We’re often asked what sort of changes are seen in children and their families who attend Family Group. One of the ways that Family Group is unique is that it’s not a short-term therapy model. Families can attend for as long as they need to, on average for about a year. In that time, significant and sustainable change can take place, not just for the children attending but also their parents/carers.
Let’s take a closer look at one of the children who benefitted from Family Group*
Aleksy is 8 years old. He attended Family Group with his mother Rosa for 10 months. Aleksy lives with his Mother, Father and two younger siblings. The family are originally from Poland.
Difficulties at home and school
Rosa described Alesky as “a difficult child” and reports that he is aggressive and disruptive at home. Rosa wanted to come to Family Group so that she could change the way she dealt with Aleksy’s behaviour and to improve their relationship. She was worried that he was turning against her.
Before attending Family Group, both Aleksy and Rosa said that their relationship was difficult and they often shouted at one another on a daily basis. Rosa felt that she had not paid Aleksy enough attention in recent years as she was so busy with his two younger siblings.
This sense of rejection manifested itself in aggressive behaviour not only towards his mother but also his younger siblings: “He would shout “You’re not my sister!” and would fight with the younger children. Rosa explained that she would try to calm him down and he would continue to shout at her and ignore her pleas to stop fighting.
At school, Aleksy had difficulty in concentrating in lessons; his teachers have described this as “being lost” as if he goes off into a daydream. His lack of attendance and poor engagement with lessons meant that he could not keep up with all that was expected of him at school. When asked why he could not always concentrate, Alesky said: “Well, I felt so tired, I just, well I’d get sleepy and want to lie on my bed, I couldn’t think”.
Rosa felt guilty a lot of the time before attending Family Group because she knew that Aleksy was not happy, but she did not know how to deal with him. When she heard about Family Group she wanted to attend to see if it would help Aleksy’s behaviour at home and at school.
Positive changes for both parent and child
Attending Family Group has been a positive experience for Rosa and Aleksy; they both enjoy coming to the sessions and Aleksy, in particular, does not want to give up this time with his Mother.
Coming to Family Group has, according to the school, “brought him out of his shell and dramatically improved his attendance”. His mother believes the weekly Family Group sessions have helped him to become less anxious and angry.
Rosa admitted that she was shy and slightly afraid about attending Family Group as English is not her first language, but as the therapist explained: “Family Group can provide a safe place where adults with EAFL are more vocal and that is great for them”. Aleksy’s progress has been noted by the therapist too, she explained that he has developed a new found confidence and is “more relaxed and smiles more often”.
Rosa and Aleksy have also taken Family Group strategies on board at home and both agree the targets are motivational for them and when they report back at Family Group, they are both proud when Aleksy does well. The time spent together is clearly providing benefits for both the parent and the child.
Rosa admits that before coming to Family Group, she used to shout a lot and feel frustrated at what she perceived to be an inability to talk to Aleksy. She now feels calmer, more in control and enjoys being with him. To emphasise the importance of Family Group, Rosa stated that “It’s changed us both at home and in school; I want to keep coming, it’s so good, I want to come each week”.
The summary here refers to the benefits Rosa has seen from attending Family Group:
1) Improved parent/child relationship
Rosa explained that the most important issue for her was the significant improvement in her relationship with her son. She felt that he was always fighting for her attention but now they have one to one time each week, he has changed. Rosa stated that “He was improving slowly, but now it’s fast and on our way home from the first Family Group he suddenly said, “Mummy, I love you”, he hadn’t said that before”. The shouting has stopped and Rosa realises that she does not need to shout to ensure that he listens to her.
2) New routines at home
Rosa knew that some things at home had to change so that she could make more time to be with the children and share some activities with them. She explained that the family was getting into the habit of coming home from school and the children would be straight on to a computer or tablet. After talking this through at Family Group, she took the advice of another parent and instigated a ‘weekend only’ policy for using the tablet/computers. At first, this was hard for them all and she described the first night as “hard and really sad for me” because “Aleksy shouted, “I want it, I want it”. I stayed strong and that evening he tried asking and asking for 2 or 3 hours”. Rosa was proud to explain that Aleksy cooperated and she produced some new pens, papers and drawing tools and he drew her a picture. She had decided not to simply withdraw the tablet, but to ensure he had an alternative activity; the ‘weekend only’ policy is now in force and all of the children have other activities on offer during the week.
3) Learning to new strategies to support change
Rosa freely admits that she could not deal with Aleksy before Family Group and always responded by shouting at him; however, she has learned from the other parents and the therapist to employ strategies to calm situations rather than adding further tension. Rosa accepted that she had to change too and so at home she will sit with the children and talk when they are upset. She has agreed individual time with all of her children now and says that home is a much calmer place.
