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

Non Violent Resistance: A Personal Journey and Reflections on its role in Social Work

Anna Flecknoe
Anna Flecknoe qualified as a social worker in 2010 and has specialised in therapeutic support for families in CAMHS.  Anna advocates for collaboration and participation with communities, schools, families, and children.  She has most recently been developing a systemic clinical model for families and schools in Northamptonshire.

As a newly qualified social worker, I prided myself on being non-judgemental with the families with whom I worked. I felt that the adversity I had lived through in childhood gave me some understanding or shared sense of what the families were up against. In my social work training I reflected on the self and how that shaped the way I related to families in my role as a social worker. However, more recently, I have been struck by my naivety – both in in my judgmental blind spots, and with regards to societal beliefs and judgements about parenting and children’s behaviour. These factors create barriers for social workers and families in creating meaningful connections and change and perpetuate the ideas around disguised compliance in children’s social care.

I now have over 13 years experience of working as a social worker with families, and have over that time specialised working with families with children who are seen to have emotional and behavioural difficulties that can lead to family breakdown. I took the decision to move away from frontline social work, as the opportunities to spend time therapeutically supporting families became few and far between. I have since worked within a number of different therapeutic settings and had the opportunity of learning a number of different approaches from different modalities all with the same goal; supporting families to make “the difference that makes the difference” (Bateson, 1972).

In the last few years I have been in the absolute privileged position of working within a team offering early intervention systemic support to families with primary school children experiencing emotional or behavioural difficulties. It was in developing the model for this team that a colleague, Marta Costa Caballero, pointed us in the direction of Non Violent Resistance (NVR), a new approach for parents struggling with challenging behaviours.

More recently I have become interested in the way we use opportunities in social work training and the Assessed and Supported Year in Employment, specifically in relationship-based practice, to develop skills to engage and therapeutically support parents in changing dynamics within family life. I feel that Non Violent Resistance provides an opportunity for social workers to bridge this gap and enhance their engagement and therapeutic skills in a meaningful and practical way for families.

What is Non Violent Resistance (NVR)?

Haim Omer founded the approach in Tel Aviv in the mid 1990s; he was struck by the lack of support and blame directed towards the parent when their child was experiencing emotional or behavioural difficulties. He was inspired by key historic figures such as Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela who used non violent means to stand up to oppressors and create a firm but peaceful approach to relating to others.

The approach has been developed to empower parents to adopt a similar, firm but peaceful resistance to aggressive or self-destructive behaviours by using loving, warm, connected relationship alongside firm boundaries. It moves away from the behavioural approach of consequences and rewards and recognises that you cannot ultimately control your child. In order to do this the parent/s needs to spend time considering their own past and how this influences their actions in the present and work towards adopting more self control. This is no small task and requires a careful and supportive approach recognising the strength, love and dedication that has gotten the parent/s to this point. The approach can be offered to parents individually or as a group and has the flexibility for those parents in unstable situations to offer bite sized sessions with parents to meet them where they are at.

As highlighted in the map in Figure 1 there are a number of different elements in NVR and the starting point is often exploring ways to help the parent to become more grounded and resilient through “Looking after yourself”. In groups there are plenty of opportunities to encourage cross parent support which is a rich and valuable intervention. Understanding the importance of parents supporting parents is another layer of NVR and I have seen first hand how valuable it is to have an expert by experience co-facilitate the process; quite often a professional providing advice or reflection can be heard very differently to another parent.

NVR
Figure 1: Non Violent Resistance Map

Case Example – all details are anonymised to protect the identity of the family

Delia, a mum of 2, with serious mental health difficulties attended the NVR group with six other parents. At first Delia was guarded and unsure how the approach might help her and her family. Delia felt overwhelmed and frustrated at home particularly with her eldest daughter who would become quickly agitated and violent when Delia tried to enforce any boundaries. The family were on a child protection plan for physical abuse as there were a number of instances whereby mum used physical chastisement in retaliation to her daughters violence.

