By David Wilkins, senior research fellow, University of Bedfordshire
Some parents are openly resistant to the involvement of statutory social work services. They will say clearly that they disagree with the social work assessment and refuse to attend alcohol support groups, abstain from substances or change the way they discipline their child. This kind of resistance can be very challenging – but at least you know where you stand.
Disguised compliance is a more hidden and, as a result, more worrying form of resistance. Although the parent may say they agree with the assessment, they really don’t. And although they may attend alcohol support groups because it’s part of the plan, they don’t accept the need to change and have no intention of reducing their alcohol intake.
In the most serious cases, parents may attempt to hide the significant harm a child is being exposed to. As a result, disguised compliance has been cited as a factor in several serious case reviews and can be a very challenging problem to address.
In recent months, I’ve been involved in a large-scale research project exploring the relationship between supervision, practice and outcomes for children. This affords me the opportunity to observe and listen to social workers in supervision with their managers – and I have noticed how common the concept of ‘disguised compliance’ has become in social work parlance. But for the most part, it is not used in relation to (suspected or actual) manipulation or intent to deceive. Rather, it can be used as a catch-all term in relation to almost any signs of resistance or even just ambivalence on the part of the parent.
The following is a composite example of the kind of thing I hear:
Social worker: I saw her last week and we talked about what might happen at the next conference. I was trying to focus on strengths, on what’s going well, because I think mum is used to professionals talking at her all the time about what’s going wrong or how worried they are and that must be hard for her.
Deputy team manager: You’re trying to balance it out a bit, by making sure she knows some things are working well. What kind of thing did you talk to her about?
Social worker: I said it was good Charlie is going to school more; he’s turning up with clean uniform and all his books, his PE kit, his trainers. And that she picks him up on time now, he’s not sitting in the office wondering where mummy is. So that’s good, I think.
Deputy team manager: I hear some reservation in your voice.
Social worker: Well, being strengths-focused is obviously a good thing, but how can I know if things are really getting better or if this is just because mum is worried about the plan? Maybe he’s going to school and doing well now but if we close the case, I don’t know if she really believes in all of this.
Deputy team manager: You’re worried about disguised compliance?
Social worker Yeah, like when she knows I’m visiting, she tidies and cleans the house a bit. But she’s only doing that because I’m coming around.
Here, the social worker is thinking critically about what might explain the changes he has seen and whether the mother is motivated only by the intervention of children’s services. Following the discussion above, the manager and social worker discussed the need to focus on outcomes for the child and to talk with the mother about what might be motivating her to change. No doubt a very good plan – but what was missing was any consideration of the social worker’s role, what he or she might have done or said that made it more difficult for the mother to be open with her views and what she thought did – or did not – really need to change.
What is my role in this resistance?
The NSPCC recommends if you are worried about ‘disguised compliance’ that you should establish your facts, gather evidence, build a chronology, record the child’s perspective and focus on outcomes. This is good and sensible advice. But it overlooks how the social work system – and the approach of some individual workers – can create understandable parental resistance. It fails to address the questions – what am I doing that might be increasing the parent’s resistance and what can I do to change this?
If we only consider disguised compliance and resistance more generally as an individual characteristic, something that ‘bad parents’ do, then we avoid having to think about these questions. But one ‘solution’ to disguised compliance would be to close the case. Without the intervention of children’s services, there is no plan for the parent to comply with and hence no question of whether their compliance is genuine or ‘disguised’. Take away the plan and the issue of disguised compliance goes with it. This hypothetical argument demonstrates that disguised compliance and resistance result from the situation rather than the individual. Of course, when it is safe enough to do so, social workers will close cases. But what can be done when it is not safe enough to end the plan and you are concerned about disguised compliance (or other forms of resistance)?
Thinking about the relationship
Motivational Interviewing (MI), as many social workers will know, is a communication style underpinned by a set of key principles – including the idea that intrinsic motivation is more sustainable than extrinsic motivation and that ambivalence about change is entirely normal. When resistance occurs, MI prompts us to think about the nature of the relationship between the social worker and the parent, alongside a consideration of what other factors might be playing a part.
With this in mind, in addition to the actions recommended by the NSPCC and those in the example discussion above, here are some other things that might help:
- Avoid a direct head-on argument about the behaviour you would like to change (whether this relates to pre-existing concerns, such as alcohol misuse, or the issue of disguised compliance itself)
- Show the parent you understand what they are saying and what life is like for them and their child. Use reflective listening skills and demonstrate empathy
- Talk in a non-confrontational way about any discrepancy you notice between what the parent says about the plan and what you understand to be their wider goals or objectives (in MI, this is known as ‘change talk’)
- Encourage the parent to come up with possible solutions or alternative behaviours themselves rather than advising or directing them
None of these ideas is a magic wand to transform ‘resistant parents’ into willing partners. But they do offer the potential for lowering – or at least not increasing – any parental resistance attributable to their relationship with the worker. In combination with a focus on outcomes and listening to the child, such an approach should help us to have more reflective and reflexive discussions about parental resistance and the problem of disguised compliance.