Sometimes children suffer longer than they should in environments that are stressful, abusive and unsafe because the adults around them lack the skills to open the door to effective communication. Engaging effectively with children requires skill and commitment, but it is a skill that can be learned, and these activities will help build your confidence and give you practical ideas and resources to use.
Social workers frequently have to work with children to address very difficult issues. It is often the first time they have met the child. It is important to keep in mind that the world view of children who have been abused and neglected is likely to be that the adults around them neither care about them nor have been able to protect them, and may have been the abusers themselves (Ainsworth et al. 1978). In these circumstances, it is imperative that we are able to convey to the child that we are safe, caring and interested adults.
When engaged in long-term work, there are additional challenges in building and sustaining a relationship with a child. Children who have been consistently let down by adults often build a protective barrier that means they are very cautious of, or even closed down to, investing in a relationship. It is not uncommon for a child to try very hard not to engage with a worker, to reject the possibility of a relationship almost before it has begun. For these children, experience of multiple losses has shown that it can be unsafe to trust (Fahlberg 1991). Their experience is that they have to attempt to self-regulate, to be emotionally self-sufficient, which, for an immature brain, often results in defensiveness on the one hand, or being emotionally over-demanding (Gerhardt 2004) on the other.
With every interaction we have with a child we have the power to begin to change this world view of adults, whether we are foster carers, social workers, teachers, nursery nurses or care workers. In effect, we can offer children a different working model of the world.
This healing process can begin with the child learning to engage and trust just one other person in her life. You could be that person. This is a huge privilege and also a huge responsibility, but the rewards and benefits are immeasurable, for both the child and the worker.
Children have the right to confidentiality during one-to-one sessions. However, it would be naive to think this can be absolute. Issues will arise in the course of working with a child that do need to be shared with others – either with the child’s immediate carers or, in the case of child protection, other professionals and potentially the child’s own family members.
The important thing is to be honest with the child from the start. The child’s developmental age will determine how you explain the level of confidentiality that you can offer (and this may also depend on your role). With younger children, counsellors talk about safe and fun secrets, ‘like when you have made a card for mummy and you don’t want to tell her before her birthday’. You can tell the child that we all like those kinds of secrets. But there are other secrets that are upsetting, maybe about the child or someone else getting hurt or not being safe. These kinds of things can’t be kept secret because they are too big for anybody to have to keep secret. We have to tell these secrets, so we call them ‘have to tell secrets’.
You can have this conversation using a series of picture cards and discussing which ones could be secrets. Why would they be secret? Are they ‘fun secrets’ or ‘have to tell secrets’? For children who can read well, having short scenarios written down can be more developmentally appropriate. In group work you could ask one group to act out the secret and one to discuss whether they think it is a ‘fun secret’ or a ‘have to tell secret’. Do both groups agree?
Issues will arise in sessions that you either need to tell main carers or that would be beneficial to tell. In this situation acknowledge this with the child and explain why it would be a good idea to tell. In a situation where it would be beneficial to tell, social workers may invite the child to tell the carer/parent with them and let the child do the talking while they are present, as support. If this is not comfortable for the child, speak directly to the carer/parent, preferably in the child’s presence. If the child doesn’t want to be there, or leaves half way through, that is fine. The aim should be to involve the child as far as possible.