Communicating with children is one of the most difficult parts of social work and is, in my opinion, an area sorely neglected in training. It does not surprise me it was a topic recently debated on Community Care’s Carespace forum. It seems so simple to say “we need to include the child” but if it were simple we would not have children reporting that no one talked to them or asked them what they thought or needed.
To start, we may be working with new-born babies through to young adults of 17. Most of us are not as good at communicating with two-year-olds as 17-year-olds, or the other way round.
Second, there may be language barriers or communication difficulties due to disability.
Third, in all cases we are there because things are not going well for the family or child and child abuse is a difficult subject to talk about, particularly to the child.
Here are some suggestions to overcome these obstacles.
1 Never use jargon
Use clear, straight-forward language to explain who you are and what is happening. Use expressions like “I am here to help Mummy/Daddy keep you safe” with younger children; with older children something like “sometimes parents need a bit of extra help to make sure children are safe and that is why I am here”. Explain the purpose of meetings. Don’t just talk about a “child protection conference”: explain what it is and what will be happening. Most families think it means we are going to take their children away. Don’t ever use the words “appropriate” or “inappropriate”: they mean nothing to adults and even less to children.
2 Be careful of criticising parents or carers to children
Follow a negative with a positive. “What Mummy did was wrong but Mummy understands that now.” Or: “What Mummy did was wrong so you are living with X now because we need to keep you safe.” It is rare for a child to stop loving an abusive parent. Although a child needs to understand what happened was wrong and it was not their fault, it will not help their recovery if professionals criticise the people they love. If the child is neglected because of parental substance misuse use phrases like “Daddy isn’t very well at the moment, so we have found you a home where the grown-ups can keep you safe and look after you while everyone helps Daddy to try and get better.” The language you use will depend on the age of the child.
3 If you are working with a child from a different ethnic background from yours do your homework
Find out about the culture of the child you are working with. Ask questions, don’t make assumptions. If you need a translator make sure you understand any cultural implications for the child, such as on gender.
4 There are many ways to communicate, not just through speech
If you are working with a child with a learning difficulty or disability that affects their verbal communication find out from those who know the child what is the best way to communicate. You many need to ask someone from their school to assist you.
5 Remember, language moves on
Don’t assume you know what a child means. I had a conversation with a young person whose constant refrain was “sick”. I thought he was being unhelpful, until I realised “sick” meant good.
6 Ask the child questions about how things are rather than tell them
Ask them what they want to happen and explain why it is not always possible. Keep it simple but don’t patronise children. They are young, they are not stupid.
7 Be honest
Tell them what is happening and what is likely to happen – but use your professional judgement. How much you tell a child should depend on their level of understanding and what you judge to be in their best interests. Generally we underestimate how much a child knows.
8 Acknowledge with older children how difficult it can be to have a social worker, if that is the case
Explain why their parent may have been critical of social workers. If you are seeing the child regularly at school, agree who the child can say you are to their friends – youth worker works for me.
9 Put yourself in the child’s shoes
Find out how their world looks to them. Each child is different and each situation is different so you will always have to use your professional judgement.
*To save repetition in this article, when I refer to a child I also mean a young person
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