Creative release

When parents are in
difficulties, children suffer. Joan Moore and Linda Hoggan describe how a
specialist scheme helps such parents gain confidence through exploring their

Simpson Children’s Resource Centre is run by Milton Keynes Council education
and children’s services, for children who are delayed in their development due
to deprivation. The centre’s creative group work project with parents serves
the whole of Milton Keynes.

The idea for the
project began with recognition that while it was providing education for the
children who attended, the centre’s nursery had not been able to adequately
support their parents in a way that facilitated change. Many of the parents are
socially isolated, live in poverty, have abusive histories and in some cases
abusive relationships, with associated mental health difficulties. Past
attempts to engage them had been largely unsuccessful.

We decided to offer a
therapeutic experience which, by extending parents’ creativity and imagination
would provide opportunities to identify and share feelings, and thereby
increase parents’ capacity to meet the demands of day-to-day living. We felt
this approach would be more helpful than concentrating on teaching parenting
strategies, which they would have heard of before but been unable to apply
themselves. We set up a pilot group which ran for 10 weeks, consecutively, for
one-and-a-half hours per week, from October to December 2001.

Our objectives were:

• To enhance
self-esteem and spontaneity.

• To name and share
feelings so participants felt heard and understood.

• To provide a range
of creative play experiences – to experiment with different textures,
sensations – paint, fabric, clay, collage, junk modelling, music and so on.

• To increase
capacity for problem-solving through use of storytelling.

• To help
participants recognise feelings which tell them when something is not right,
and help them to realise choices are available to them.

• To discuss
self-protection as part of valuing self and others.

• To help participants
to make sense of the impact of life events on how they manage their lives now,
and to make more choices.

• To enable
participants to see that feeling happier in themselves helps their children
feel happier and more able to engage in play.

The group consisted
of two workers and five parents, with a fluctuating attendance of one, two or
three parents each session, although one came for nine of the 10 sessions.
Despite the availability of transport (both ways) and child care for younger
siblings (provided voluntarily by a foster carer), we experienced the weekly
frustrations of trying to motivate the parents to give the group a chance.
Themes which emerged from the discussions included:

• Bereavement.

• Bullying within
family and by neighbours.

• Low self-esteem and

• Being subjected to
humiliation by professionals (as well as partners, neighbours and family).

• An absence of
helpful support.

• Relentless pressure
to prove themselves.

• Feeling unable to
trust their own judgement.

• Envy towards those
who appear to “have it all”.

• The chaos of
day-to-day living.

• Coping with
children with special needs.

• Destruction of
property (by children) and resultant condemnation from others.

• A craving for
wisdom and a fear of impending disaster.

• Exhaustion.

We invited parents to
make up a six-part story (see panel, below). Using picture cards they were
asked to identify a hero and hero’s friend, select a  task, choose a problem that threatened completion of the task,
decide how the problem should be resolved and come to a conclusion.

In order to measure
the effectiveness of the group we had weekly informal evaluations through
discussions with parents, encouraging them to identify what they found helpful
– and could take from the experience that would make a difference to day-to-day
living and relationships. In addition we studied the stories, pictures and
other material produced in the group.

The most obvious
impact was on Alice, who had recently been at the point of having her son
removed from her care. The chaos of her life militated against her ability to
attend to her own needs (much less his needs) and keep her child safe. After a
few sessions, Alice had gained enough confidence to give welfare rights advice
to another parent, and bring her a pack of information at the following
session. She empathised with another parent, whose family had rejected her,
enabling the parent (who had previously idealised her family) to admit that her
family no longer visited her and so helped her to address some of the key
issues she faces.   

After five weeks, the
professionals involved said they had gained respect for Alice, and for the
changes she had made, which were benefiting her son. Her self-confidence had
increased, she was now spending time playing with her child, attending her
appointments and was increasingly acting on advice given.

Generally, parents
enjoyed sharing their talents, and were happy to discover different talents.
For example, Alice became more confident about being humorous and nurturing. At
least three of the parents recognised by the end of the sessions that they
preferred to be viewed as “soft” (even if that meant being “put upon”) rather
than “hard” and unforgiving. They gained ideas for simple problem-solving, and
gave each other ideas, for instance about how to amuse the children, giving
them extra attention to help them feel more special, and invest in unbreakable
second hand toys.

Parents also shared
strategies for managing conflict, for example with interfering neighbours,
while maintaining their own dignity. Each realised they were living under
different sorts of pressures and this gave them a new perspective on their own
situation. One parent revealed this was the first time she had recognised that
there were others more disadvantaged than herself, so she was not at “rock
bottom” as she had always assumed.

They all enjoyed the
(mainly) uninterrupted time and opportunity to complete tasks, talk (and finish
sentences). Importantly, while parents needed some persuasion to overcome their
initial anxiety about not being “good enough”, they increasingly amazed
themselves by their own capacity for creative expression and problem-solving.

It seems to us that
this brief intervention has already had a significant impact. Although the
centre’s resources are limited, there is now a budget that enabled us to
restart the parent groups in June. From here on the groups will become an
integral part of the child’s placement, so expectations of parents’ attendance
will be built into agreements in advance of placement.

Moore does freelance direct work with children, attachment and play therapy,
and Linda Hoggan is manager of the Simpson
Resource Centre.


upon a time there was a magic lantern with quiet eyes, guiding you safely through
life. The magic lantern’s friend was the butterfly who signified all things
good and prosperous. The task was to cross the waterfall safely. The sword was
the only thing standing in the way of the safety of the lantern achieving her
mission. The rainbow gave her hope and wisdom because of the reflection the
rainbow gave. As a result, she reached through the waterfall and said “If you
take my hand and follow my wishes, together we can change your life forever”.
Alice’s story was making a plea for a hand to “change her life forever”,
following, as it did, the anniversary of her closest friend’s death.

Michael’s story

The hero
was a painter – his friend is a naked animal (mermaid). They both go on a boat
but the boat gets stuck. They keep walking, they come across a coffin in a
waterfall. A bit further, a man shouts “What are you doing down there?” He
turns them into frogs. This helped them get out of trouble without drowning.

Michael needed help
to think creatively; his story illustrates fear of impending disaster, he feels
stuck, fears death, and help that is available has a “catch”.

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