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Too hot, too cold or just right? Supervising family work with young children

Chip Chimera When the mother says, “I have to take time out of MY day” (to deal

with the school about her son’s behaviour problems), the gasp from behind the screen is audible. A few minutes later, when she describes the boys’ rough and tumble play as “destroying MY living room”, a similar reaction occurs. T e conversation in the team is building up a picture of a mother who doesn’t want her life to be too messed up by her children. Meanwhile, the children sit in perfect (well almost) at ention, listening to the mother’s negative descriptions of the ‘problem’ child, looking, if anything, like lit le angels. All the hearts behind the screen are aff ected. She’s not our favourite mother. T ere is something incongruous about this scene. Our job as

supervisors and clinicians is to fi nd the logic in the system in which the rejecting and critical remarks of a loving parent make sense. Making sense of incongruities is oſt en a major task of a supervisor in the progress towards change, especially in the early stages of problem defi nition. Helping the team or individual worker construct a coherent narrative in which all of the apparent anomalies can be understood in a non-judgemental and non-blaming way, is integral to the task of systemic supervision of work with children. A recent UKCP poll (Renwick, 2008) showed that, of all UKCP

registrants, family therapists form by far the largest percentage (49.5 %) of those who work directly with children. T is short piece is focused on live supervision of family therapy with

young children with a supervision team. T e ideas also apply to work in individual and group consultation and discussion of family work. T ere are myriad writings on systemic work with children. T e

list would be extensive and too exhaustive to quote here and we all have our favourites. Such writing is rich and diverse. It tends to cover therapists’ positioning and use-of-self in relation to work with children as well as a plethora of theories, skills and techniques. Here, I am using the term systemic to encompass those forms that are generally taught in the UK today, including narrative approaches. T e literature on supervision, while less extensive, is also

growing. Much of this literature covers work with children by implication (for instance, see Burck & Daniel, 2010). However, there is relatively lit le, at present, which directly addresses the process of supervision specifi cally oriented to work with young children. T ere are a number of areas to consider.

Professional experience

Family therapists, with few exceptions, have a relevant fi rst qualifi cation. T is prior qualifi cation is a pre-requisite for being


accepted onto a training course. T ose without ‘recognised’ prior professional qualifi cations will have a relevant background in work with families. Even where the team in question is uni-disciplinary, such as a team of psychologists or social workers, there is oſt en a diverse array of experience and interest in the members. For this reason, a family therapy team has a rich mixture of skills, experience and expertise that can be used within a systemic approach. It is important this is discussed in the team. Many team members have had to ‘unlearn’ aspects of their earlier training in order to take on systemic thinking during their training. Bringing back prior knowledge using a systemic lens can be a learning experience in itself. In addition, it can sometimes be assumed that a team has a

shared understanding of child-development issues, when this may be far from the case. Teams can be helped by reviewing the resources within the team and identifying where there are gaps.

Personal experience It hardly needs saying that all of us have been children and will

all have had diff erent and unique family experiences, both positive and negative, on which our expectations and assumptions are built. Again, the meanings associated with childhood for each of us, individually, will be many, varied and complex. Some of us also may be parents. Our own struggles and joys

in that role may be both an asset and a hindrance in work with families with young children. It is helpful if it is made explicit. In multi-cultural Britain, the social construction of childhood consists of an intricate web of inter-related meanings, from the child as an innocent recipient of external infl uences to the child as a powerful controller of family processes, with many variations in between (Mills & Mills, 2000). With luck, the team composition itself may approximate the

culture of the clients. T ankfully, this is more common now than in recent years. Although there may be strong cultural variations in what adults expect of children, it is likely there is an equally wide variety of expectations and experiences within a culture.

Team process It will be important for teams who work together to share

their expectations, and the relevant experiences on which those expectations are built. T erefore, it is important that suffi cient safety and clear boundaries are built in to the supervision structure

Context February 2012

Too hot, too cold or just right? Supervising family work with young children

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