Twenty-seven years ago I was in my final year of my social work training. It was to be a momentous year, ending in 1983 successfully both professionally and on a personal level with the birth of my daughter. In September 1982, however, I had my final placement to do and a 15,000 word dissertation to write. For all students the dissertation becomes a noose round their neck, a real trial of strength; it is the time as a student you are given freedom to write about a subject of your choosing. This freedom causes students immense anxiety; what topic should they choose and how do you write such a long essay?
Although I had completed placements in Probation and at an Age Concern centre, my final and most important placement, was to be in a Social Services child care team in Canterbury. This turned out to be a very interesting placement and was also helpful in developing my ideas for my two final academic pieces of work. Like any good student I looked for ways to reduce my workload, identifying cases that would help with my studies and which would ensure there was an overlapping theme between both pieces of work, thus hopefully reducing the amount of reading that needed to be done. Both were to focus on young people, albeit my case study concentrated on family therapy as a technique of intervention.
I cannot remember what my dissertation was called, although looking back I don’t think it was a very good piece of work. What I can remember was that it had a subtitle based on the old maxim that ‘actions speak louder than words’.
My basic idea was that when working with young people social workers needed to be creative and recognise that most young people do not like sitting down and talking to an adult about their inner most thoughts; at a time of transition from being a child to becoming an adult adolescents are very self conscious. As adults we know young people are self conscious, because we remember the sometimes torturous aspects of growing up - levels of embarrassment that could be unbearable.
Not Enough Therapy
The NSPCC recently published a report focusing on sexual abuse and therapeutic services for children and young people[i]. The authors argue that the Government should invest more heavily in therapeutic services for victims of sexual abuse. The authors rightly point out the huge unmet need; given the levels of child sexual abuse that exist, the destructive effect that abuse has on victims and the lengthy waiting lists for services.
I do not disagree with the NSPCC’s basic thesis, albeit I would not have restricted my analysis only to child sexual abuse, because all victims of abuse potentially need help, since each form of abuse has an emotional factor. From my time working at the NSPCC I learnt two fundamental lessons when working with young people. The first lesson is that timing is a key factor and second that counselling is only one model of therapeutic intervention.
People Speak When They’re Ready.
In working with young people I learnt that people will be ready to speak about their trauma when they are ready, not when it fits into our schedule. People cope with difficulties in different ways and it is important, as social workers, to reassure parents and carers who want to help their child that it is natural for children not to want to talk about something painful. Our role is often to educate parents and carers to help them talk to children and be open to listening to them when they are ready.
Speaking about difficult and painful subjects is both hard and complex, because everybody is affected in different ways. There is therefore no blueprint for interventions. Over the years I have realised how art and culture are good media to communicate; these forms of intervention can, in my view, be less threatening for people than traditional ‘talking therapies’. Particularly, for young people, it is a more active form of intervention and I feel adopts the philosophy of ‘actions speak louder than words’. Although it addresses personal issues, it can be less threatening and allow a person to see events through a different medium. They can begin to look at their issues in a semi-objective way that aims to help put events in perspective and allows a person to take control.
A New Approach
In thinking about this whole area I believe we need to think in a wider perspective and recognise that we need to build up young people’s resilience by helping them develop their own emotional intelligence. This, I believe, is crucial to help young people have the personal knowledge to cope with difficulties. This approach may give them the strength to seek help early when problems occur.
Therapy is only one aspect of an overall strategy that sees problems not just as individual pathology but an all-round societal approach which endeavours to increase the level of trust, openness and support in our communities. When the NSPCC started the Full Stop campaign it was the start of a process that was aimed at changing society’s attitude to child abuse. Changing attitudes takes time and cannot merely be a focus on the individual.
[i] Allnock, D., Bunting, L., Price, A., Morgan-Klein, N., Ellis, J., Radford, L and Stafford, A. (2009) Sexual abuse and therapeutic services for children and young people : The gap between provision and need (executive summary)http://www.nspcc.org.uk/Inform/research/Findings/sexual_abuse_therapeutic_services_wda67007.html (accessed 27/7/2009)