Family stories project: What does real change, really take?

Some good news – I am here to announce the launch of a the Family Stories project – a research and intervention project to help parents find solutions for their families, long term, in collaboration with Portsmouth City Council and as part of the MICE Hub. I am setting out to contribute some findings to the paradox of a revolving door. To address the question why do over half the families supported by social care return repeatedly for more help? A problem so significant, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (2018) have termed it a national crisis. Think of the human suffering in children and adults needing specialist help time after time. Think of the money and resources occupied by that revolving door. Ask a single question; what does real change, really take?

As a former social care practitioner and manager, in my days before academia, I know the strain this puts a sector groaning with outstripped demand. I can still feel how demoralising it is for the media to overshadow the successes of safer children with the shortcomings of simply not having a magic wand. But through my doctoral research, I realised the paradox rests between the perceptions of parents through lived experience and the expectations for change placed upon them by agencies. Therein lies potential for a fresh approach.

It is a question of what is normal? Our perceptions of reality are subjective (Bruner, 2002), but every reality has a context (Bhaskar, 2010; Pycroft & Bartollas, 2014). Within professional practice, such questions of normality tend to be answered by established indicators, framed by the statutory responsibility to safeguard children from harm (Working Together, 2018). When we see improvement, it is measured by lessened risk for a child; the family has engaged and worked hard, children are in school, learning better and looking better. But what just happened? I have to question, how does it feel to a family when agencies arrive and explain that something is not right, and what if the concerns do not seem troubling to the family, but normal? (Hayden & Jenkins, 2012). Do we even have the language to identify, express, or contest dysfunction when it is the way things have always been; accepted, and unchallenged?

This indicates the sheer level of complexity we expect people to engage in when we ask them to change, and how obscure, confusing, and threatening that might be. I’m thinking here about the father I interviewed who sought his own father’s permission to stop hitting his child. Of the mother still deciding if husband was abusive when he locked her out of the house and threw her son out of the family home while she was in the supermarket – ten years after the event. And of the worried grandmother whose daughter’s drug problem had led her to phone social services, but still could not explain why her grandson was the way he [was]. She could explain however, that to her family, asking for help was a far bigger crime than leaving the children neglected. These points of utter confusion reflect disruption to the homeostasis of the family (Schneiderman et al., 2005) prompted by challenge, and usurping the ability for family members to navigate their own dynamics. Even if they were problematic before, at least it was possible to function through familiar patterns of behaviours (Pycroft & Bartollas, 2014).

I argue that the work of making change happen surrounds not just the behaviour we see, but the human psychological reaction to cognitive dissonance, where expectation jars with lived experience, and leaves us feeling so threatened that our drive to overcome it is as strong as hunger and thirst (Festinger, 1957; Calsmith, 2012; Cooper & Carlsmith, 2015). It is a primal response enabling us to reduce threat so that we can function effectively, and we all do it. A normal psychological drive to help us cope in a threatened state. Festinger’s theory (1957) suggests that hearing we have got it wrong by our children would force us to prioritise reducing this dissonance over anything else, by one of three routes. Firstly, we can learn and adapt to the new messages (cognitions). Secondly, we could play down the significance of these conflicting messages, realigning ourselves with what feels familiar. Thirdly, we fake it till we make it; enacting, but not embodying, those expectations of change. A false presentation of self, enabling us to fit for the time being, and avoid threat, stigma and embarrassment (Goffman, 1956). So I propose, that our success stories have taken route 1. Practitioners have worked with families to create meaningful and lasting change through learning and adaptation, so they are able to better support their children, now thriving. They walk through the door and do not return, because the change is theirs to keep. The revolving door, however, is full of those who take the downplayed second route, refusing to engage with uninvited ideas which threaten self-assured identity, and of those who take the third route; who enact, but do not embody, change. They have risen to the challenge of meeting expectations in the here and now – extrinsically motivated. They are richly rewarded by a reassured practitioner, and a case closed.

So what does real change, really take?  My hypothesis is that we need to hold in mind the psychological stress taken by feeling threatened, in a life already threatened with violence, abuse, poverty and marginalisation. We need to give time and credit to the work within that space, and embrace the potential for meaningful change through making sense of experience in non-threatening environments in order to enable families to own their transformation; embodied and applied for their own lives.

Comments and contributions are welcome in forming this project; please contact emma.maynard@port.ac.uk, @maynard_emma.

Reference list

Association of the Directors of Children’s Services. (2018). Safeguarding Pressures phase 6; main report. Retrieved from https://adcs.org.uk/safeguarding/article/safeguarding-pressures-phase-6

Bhaskar, R. (2010). On the Ontological status of ideas. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour. 27 (2), 1-9. https://dx.doi.org/epdf/10.1111/1468-5914.00031

Bruner, J. (2002). The Narrative Construction of Reality. In M. Mateas, & P. Sengers, (Eds.) Narrative Intelligence. (pp41-62). Philadelphia, USA: John Benjamins.

Cooper, J. (2012). Cognitive dissonance theory. In T. Kruglanski., A.W. Lange., P. Van (Eds) The Handbook of theories of social psychology, Volume 1. (pp377-397). London: Sage.

Cooper, J., & Carlsmith, K. (2015) Cognitive dissonance. International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioural Sciences (2ndEd), 76-78 https://doi.org/10.1016/S0065-2601(08)60121-5

Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. California: Stanford University Press.

Goffman, E. (1959). Embarrassment and social organisation. American Journal of Sociology. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/2772920.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3Afc90e2af9e437fec521c2d4b4aad79f1

Pycroft, A. & Bartollas, C. (2014). (Eds) Applying complexity theory; whole systems approaches to criminal justice and social work. Bristol, England: Policy Press

Schneiderman, N., Ironson, G., & Siegel, S. (2005). Stress and health; psychological, behavioural and biological determinants. Annual review of clinical psychology. https://dx.doi.org/10.1146/annurev.clinpsy.1.102803.144141

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