Space to think

Sarah, who is black and is eight years old, sits timidly on the
edge of the chair in the social services interview room,
acknowledging that she saw her mother beaten regularly by a man,
the third man to whom she had given the name “dad”.

She doesn’t know how to make sense of it and is frightened. She
feels fiercely loyal underneath it all, but it is a loyalty that
freezes her responses. What can she tell? How can she tell? The
social worker, touched by the child’s dilemma, knows a decision
needs to be made. She mentally runs through the law, placements,
alternative services. Does Sarah need a medical examination? How
can the mother be contacted without triggering further

“Children at risk” haunt us. The phrase evokes for everyone in the
public sector anxieties that suffuse our thinking and actions. Each
public revelation of an abused child or a child death sends us
rifling through the filing cabinets of our minds to our cases, past
and present. Have we done enough? Can we ever do enough? Despite
these doubts it is crucial that we find a way to manage our anxiety
for the children we work with.

We already have systems in place for managing the worry. Each child
death, each child abused in care, brings forth more and tighter
systems for protecting them. Public anger and the private worries
of staff keep the system on its toes – until next time.

Social work training provides outlines of the law and teaches basic
thinking about risk management. Practical placements during that
training allow even the inexperienced student to learn about the
organisational ways of managing risk.

When they enter the “real” world of the area team or the
residential setting their knowledge increases in complexity. They
find procedures are revised and revised again. The systems are
crucial. They serve to keep our thinking organised and focused;
risk analyses help define the dangers for the individual child
through careful checking of the number and quality of risk factors
in play. But in all this managing of factors, resources and
procedures we are at risk of losing sight of something: the
worker’s ability to relate to and understand the child and the
feelings of the child. In the midst of the torrent of need – and in
the context of increasingly complex legal and organisational
systems – how do we keep the space in our minds to make sense of a
child, like Sarah, sitting in front of us?

The responses that child clients evoke in workers and their
agencies are precious information. Too often the response is taken
at its face value. Children make us angry, frustrated, despairing
and even afraid. We can then operate our procedural armouries and
this might insulate us from an acknowledgement of how painfully
Sarah is trying to manage almost intolerable situations and
feelings. If we are not careful, our own anxiety and sense of being
overwhelmed can cause us to use our procedures as a defence – not
straightforwardly to help Sarah but to keep our own worries under

We can retreat from the direct encounter with the child as a result
and lose a precious chance to give that child the experience of
having their emotional communications understood. We can also
easily misread situations if we become either too anxious or too
exclusively engaged in following procedures to use our skills and
our own responses to understand how the child is feeling.

There is a body of knowledge, based on psychoanalytic theory, that
suggests some models of intervention which can help. Psychodynamic
thinking can throw light on the individual child but it also can be
used to understand the responses of the workers and organisational
settings involved. This in turn can help to create thinking space
and deepen our understanding of the child’s dilemmas.

Sue Kegerreis, who runs the MSc in psychodynamic counselling with
children and adolescents at Birkbeck College, London, says: “The
space to think is at a terrible premium in social work and
educational settings, and the lack of it can be enormously damaging
for the children and soul-destroying for those who work with

“If the professional just reacts to the child’s actions, or cannot
find a way to think about the child’s state of mind, then we become
part of the problem rather than part of the solution. If a child
seems out of control, we can get into a situation where we are just
responding to the behaviour and can so easily miss out on the
chance we have to understand the problems.”

Colin Murphy is senior tutor in psychodynamic
counselling at Birkbeck College, and as a counsellor.

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