked.
- Provide appropriate staff support and supervision. Key workers need to plan and practice before managing these family-level conversations, and think through possible consequences and contingencies.
- Continue to develop understanding of the different roles individuals play within the family. Current defence mechanisms should not be challenged until something more useful has been learned to replaced them. Children who have developed a tough stance to protect themselves from being hurt, for instance, should not be asked to drop this until they have learned other, more constructive, protective mechanisms, such as having a safe and rewarding relationship with a reliable friend or mentor. It is also vital that we take stock of our understanding of the family and its functioning dynamics at regular intervals.
- Strategies to stimulate family interaction – e.g., family games, art, drama, sculpture
- Tools which allow individuals to express their emotions in a way which is understood by all members of the family. For example we use a thermometer when someone in the family says they are “at 7” or “red,” the rest of the family understands the person is angry and needs space to manage their emotions.
- Genograms, life lines, floor plans
Case Study – Adeela
Adeela’s family were getting on well. The children were no longer on the streets. Interactions were positive and the violence between parents had stopped. The children were doing well in school as their concentration had greatly improved. Adeela’s youngest sister Aleema was thriving and her parents looked after her in a way that Adeela had almost certainly not experienced when a baby. It was very tempting to “leave well enough alone” as everything pointed to a “fixed family”. But both the key workers and the family knew there were issues that had not been dealt with. In the past, a neighbour had offered the family presents in return for Adeela being sent over to his house to “help him”. The child abuse case had collapsed when the man in question disappeared but Adeela still felt betrayed at the thought that her mother had preferred a fridge to keeping her safe. Her younger brother still had nightmares related to the violence between his parents. The key workers knew it was important for the children to say what they had felt then and now about these things, even if it was difficult for the parents to hear. With much sadness and anger, the family worked on listening to each other’s difficult experiences. Later, the family would refer to their earlier traumas, saying “if we could make things better after those experiences, we knew that we could always make things better no matter how difficult things were”.