The summary here refers to the changes that have taken place for Aleksy since attending Family Group:
1) Improved attendance at school
Aleksy’s Mother, the therapist and the school all noted that the swiftest change for Aleksy was his attitude to attendance which went from a poor 70% up to nearly 100%.
2) Improved Behaviour
In the past, Aleksy would become aggressive and shout, usually at his Mother, when he could not get her attention. The targets for behaviour have been particularly successful for him. Alesky also explained that he has a new routine to check his bag and ensure he has what he needs; he admitted that this made him feel more secure and meant that he scored well in his targets.
Aleksy has clearly responded positively and relatively fast to the Target Card intervention. He demonstrates a competitive attitude which means he strives to achieve well each week and this seems to have improved his general abilities to concentrate and focus on tasks. His Mother is very determined that he keeps improving and that she keeps herself more fully involved in his life.
3) Positive about school
Aleksy now enjoys coming to school and in particular, attending Family Group. His mother reports that when he comes home, he will talk about the Family Group activities with his sister and tell her what they did or made; recently she has asked to attend school and Family Group too! In the past, his disengagement with school meant that he would rarely answer any questions from his parents, but recently his Mother witnessed a pleasing change. She explains, “A month ago they started learning about the Romans; well he came home and told me everything about the Romans. And then he asked, “Do you know about the Romans?” And I said, “no, I know about my own history in Poland but tell me about the Romans”, and he really did, he loved it”
Aleksy says that now he likes school because he likes coming to Family Group; he feels comfortable at school and “I like playing music, my recorder – we learn B and A; and I really like art. I’m getting better at it – we do lots of that in Family Group”. Aleksy is emphasising his enjoyment of the practical activities in Family Group, but is able to reflect on how he is progressing in the classroom too.
4) Improved confidence
The school and therapist both agreed that Aleksy is more confident since attending Family Group and that his bond with his mother appears stronger. Rosa is happy that Aleksy is able to say that he loves her and to tell her more about his day to day life.
Benefits to the school
Rosa has recently volunteered to help in school and has just received her DBS check through so is able to come in and take an even more active role in the school community. The theme of developing a school community is one that Family Group facilitates with all families that participate: a seemingly small change but one that can make a big difference to the school. The school notes that Family Group “makes a big difference in terms of creating a stable, cohesive school community”.
Sustainable, long-term change
Family Group has made a real difference to the lives of Rosa and Aleksy. Improved home life for the family, better attendance and behaviour at school for Aleksy and a closer working partnership with the school means that everyone benefits from Family Group.
*Due to confidentiality, all names have been changed in order to protect the identity of the families.
The horrendous abuse by Barry Bennell has been making news headlines in the last few weeks. Andy Connolly, Chief Executive at SurvivorsUK has written a thought-provoking article for The Guardian, ‘If the abused can’t speak, we need other routes to their pain’. Andy discusses why the victims didn’t speak out earlier about the abuse and it has inspired me to put my own thoughts down in this blog.
Where you stand regarding the case will be influenced by your own experience. It’s a topic that we’ve discussed in Family Group. Many have questioned why so many have kept quiet for so long. Others have wondered how these revelations would impact on all the other perpetrators yet to be unmasked. I'm with this group, waiting and hoping that the shaming of Barry Bennell will enable other victims of childhood sexual abuse to conquer their fears and unmask the perpetrators.
I went to university in Aberystwyth. In the pub one evening with a group of close friends, the subject of sexual abuse arose. In the ensuing conversation, it emerged that half of our group had been sexually interfered with or assaulted in childhood.
Some years later, I was working as an educational psychotherapist in a mainstream school. The classes were small and about evenly split by gender. My work became targeted towards a particular class where behavioural and emotional problems were very evident. By the end of the year, I was working with five girls who had been sexually abused - about 40% of the girls in the class. In one case the perpetrator was convicted and imprisoned; another abuser fled the country.
So, I'm with Freud before his 1896 recantation, when his work began to confirm the psychic impact of the horrific sexual and physical abuse of children that his mentor, the neurologist Professor JM Charcot, and Charcot's colleague, Professor Brouardel, studied and wrote about. Up to this point, the condition 'hysteria' was a label applied to women considered to be inferior, weak, seducing, narcissistic liars. Freud broke the mould, noting that in the first 18 cases of 'hysteria' he investigated, he uncovered, in all cases, a link with sexually abusive events in childhood. (Peter Gay, The Freud Reader, 1995 WW Norton p. 109).
Recent research published by the NSPCC makes shocking reading.
