The purpose of this essay is to discuss an observation I undertook of an 18 month year old boy, whose mother was a friend of a friend who I had no prior knowledge about. Initially I explained the observation to the mother and a contract was soon drawn up and subsequently signed. It ensured that the study was completely confidential and the child’s name would be anonymised. I have used x to refer to the child. Firstly I am going to discuss some of the challenges I faced, how intrusive I felt initially and how I struggled not to interact. I will then discuss the benefits of child observations in helping me to overcome these challenges, for instance, the benefits of seminar groups and how the observation has been beneficial in developing my reflective skills. I will then discuss some factors I felt impacted on my observation and how these will be useful to me in future social work practice.
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For me one of the most challenging aspects I found with the child observation was feeling intrusive. Initially on my way to the house I felt very nervous and during the observation when x ran off to the kitchen to see his mother I felt very uneasy following him as I felt I was invading their privacy. Having read McMahon & Farnfield (1994) I now know that this is a common anxiety for students who undertake child observations as many observers feel uncomfortable about intruding in to the privacy of someone’s home. However, having read Quitak (2004) I know that social workers often have to visit client’s homes and if they are too anxious to invade a client’s privacy they may miss out on information that is vitally important. For example, social workers can feel intimidated by parents and find it difficult focussing on the child (Blom-Cooper et al, 1985). Social work will often involve infringing on a client’s privacy (Trowell and Miles, 1991). Therefore it is vital social workers have the confidence to deal with their uncomfortable feelings of intruding in order for them to be effective in their role (Quitak, 2004).
I felt the seminar groups were beneficial in helping me to overcome my fear of intruding because they felt like a safe space in which I could discuss my anxieties. McKinnon commented that the seminar group provides a “safe container” (2009: 90). The seminar creates a safe environment where students can share and discuss any uncomfortable feelings and experiences that they came across during the observation (Ruch, 2007). The term containment was developed by Bion (1962) who believed that therapeutic relationships, such as groups can act as containers for uncontrollable feelings (Ruch, 2007). In the same way a mother or carer contain the painful feelings of a child and return them in a way the child can understand in an attempt to make the child feel safe (Mckenzie & Beecraft, 2004). The seminar also acts as a container, by discussing my feelings and anxieties about intruding on somebody’s home it helped me to overcome the anxiety of feeling intrusive which was distracting me from observing properly. As I continued to visit the home for following visits, I subsequently developed my confidence in visiting the home and not feel quite so intrusive.
In addition, one of the biggest challenges I faced was my desire to intervene. Ruch (2009) believed that attempting to not interact with a child is arguably one of the most challenging elements of the child observation. I always felt cruel because at times I had to completely ignore the child and this felt strange and unnatural for me. Tanner & Turney (2000) and Le Riche (2006) commented that not interacting can feel strange and uncomfortable for observers because it is unnatural and goes against traditional customs. However, not interacting can be beneficial because it creates space to reflect on and explore my feelings (Tanner & Turney, 2000; Trowell and Miles, 2004). For example, I found myself in disbelief because x refused to eat the peas on his plate and x’s mother although attempting once to make them eat them, gave up quite quickly. This could be because this took me back to when I was a young child when my parents always made me eat my vegetables; otherwise I wasn’t allowed to leave the table. I was surprised at how strong and how personal my reaction was.
Having read Fawcett (1996), however I realised that as children we all grow up with certain rules our parents make us obey and these may still reside with us when we are older and can have a major influence on our attitudes (Fawcett, 1996). In my case I found myself judging x’s mother because she didn’t view eating vegetables as important. Having read McMahnon & Farnfield , they argued “It takes emotional effort for students to see that what is different is not necessarily wrong” (2004: 240). Therefore, I realised that just because x’s mother is doing things in a different way and I view my family’s experience as the ‘correct’ way, this does not mean what she is doing is wrong. Fawcett (1996) and Trowell & Miles (2004) argued that it is acceptable for students to have these attitudes and preconceptions provided that students identify these and question them through reflection. Therefore, one of the benefits of the child observation for me was significantly developing the ability to reflect and develop self-awareness. These are useful skills for me as a student social worker because by allowing time to reflect I can begin to recognise and question how my emotions and preconceptions may be affecting my judgement or an assessment of a family or individual and can incorporate this before deciding the next steps to help them (Turney,2008; Mckinnon, 2009).
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One of the most significant learning points from the child observation for me was when I first met the family, one of the first things x’s mother did was explain the bruise on x’s face and how he was always falling over. Despite my best efforts to ensure the mother that it was purely an observation, I believed she still felt that she was being judged as a mother and felt anxious about being observed. At the time I did not question this because I was very anxious myself, it was only later when I was writing up my notes that I realised how significant this was. Having experienced this, it made me aware of the power imbalances that existed between the observer and the observed. Turney argues that it could be slightly anxious and uncomfortable for those being observed because they are aware of “the power of the gaze, the power of the looker in relation to the “looked at”” (2008: 124). Therefore because x’s mother knew I was observing her she perhaps felt vulnerable and anxious because she viewed me as being in a more powerful position than her. This could explain why she defended her son’s bruise so early on in the observation. During a normal assessment between a social worker and a client these feelings are intensified. Therefore, this has taught me the importance of remembering that as a social worker I can be intimidating to the client because I am perceived as the more powerful person. As a next step, I must learn the most effective methods and techniques to try and minimise the imbalance of power between myself and the service user.
For me the most meaningful aspect of the child observation was when I attempted to explain to x that he was being observed. Despite him being only 18 months old and although I did not feel he understood me due to his age, for me this demonstrated how powerless children are. Young children in particular are totally dependent on adults for their safety and well-being, by not telling the child they were being observed I felt that this was reinforcing their invisibility and undermining their views and opinions. Ruch (2009) commented that some observers believed it was oppressive by not introducing themselves to their child and this is how I felt because by not asking a child for their consent, arguably we are not valuing what they have to say. For example, reports in to the death of children such as Victoria Climbre and Jasmine Beckford, reveal how children were not effectively “seen and heard” (Fawcett, 1996:18). In addition, inquiries often revealed that there was limited understanding of the child’s world and everyday activities were inadequately described because adult’s interpretations were valued over children’s (Mckinnon, 2009; King, 2002). Turney (2008) believes that the child observation can help to develop the skills of ensuring excluded groups such as children are completely focussed on and is crucial in evaluating whether a vulnerable child is safe or not. Fawcett (1996) argued that observation allows the chance for a child’s voices, stories and opinions to be taken seriously and valued. Therefore, I believe the child observation has helped me to focus on the child, observe what they do and listen to what they say to ensure that they are not invisible. I feel I have significantly improved my understanding of the powerlessness of children which will help me to improve and adapt my communication skills with children.
To conclude, for me one of the biggest challenges of the child observation was initially feeling intrusive, however the seminar acted as a “safe container”, where I could discuss and overcome my anxieties in a safe environment. Subsequently on following visits I found these anxieties soon disappeared. In addition, I found not interacting very challenging, but soon learnt how valuable this was because it gave me an opportunity to reflect and explore my feelings. Recognising and questioning how our values and attitudes may be affecting my judgement or an assessment of a family is a valuable skill in social work and this can be taken in to account when deciding the best help for a family. The child observation has been an important reminder that as a social worker I can appear more powerful and even intimidating to the client, as well as the powerlessness of children. Therefore developing techniques to try and minimise these power imbalances is a crucial next step.
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