Child-focused practice approaches to complex problems

Emerging Minds and Flinders University, Australia, January 2023

Resource Summary

The compounding effects of disadvantage can mean that children and families present to services with multiple intersecting issues. Trauma, intergenerational disadvantage, alcohol and drug use, mental illness and family and domestic violence (FDV) can all impact one another, making them more challenging for children and families to overcome. Child-focused practice approaches are key to supporting children and families facing complex, coexisting problems.

So, how can practitioners provide the support that is required when working with children and families affected by complex issues? What are the specialist skills that all practitioners need to work effectively with children and families, and how can these be developed in busy professional roles?

The following resources use a structural approach to consider the needs of children and understand the context of parent and family adversity. They support a focus on the environments that affect family life, a curiosity in the parent’s story, and non-shaming conversations that support child safety and wellbeing.

Resources to support your work

Emerging Minds has partnered with Flinders University’s Social Work Innovation Research Living Space (SWIRLS) to develop a suite of resources, including practice papers and podcasts. These resources provide practical examples of structural approaches to holding child-focused conversations with children and parents who are experiencing adversity.

In these resources you’ll hear from Professor Sarah Wendt and other academics from SWIRLS, as they reflect on their structural child-focused approaches and practices. These resources speak directly to social workers, but the key messages and strategies are applicable to all practitioners working with children, parents and families.

Child-focused practice competencies: Structural approaches to complex problems

This interactive practice paper provides practical advice on how to have conversations with parents and children who are experiencing co-existing issues of intergenerational disadvantage, alcohol and drug use, mental illness, trauma, and family violence. It examines context in the lives of disadvantaged families, the effects of intersecting disadvantages, and how practitioners can create alliances which increase children’s safety and wellbeing.

This paper will help you to:

  • consider how issues of intergenerational disadvantage, substance use, mental illness, trauma and FDV can affect children’s social and emotional wellbeing
  • understand structural approaches to disadvantage that shift parents away from self-blame, paving the way for a focus on children
  • develop parental stories of connection, resilience and strength that foster confidence and agency in their care for children; and
  • bring children’s developmental needs into focus, while resisting shaming and stigmatising parents.

Child-focused approaches to complex problems – parts one and two

In this two-part podcast series, Professor Sarah Wendt and the SWIRLS team share structural approaches to conversations with parents who are facing intersectional disadvantage. They describe the important competencies in non-blaming conversations with parents, creating opportunities to make change in the lives of children.

Throughout these episodes, Sarah and the team examine three key practice questions:

  • What is happening for the child and how can their safety and wellbeing be maintained or improved?
  • How can an understanding of parenting capacity uncover many of the strategies that parents use to support their children, despite multiple disadvantages?
  • How can a focus on the parent-child relationship help practitioners to have supportive and non-threatening conversations with parents?

Insights for social workers supporting families with complex needs

This literature review was written to inform the development and delivery of the practice paper Child-focused practice competencies: Structural approaches to complex problems. It reviews implications and skills for practice across five distinct yet intersecting topics:

  • working with the effects of intergenerational disadvantage on children and parents
  • child-focused social work practices with parents and children affected by substance use
  • child-focused social work practices with parents and children affected by mental illness
  • child-focused social work practices with children who have experienced trauma; and
  • developing a plan for children and families affected by violence.

Child-focused practice in social work: Beginning the naming journey when family and domestic violence is present

When a parent is affected by family and domestic violence, they may describe this violence in different ways to a practitioner. These descriptions can minimise the effects of the violence on children and mean that they don’t receive the support they need for their safety or wellbeing.

This paper helps generalist practitioners to support parents to name their experiences of violence and consider its effects on their children. It will support you to:

  • engage with fathers who use violence and who may be blaming female partners or children for their behaviour, underreporting the seriousness of their actions, or describing their violence as communication or relationship issues
  • engage with mothers who experience violence and who may believe they are complicit or to blame for their partners’ actions or the consequences for their children if they disclose; and
  • help parents to name their experience of violence.

When parents are able to name their experiences of violence, their children are much more likely to receive the early intervention and prevention support they need for their mental health, safety and wellbeing.

Further resources

For further information on child-focused social work practice in the context of family and domestic violence, check out the following papers:

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