In one of those serendipitous ways this topic has cropped up in a lot of separate conversations recently so I thought I’d gather a few thoughts together.
I am indebted to Carole Williams, Parenting Officer in Ipswich and with many years experience as a Who’s in Charge? trainer, for her help in putting this piece together; and also to Cathy Press, Who’s in Charge? trainer, therapist and DA consultant with Awareness Matters, for her input. Although these comments come particularly from experience of working in group situations, many are relevant to one-to-one work also.
Within the UK there is a long history of settlement in major cities, where incoming communities may be well established, though not necessarily fluent in English. More recently there has been larger scale migration to rural market towns, and not only a seasonal basis, so that many more professionals are having to address what it means to work with mixed populations, with all that brings in terms of different languages, different patterns and expectations of parenting, and even different relationships with figures of authority.
Indeed, language difficulties may well be the first issue that comes to mind when working with people from other countries and cultures – and I’ll come back to this in a moment, but there are other significant considerations to address. At a very practical level, finding the most convenient time to meet may cause problems, when parents may be working long hours or unsocial shifts in the jobs that have drawn them to this country.
Differences in experiences of parenting and being parented are serious issues that must be considered. For instance, indigenous communities particularly around the world will have different expressions of family, of community, and of responsibility for care for children and dispute resolution; but the issue is not confined to such groups.
When the RCPV research team began speaking with their Bulgarian partner in the project they quickly learnt how different the situation behind the experience of child to parent violence was in that country. Having lived under communist rule for so long, many individuals had developed a deep distrust and antagonism towards state officials, and so were reluctant to approach the expected agencies for help. Within what remained a patriarchal society, family space was considered very private and families were expected to resolve problems without outside help. In addition, the RCPV research found that those experiencing abuse within their families were often grandparents – the parents having been forced to leave the village and seek work elsewhere because of the economic crisis.
A recent conversation with Who’s in Charge? trainers highlighted a similar example within Britain. A parent from Eastern Europe who had freely participated in a group for several weeks suddenly became resistant and reluctant to engage after a family member perceived the charitable organisation working with them to be closely linked to the authorities. They began answering questions as if undertaking a police interview. It transpired that a family member had suggested she did not disclose anything about the situation at home to “an authority figure”. Of course, resistance to difficult questions is not confined to any particular group or community.
Further examples were given of very high (relative to British norms) expectations of young people’s behaviour and participation within the home from some communities and cultures. Far from the usual suggestions to involve teens more in taking responsibility for themselves within the home, here there was an instinctive urge to pull back. What would the effect of this level of responsibility have been within the home country? Is it problematic in itself, or simply because of the more relaxed local environment? Transitioning from one country to another immediately exposes young people to very different experiences of being parented, with perhaps stricter or, more likely, more relaxed rules. How can families be helped to make the adjustments while maintaining a sense of integrity and continuity?As a British social worker these questions bring to mind the findings of the Laming Report following the tragic death of Victoria Climbie in 2000, specifically the need to be aware of our assumptions and beliefs about other cultures and the way this impacts our beliefs about acceptable or normal behaviour; as well as being clear about the way in which we feel competent to challenge parenting practice within a context of a fear of being accused of racism.
How do we work with families where there are high expectations of men being in charge, or the acceptance and normalisation of levels of violence towards women and children? Issues around “normal” parenting practice and styles of parenting are very much thrown into the foreground in work with child to parent violence, where the very relationships within the family have been upended, and “normal” no longer applies. Nevertheless, the risks of presenting as patronising or culturally superior should not be overlooked.
Reiterating clearly the purpose, and authority, of the group or intervention on an ongoing basis is obviously a necessity. Adaptation of materials and style of presentation – including exercises – also needs to be considered. Programmes and manuals created with one community or solution in mind do not necessarily travel easily.
It is worth noting that much of the early understanding and many of the materials in use around the world for work within the area of child to parent violence have been imported from the USA or Australia. The Step-Up programme, originating in Seattle is one such programme, much in use in adapted form in both Britain and Australia; and its influence is seen wider still in home grown programmes. Step-Up was designed with a very specific group of young people in mind, mandated from within the juvenile court system onto this diversionary programme. The Who’s in Charge? programme of parents’ groups has its genesis in Australia, and is more strictly controlled in its dissemination, but is now widely in use within England. Britain and the US are sometimes described as two nations divided by a common language. We cannot simply expect to lift programmes from one prosperous western nation to another. Legislative framework, cultural context, or underlying assumptions and understanding about meaning, all impact on content as well as the way instructions and exercises are designed and given. Is it reasonable to continue to adapt and readapt programmes to fit a different national context, often at great expense, or should more time be given to local homegrown responses? The issues around child to parent violence have many similarities around the world, but the way they play out and the local or national responses do not always accord.
Not just the content of the programme and style of presentation, but the measurements in use before and after also need addressing in work with groups of people for whom a programme was not originally created. An article which caught my attention recently concerned the use of equine therapy with teens in Guatemala as a way of addressing violent and aggressive behaviour. One of the issues that had to be addressed right at the start was with regard to self-report measures that were completed before and after participation in the programme.
The measures, all originally developed in English, were translated to Spanish by the third author bilingual in Spanish and English. Another native Spanish speaker, also fluent in English, verified the translations and minor discrepancies were reconciled via discussion. Because youth participants may not have had much exposure to Likert-style scales, slight modifications were made by including illustrations with scale points to indicate the magnitude of agreement/disagreement.
Returning then to the issues of language and translation. We are used to ensuring we are not using children as interpreters within health and social care settings. Particularly when a conversation may be with regard to their behaviour, or that of their siblings, there is no guarantee that the message you need to get across will be the one that is translated, and information may be filtered or missed. The same may apply where a husband speaks English and his wife does not.
But what is also clear is that straightforward translation by a professional interpreter is not sufficient either. Even with interpreters present, some parents may be working in a second or third language if there are participants from a range of nations. Some words and terms simply do not exist in other languages or cultures. Who’s in Charge? facilitators in groups in East Anglia found that fundamental concepts such as “abuse” had to be broken down to make them understandable. Constant checking that parents understood hindered the discussion, and it was impossible to access other significant factors in a family’s situation through tuning in to what a parent said: for example did the child have additional needs, did the parent have additional needs or what was their level of literacy within their own language? A full understanding of the issues of child to parent violence and the programme materials was clearly needed and so bi-lingual facilitators have now been trained, and lead groups within this area in order to assess how to make child to parent violence and abuse programmes better available to other communities.
Finally, some thoughts that have been suggested as a good entry point for work with parents from other communities are worth thinking about for all of us. The need for professionals to communicate effectively with parents shouldn’t need repeating but sadly does. Meeting broader needs of families – through ESOL classes, craft or homework groups, and not only the immediate issue may help to draw families in and help them feel comfortable, but also strengthens family interaction and integration. At the end of the day, if we cannot help families to feel comfortable engaging with us, they will get up and leave – or simply never attend.