I have a confession to make – I am a new parent. I’m 16 weeks in to learning how to supply the needs of an infant, and have been generally finding it much more pleasant than being at my paid place of work, even with the chronic lack of sleep. Inevitably I have been comparing the two kinds of work, and as I suspected all along, can find several similarities between parenting and social work already.
Ok, granted I’m probably at the easy end of parenting: a very small baby is reasonably happy as long as you meet it’s basic requirements of warmth, food and security. Sure that doesn’t stop it screaming every now and then, but basically you are doing your job. As it gets bigger it moves up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and also starts to notice if things like love and belonging are missing. In mental health social work we are not only dealing with adults who have the whole hierarchy of needs, including the need for self-actualization, or fulfillment, but very often with people who have missed out on some of these more basic requirements at an earlier stage, thus leading to their distress.
I’m not saying a social worker can effectively “parent” service users, nor would we want this as I can’t think of many things that are literally more patronising. Yet some of the tasks of the parent and the social worker are very similar. In essence I think I can divide these into two categories: helping someone get their needs met, and not helping them. Bear with me, despite my sleep deprived brain, I have a point here.
1: Ensuring needs are met. Some the worker can meet themselves, such as the need to be listened to, but if we can’t meet them ourselves, we will try and ensure someone else does, for example through accessing housing, food banks etc. Fairly straightforward so far. But why would we sometimes not help?
2 – Not doing everything for the person in question. This is so they don’t become dependent and still keep their ability to sort things out for themselves. This is the real reason I am considering using ear plugs tonight instead of responding when my baby cries, not because I’m ready to tear my hair out if I don’t get more sleep. Honest.
Seriously I would never consider ignoring someone calling for help, especially in the field of mental health, but there can be times when a minimal response is actually the most helpful, even though the person asking for help would not think so. An example is someone who has already had all the help that can be offered by the state or organisation in question, therefore repeatedly going through the same process is unlikely to change anything for them and can often make them even more frustrated and distressed. On the other hand if they are thrown back on their own resilience and helped to find support and motivation for change elsewhere this would be much more effective. Easier said than done.
So there you have it, how to parent and how to social work (a new verb?) in 500 easy words. Another key skill, getting things done very quickly. In the one scenario because you have 20 other cases to deal with today, and in the other because there are only ever going to be a few minutes before your full attention is required again…