Dealing with angry parents in children’s services

When faced with the information that a significant adult in the life of a child exhibits aggressive or violent behaviour, a major factor for the worker may be a lack of knowledge of how to intervene. A key focus of this conference is to consider positive examples of methods to engage the challenging adult while keeping safe.

Several elements are in play when a child or young person comes to the attention of the caring agencies and those elements are magnified when one or more of the adults concerned with that child is aggressive. Violence towards workers is an abhorrent and unacceptable by-product of our work. It cannot be ignored and it must be managed by both the organisation and the worker.

Fortunately, the incidence of workers murdered by their clients remains low. In social work in the 1980s and 1990s nine workers were murdered by clients. This list was added to in 2006, 2007 and 2008 and the total is now 12. Nine of these professionals were female, of whom three were young and perhaps inexperienced six were in a mid-life age range, so were perhaps experienced. Eight of these professionals were killed by adults with mental health issues.

Indirect violence

Although it appears that physical acts of violence against a worker are relatively rare, other forms of indirect violence, such as threats, intimidation and aggressive posturing, are common and the perception among most managers is that these forms of violence have increased over the past 10 years.

Yet the question remains, why do many incidents of abuse, threats and intimidating behaviour go unreported? This is especially worrying when these vital pieces of information can provide a clearer assessment of the situation facing the worker, their colleagues and other professionals.

Under-reporting of incidents remains so commonplace that it is impossible to get a clear picture of what is really happening on the front line. The attitudes underpinning this failure to record must be questioned and there is no better forum for this to occur than within supervision. However, supervision is not always provided.

Violence generates fear and the fine balance between ensuring the best results for the child and maintaining personal safety can be easily upset when the component of violence from a significant adult is added to the mix. It is not easy to maintain clarity nor make a reasonable assessment of any situation when violence is occurring.

Feeling of dread

However, perhaps more difficult to manage is the feeling of dread or apprehension that violence may occur in future dealings and this can influence decision-making. These fears have led some professionals to quit, while in others they have generated high levels of stress, leading to demoralisation and ill-health.

Sometimes workers focus too much on the welfare of the child to the exclusion of personal safety. This all-too-understandable attribute is underscored by a society ready to criticise workers for failing to take action, especially where child abuse is a possibility. This approach is reinforced by a workplace culture that insists child protection issues must be addressed irrespective of poor staffing levels, leading to situations where workers are placed at risk working alone in highly emotionally charged situations. In some agencies the increasing reliance on a mobile phone or emergency alarm system as a substitute for being accompanied by a colleague must be questioned.

These are just some of the issues being debated at the conference, which will include role plays to bring some of the difficulties into sharp focus. The biggest challenge is to identify first-hand the dilemma of ensuring personal safety while attempting to maintain positive involvement with a potentially violent significant adult.

Ray Braithwaite is a trainer in ways of managing aggression and stress at work

This article is published in the 2 October edition of Community Care under the headline “Damage limitation”

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