Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Emotions–How important are they?

I have written about emotions a few years ago but because of my involvement in other areas I have failed to focus on this aspect of my practice. The passion of the injustices I experience seem to be more important than the fundamentals of therapeutic practice. So for a while I will let the issues around child protection go and give my blog a more diverse flavour.

Recently I was watching an episode of “Insight” (SBS TV) which discussed how we retain memories when we have experienced a trauma and how we process the emotions relating to the trauma. A focus on emotions is important to my practice and the role they play in informing us of events in our lives is pivotal. 

The term “emotional intelligence” is commonly used these days in order to either sell a few books or programs that tell us that if we can develop more EI we will be happier and healthier. I don’t know if that is true or the hype developed by those who are have a vested interest in this concept. What I have done over the years is develop my own model and theories around emotions which are not necessarily substantiated by any research or supported by any theory. This is the Tony Tonkin version of emotions. An idea which works with my clients and offers insights and understandings about their experiences.

Over the past 20 years I have run many programs which discussed anger. I decided a long time ago that we wouldn’t call one of these programs “Anger Management” but rather “What to do about anger’ or “Understanding Anger”. I wondered why we would want to manage anger and how do we manage an emotion anyway? For years I was also confused about the difference between “emotions” and “feelings”. In a moment of rare insight and profound understanding I discovered that “emotions” are a cluster of feelings, which cause an intense experience which we call “emotional”. For some years I would draw on the white board a very poor version of an ice berg and one day realised that the anger which was the part of the iceberg that was above the water line was a cluster of all the feelings under the water line. No one that I had worked with over the years had made the connection. The “anger” was always described as the behaviour which everyone could see. Anger was always portrayed as the emotion being expressed as behaviour. The problem with this was the notion that there was something wrong with  feeling “Angry” and that anger equalled bad behaviour.

Anger, like any other feeling or group of feelings (emotion) is the way we acknowledge our experiences.Without feelings we would be no more than a cardboard cut out or a robot. Feelings are our soul, they are the most intricate and vital part of the human experience. Yet we resist understanding our feelings, even worse we refuse to even identify them.

We know that the brain struggles to differentiate between physical and emotional pain. If it sees emotional pain as the same as physical pain then it makes sense that there would be some form of resistance. It seems rather contradictory though that we don’t store physical pain but we do emotional pain. I guess we learn not to touch a hot stove, we don’t even have to touch one to know that it will generate physical pain. People throughout our life are telling us how we are to interact with the world, who we should associate with, what we should or shouldn’t be ingesting, that there are consequence for our behaviour and so on. In my experience very few people tell us that it is okay to feel.

The very aspect of our lives which needs to be acknowledged and which we need to be encouraged to embrace we are often told to ignore. The result is that our emotions, which are as significant as oxygen, are not expressed appropriately which leads to unhelpful behaviour, poor health and terrible relationships. I know from personal experience the confusion which emanates from the failure to understand our emotions. I often wrestle with what my feelings are telling me. I also know that the decisions needed when you do understand what your emotions are telling you are often not decisions that you want to make. It is easier therefore to ignore the feelings and continue on the path you have chosen because you know that a certain path is going to create more emotional pain and uncertainty.

Even though our emotions tell us where we have been, where we are now and the direction we may need to take, following the message is not always easy. Understanding our emotions means that we are going to be better informed and even though we may wish to remain in emotional despair at least we have an emotional context to work with. It is a relief to be able to say “this relationship makes me feel devalued, hopeless and helpless, but I also know where these feelings come from and they will only play out in the present if I give them permission to do so.” We can now change the thought patterns which create these emotions by realising because my parents referred to me as hopeless doesn’t mean that I have to accept that version of myself any longer. Understanding that the messages given to you, for example,  in your relationship, would not have the influence and power if we weren’t holding onto messages of the past and the feelings those messages generated.

There is much that can be written about this topic. I would be interested in you thoughts. Feel free to comment.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Child Protection and the Role of Social Workers

It was with a great sense of sadness that during this week a worker for Families SA was arrested for taking images of children and disseminating them. It is sad at a number of levels - for the children who are in the care of the state to have them violated in this way is abhorrent. Every citizen should be horrified that these children were not protected by the very department whose role and duty it is to protect them. It is sad for their family who have had their children removed because they were deemed ill equipped to care for them  and then discover that their children were abused by the very “people”, used loosely here,  who criticised them for being “bad parents”. 

