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Promoting systemic thinking, and therapeutic and relationship-based approaches in Social Work

Creating space to think and feel in child protection social work; a psychodynamic intervention

Nicola O’Sullivan

Resource: Creating space to think and feel in child protection social work; a psychodynamic intervention

Author: Nicola O’Sullivan

Published: Journal of Social Work Practice, Volume 33, Issue 1.

We are beginning the GAPS Online Reading Group with an article that explores one child protection social worker’s experience of bringing a written account of her work to a work discussion group. The group is the focus of a small research study and is attended by six social workers over the period of one year. Systems psychodynamic theory and methodical reflective practices underpin the research project, which considers the role of the work discussion group in responding to and containing the emotional and psychological dimensions of the work. We hope it will be of interest to you as readers and practitioners.

What Liz thought:

Having worked in various children & family contexts over 15 years, and then as an educator, this article resonated with me in relation to different roles, but also on different levels. Indeed, I’d even say that as I read it a second time and reflected precisely on those concepts and processes discussed in the paper (anxiety, defences, climate, pace, space), I had to catch myself to ‘slow down’ and make deeper connections. Specifically, I recognised a coherent defensive ‘fit’ that developed between my own practice and that of the agencies I worked within (‘enduring the work’ together). I recognise that whilst I actively denounced the sort of ‘depersonalised defensive practice’ (Hingley-Jones & Ruch, 2016) cited in O’ Sullivan’s (2019) paper, I was less aware of my own raft of defensive responses – none really identified, visible or accepted at the time.

I also recognise a preference for comprehending as a way to approach practice, rather than apprehending. So, I have a preference to understand something in a rational way, rather than through feeling or intuition. This is not to say I am not moved, consciously or unconsciously by intuition or feelings, or that I don’t pay attention to it in a conscious way. It’s just that defences against “the experience of emotional distress and anxiety” are usually a few steps in from of reason.

This information about myself was something that I gained from a work discussion group (more specifically from a SCT (Systems Centred Training event facilitated by GAPS chair, Juliet Koprowska) 15 years after becoming a social worker. O’ Sullivan’s paper reminded me of how safe and structured groups can provide both containment and challenge, and also made me wonder what my practice would have been like if I had taken up opportunities for group reflection earlier..

As an educator, I now engage in case-work discussion by proxy. I facilitate WDG’s as an educator, creating safe spaces for practitioners to recognise their responses to anxiety, and to consider practice more thoughtfully. This runs alongside and hopefully is complimentary to the supervision within the agency. That I did not experience the profound transformative potential of WDG’s until I left practice is not lost on me. I am curious as to whether I could have acknowledged my defences from within that context, and what it would have taken for me to apprehend, rather than simply endure, or defend against the pain inherent in practice.

What Katharine thought:

Like Liz, I find myself responding to the article on different levels. As the person I am now and more painfully as the childcare social worker I was working in frontline practice during the 1980’s and 90’s. I remember the sense of struggling alone with the emotions and anxiety described by Katy in the absence of the kind of space and pace provided by the project. In the years since and at least partly as a result of intense emotional experience I chose to study on the same doctoral programme as the author developing and extending my understanding of the theoretical framework and learning from experience informing and shaping the research project and article. Making connections between the two has involved a kind of resurfacing and late processing of my own experience during these years.

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1 Comment

  1. This was such a useful and insightful article – I have found that the folk I’ve spent time with in the last 18months have so appreciated and yearned for an opportunity to be held in a safe space so they can think and feel. But it does take practice and bravery when there is so much pressure to get stuff done. Stepping away and allowing yourself time to process and check-in can easily seem like a luxury we can do without, when of course it’s the necessity we should never do without.

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