It was in week four that Delia said things “clicked” for her, we were exploring parental triggers and Delia had to take a moment out of the group. Delia had some time to process the meaning of this for her and realised that the violence that was being displayed by her child was creating a trauma response in her, and she felt very out of control in those moments. Delia had been feeling as though she had no authority in the house and had lost her confidence in being able to parent. Delia was able to connect her own part in the escalations with her daughter and recognise the ways in which she needed to take care of herself. In addition to this, Delia then suggested that her relationship with her daughter needed strengthening and she focused on ways of rebuilding it. Over the 12 week group session we saw Delia’s confidence grow and although the changes within the home were small she felt more positive and empowered as a parent.

NVR and My Personal Journey

Another layer of NVR that resonated the most for me was the ability to reflect on oneself as a clinician and apply the approach across all relationships, personal and professional. Understanding your own triggers when working with families and having the space to reflect on this with your manager in supervision is so valuable as a social worker. It provides an opportunity in the NVR supervision structure to apply the skills of de-escalating and self-care in a way that is tangible and enhances connections at work.

The timing of the NVR training I had was serendipitous; it came at a point when I was grieving the loss of my mum whilst parenting two young children. Through my grief I spent a lot of time reflecting on the way in which I was parented and how that was contributing to some of the struggles I was having as a parent. I was mourning the loss of my mum but also the loss of what our relationship could have been. My mum shared the widely held view at the time that children were to be controlled and kept in line. She would often lash out and be very dysregulated when managing our behaviour. The relationship that I had with my mum as I grew up was complex, but when she died, memories of loving and playful times that we had together resurfaced. I believe the cost of her controlling, threatening parenting was a widening gap and lack of connection between us. I wanted to be close to her but we would get into these patterns with one another which usually resulted in me feeling very angry. Sadly, now that she is gone, we don’t have time to do better, and I have realised that I want to do things differently with my children. I want to be a parent who can (mostly) be present and regulated, providing comfort, warmth, guidance and security. I want to be available to them for what they might need. NVR provided me personally with a framework of getting to more deeply understand the connection between how I was being triggered as a parent and the way I was parented. It allowed me to see that I needed to take care of my emotions before I could manage the meltdowns and age appropriate emotionally turbulent world of my children. It is a work in progress and I still quite often get dysregulated through the day to day stresses of parenting small children, but I am trying hard to understand my triggers.

This experience has really shaped the way in which I now approach the parents I work with. I do so in the knowledge that they are also trying their best with what they have, and that we all have our own histories and complex stories of how and why we became parents, and that despite our intentions our reactions are loaded.

The role of NVR for social workers

I think the possibilities and synergy that NVR and children’s social work can offer is broad and exciting. If Social Workers were equipped with the NVR approach either in their training (which is now offered to some family therapists in training) or as part of the workplace it could provide so many benefits.  

NVR could support engagement with families and provide a framework to help parents break generational patterns of abuse.

Additionally, the context in which we meet a family is often very loaded; connecting with that family can be like climbing a mountain. Families that are referred into social care have, more often than not, been judged in one way or another. The social worker’s task involves making further judgement in their assessment of the child’s safety and the processing of families and cases from one team to another. I believe an NVR lens can better prepare a social worker to understand their own reactions to particular families, as well as to get to know themselves more deeply. It could support an exploration of the personal and professional boundaries and normalise sharing more of your authentic self to families to aid connection. This exploration is often pushed to one side as the to-do list gets bigger and bigger and the pressures build.

Finally, NVR could support social work teams to connect with one another and to place self-care at the centre of everything that they do. It can help teams to recognise that connection is needed at all times and even more so in times of stress, and create opportunities to develop workforce resilience sharing the responsibility beyond the front line staff.

References and Resources

Bateson, G. (1972). Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

NVR – Haim Omer explains non-violent resistance (40 min)  https://youtu.be/I_39pn1Rf7E?si=JCe1tfmZT1_7zhg4

PartnershipProjects UK – https://www.partnershipprojectsuk.com/

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