I am not angry at the department for employing this person because if you don’t have a record, are clean in every possible way then you are likely to get through the system. This is not the departments fault, unfortunately it is the way it is.

What does annoy me is Weatherall’s knee jerk reaction to the idea  that men are not able to be employed in these roles because for some reason men cannot be trusted. Personally this is insulting to those men who wish to work with children but are tainted by the behaviour of a few. We need to be careful that we don’t tarnish all men because of a few men, very few.

However, it is important at times like this to look for different ways of working that are more likely to keep children safe. Since the story broke about this worker, not a social worker by the way, it has brought into tighter focus the role of Child Protection Workers. A Royal Commission in South Australian has been called to investigate Families SA and amongst many things, the way workers practice. Even though I see this as a positive idea I am concerned that they will fail to focus on the real problem.

We need to evaluate Social Work practice in accord with the AASW’s Code of Ethics and the Practice Standards. I doubt if the Commission will  hold these two documents up for comparison with Social Work practice as it is practiced within Child Protection. I have my doubts that someone with a true understanding of these standards and the difference it would make to Child Protection if they were upheld will point out the benefits that would be offered. 

The key element of Social Work is defined in the Code of Ethics. The citation below clearly explains what every Social Worker should strive to attain.

The social work profession promotes social change, problem solving in human relationships and the empowerment and liberation of people to enhance wellbeing.
Utilising theories of human behavior and social systems, social work intervenes at the points where people interact with their environments. Principles of human rights and social justice are fundamental to social work.

Our role is to find ways which liberate and empower people so that patterns of abuse and ways of thinking can change. I love the statement that “social work intervenes at the points where people interact with their environments”. It seems to me that it is important that we understand what those “points” are and to develop interventions which meet the needs of the client. Often Social Workers don’t bother to explore the myriad intersections which sit in a persons life. It is the role of every Social Worker to be interested enough in every client to dissect the intersections and begin working with the thoughts and beliefs which are informed by the systems which have governed a persons experiences and often informed them of how they  interact with their environment.

I was astonished when I was working with a client who had her children removed and discovered that the removal of her children was the fourth generation that were removed from their parents. I wondered who was aware of this and whether they considered this a generational issue and what conversations they were having with the client? What would it mean to understand the barriers and beliefs which keep this family locked into poor parenting and abusive behaviour? I wonder what it would mean to map the history of abuse and what action could have been taken over the decades that could have changed this history? This seems like an important place intervene.

When we intervene in a persons life we need to be mindful of the person’s “rights”. In child protection every parent has the right to “change”. Every parent has the “right” to be a parent and to have access to their children. Every child has the right to have a substantial connection with parents and other kinship relationships.

We need to be reminded as to who is our client. According to the Code of Ethics and the Practice Standards our clients are:-

… individuals, families and other kinship arrangements, groups,
communities, organisations and societies, especially those who are neglected,
vulnerable, disadvantaged, alienated or have exceptional needs.

Often, too often, I will hear Social Workers say that they are acting “in the best interest of the client”. The competing idea here is that all stakeholders are our client. There is no exception. It seems to me that when a worker tells me that they are basically saying they don’t care for the parents and others because the child is more important. Certainly the child is important and if at risk clearly needs to be removed. However this idea that the child is more important exonerates the worker from working with the parent and other stakeholders. Often, particularly where the child is young the time spent working on the child’s needs are limited. The fact that the parents need additional support and services suddenly makes Child Protection a little more difficult. Most Social Workers don’t have the skills, knowledge and training to understand the intricacies that are required to work with vulnerable adults. 

I also dislike people telling me that child protection is complicated. If you are working to care for the child and the child alone then it isn’t that complicated. Sure peoples lives are complicated, almost everyone’s life is complicated at some level. I have many middle class clients and even though many don’t have the range of issues that other clients may have I can tell you that many of their lives are very complicated. What is it that makes the work of a Child Protection worker so complicated? Perhaps it is the decision making and the fear that they may get it wrong, leave a child in a home and have it abused or remove a child when it was not necessary? I understand that, but I also understand that the more skilled a worker is and the better the supervision the better the outcome for all concerned. I also know that the stress of this work and the likelihood of “burnout” will be minimal.

Why then don’t we get it “right”? People don’t understand the basic tenants of the very profession to which they identify. It is time that people stopped considering Child Protection as some unique mode of practice and begin to understand that Social Work ethics and principles is the beginning point. From here we have to develop certain skills which enable us to be better practitioners.

I hope that we will begin to take a different view of  practice as a result of the current focus on child protection.