- 1 in 3 children sexually abused by an adult did not tell anyone
- Over 90% of sexually abused children were abused by someone they knew
- Over 54,000 sexual offences against children were recorded by the police in the UK in 2015/2016
So what lessons can we learn from the Bennell case? We know that victims of child sexual abuse are not coming forward so we need to create an environment that allows for these difficult conversations to take place. Therapy is sometimes characterised as fluffy, indulgent and irrelevant to life in the real world. Our therapeutic work is far from this caricature. We start with behaviour - and we believe all behaviour has a meaning. And we work with the reality and consequences of a range of traumatising experiences.
Of course, not everyone has access to therapy services so we need to be much more open as a society to talk about child sex abuse. This change is happening. The recent #MeToo campaign has helped to start the conversation about sexual abuse. Awareness days such as #PurpleFriday and articles such as Andy Connell’s specifically focused on the abuse of boys, all help to create open lines of communication about this once taboo subject. In order to help victims to speak up, we cannot view child sex abuse as taboo anymore. It’s happening and we have to confront it.
‘I want my child to be happy and successful at school’. That’s probably the main reason why parents join Family Group. And that’s a genuine, heartfelt wish for lasting change. But real life is messy. And for many of the families who come… well, there’s a lot of stuff in the way. Sometimes that wish for change can feel a long way from coming true.
So, I want to think about five ways in which Family Group is relevant in the messiness of real life. How is it that people engage in Family Group when their immediate ‘front line’ needs could so easily take priority?
1.The crucial people are in the room together
If you want a child to be happy and successful in school, you need key folk engaged in achieving this together. The voices of the child, the parent and the school need to be heard. In Family Group, the key folk are all there in the room and their work together is supported by the independent mental health specialist, the therapist SFW provides. And all these folk know why they’re there. The meeting is purposeful, honest, familiar. The structured model helps maintain that essential feeling of safety.
2. We do not set the speed
The second way in which Family Group is relevant to front line need is the pace we travel.
Change happens slowly. Change needs time. We go at the pace of the client. We can accommodate blips. There isn’t a Family Group client manual – there’s no programme to be completed. Family Group is more like a new route you adjust to, or maybe a diet that you gradually realise really suits you. We recognise that, when it comes to relationships, people learn experientially: you need to feel trusted, valued, held in order to develop those capacities within yourself.
3. Co-production generates rich resources
What keeps Family Group relevant to immediate needs? Practical problems in daily life need practical solutions. The range of skills and experience in the room is such a bonus. You get lots of relevant advice and ideas from other folk in your area, with children at your school. As relationships develop, friendships grow. Help is offered. Problems are shared. The model is truly co-productive. We’re all in it to help: the good outcomes are achieved by group effort. That heartfelt wish for your child easily morphs into your engagement in helping the other children in the group.
4. It comes to me
My fourth point re relevance of Family Group to front line need? Family Group is local, accessible, familiar. It’s in school. And pretty much everyone goes to school. If you’ve got a primary aged child, you’re going to be there most days. School is one of the easier places to ask for help: you know they’re there to serve your child too. Family Group is another one of the things school offers. You might notice a mention in the newsletter, a flier in the lobby, or your child’s teacher might chat to you about it. It might be another parent who first mentions Family Group to you. You’ll have seen the therapist in the playground: other parents have a laugh with her, and she seems friendly.
5. We get to the root of the issue - together
We invite the messiness into the room, weekly. Every Family Group has a ‘What’s hot? What’s been tricky or difficult?' section. ‘Have a think with your adult, and see if you can find something from this last week that you’d like to change. Maybe it was in school? Maybe at home? Maybe it happened just this morning, on the way in.'
Current difficulties are encouraged into the room each week. Sifting through, we select the most pertinent difficulty for each child and think together to turn the problem into a target. Then, we practice implementing that target during the session, as we work through our programme of games and activities. Where the problem re-occurs, we harness the group to reflect on the challenge and help find a way forward. It’s bit by bit. It’s learning by experience. We might have to work at the same area for some time. But eventually we get to the nub – what it is that really needs to be understood – and the driving energy behind the behaviour is redundant.
An excerpt from the Executive Summary of an independent research project into the effectiveness of Family Group earlier this year provides me with my conclusion;
"The strength of the Family Group model, from the evidence provided by these 23 families, is rooted in the ‘physical’ co-productive nature of the intervention. The therapist, the school based partner, the other families, in a safe environment, in school ‘the child’s daily world’, all contribute to effect positive change for parent and child.
The practical outcomes include improvement in the behaviour of the child and academic performance; improvement in family relationships and between school and parent. The emotional outcomes for parent and child include improved confidence; a sense of achievement after hard work; improved self-esteem and happiness; the new experiences of reflective thinking and emotional containment."
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