Perceptions of parents and professionals

Hazel Whitters discusses her research on parent-professional relationships

The media usually focuses on a parent’s “failure to achieve” - a definitive outcome that hides the attempts of vulnerable families to change over weeks, months, years and, realistically, over generations.

Dawn Hodson’s post on Understanding Readiness to Change highlighted an aspect of child protection work rarely promoted to the general public. But, drawing on my work as a practitioner and researcher, I wanted to add my own perspective to the issue.

Theoretical models for practitioners

Theoretical models provide practitioners with an amazing source of knowledge and they support an increase in understanding. 

The 6 stages of change as described by Prochaska et al (2002) present a route to development that we recognise within the workplace. We apply this route to service-users and service-providers – but professional life involves complex and challenging changes for the individual worker, team and organisation. 

Management of change for professionals and parents is often led by consideration of these 6 stages, promoted by Hodson as “the norm”. 

However, each person is unique.

We're all affected by childhood circumstances, influencing our interpretations, actions and behaviour throughout life. Factors related to vulnerability may be termed socio-economic adversities. 

The capacity of an individual to overcome these negativities, or to achieve potential despite the barriers, is resilience.  

Perceptions of parents and professionals

Guidance frameworks are easy to apply in practice and they help workers to contemplate and try to comprehend the world from a child’s perspective.

Personalised responding is built on the professional realisation of a child’s interpretation of environments and circumstances - but what about perceptions of the primary carers?

Perceptions are the operating principles that affect parents’ beliefs, influencing the way they react, interact and, ultimately, create a secure attachment. Perceptions shape whether they reject or embrace the role and responsibilities of parenthood.

My doctoral dissertation in this field, Perceptions of the Influences upon the Parent-Professional Relationship in a Context of Early Intervention and Child Protection, was published in 2015.

Families returning to the child protection system

My research showed that, over time, parents feel supported by child protection processes. Timetables, social rules, expectations, information and emotional support provide predictability within disorganised, chaotic lifestyles; initial microsystems are created by parents or appointed carers. 

After 30 years in child protection, I know that carers are often grandparents. These grandparents may have previously been parents in child protection processes. And, as children, they may have experienced their formative years in the same context. 

Throughout the longevity of their careers, long-standing vocational workers will have seen the same families return again and again to the child protection system. 

Human development is intricate and reforming the “inner working model” takes time – but every second of childhood is significant and valuable.  

The parent-professional relationship

Hodson suggests that carers and professionals need to be in agreement. 

Guidance tentatively uses the term “parent-professional partnerships” and my research certainly indicates that a convergence of parent-professional perceptions creates organisational strength, contributing to a positive outcome. 

Divergence can result in a parent depending on the professional to guide, regulate and evaluate actions and behaviour - or the outcome is a developmental impasse, with the parent having an incomplete understanding of self.

I agree wholeheartedly with Hodson’s sentiment that professionals should “never assume people don’t have the ability to change.” Humans have an inherent instinct to seek out learning and to improve their world; progress in society starts with the foresight of the individual. 

But vulnerability can lead to fear, caution and reliance on a familiar lifestyle, even if it’s detrimental physically, intellectually and emotionally, as well as gravitation towards like-minded peers. 

These circumstances can create a microsystem that doesn’t recognise change as being integral to fulfilment, and actively rejects moving away from the status quo.  

Empathic relationships

Hodson highlights the significance of readiness to change, and the parent-professional relationship can actually be the catalyst to begin this complex process of rehabilitation, from a negative, destructive culture, back into mainstream society. 

Child protection in the 21st century encompasses care, education and opportunity for our youngest citizens to succeed.  A professional’s empathic relationship can support primary carers to view the world from the child’s perspective. That perception can create the initial foundation for the development of parenting skills, achieving society’s goals for every child.

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