“Troubled families”

“Troubled families”.  It’s an uncomfortable term, which can become a ‘label’ (though less of a label than ‘problem families’), but I’ve met a good few of these in my time as a headteacher – often, but not always, the ‘troubled’ child is responding to their ‘troubled’ family situation. However you define the concept, it’s illustrative not precise.  I was a bit sceptical of the news headlines about the recent report (click here) – another big headline political initiative stronger on rhetoric than action – but the report’s conclusion stimulated my thinking out an easy reaction:

“And it certainly isn’t the intention to try to establish what lies behind some of the darkest aspects of social and familial problems such as violence and sexual abuse. But what can be established, and perhaps the starkest message to take from these interviews, is the extent to which the problems of these families are linked and reinforcing. They accumulate across the life course, passed on from parents to their children across generations of the same family.
So this means that the traditional approach of services reaching individual family members, at crisis point or after, and trying to fix single issues such as ‘drug use’, ‘non-attendance at school’ or ‘domestic violence’ in these families is most often destined to fail. Their behaviours and problems can be properly understood only by looking at the full cycle – and the full family. This requires services who work with families to take the long view; of what happened to the parents as children and of what has happened to the children since birth. This may not be a pretty sight, and will lay bare the extent of the dysfunction that is accumulated in the lives of some of these families.
And at the most fundamental level is an absence of basic family functioning which must be restored (or created for the first time) if these families are to really change.
But these families are not beyond help and hope.” (p64)

“.. trying to fix single issues.. is most often destined to fail ..”  certainly very often true with children.

” .. these families are not beyond help and hope ..”     that’s also true:  a very important resource is the hope of a key family member, usually the mother, that change is possible.  If she can be supported to make good choices, to become more consistent, to access the right information and bring those insights into the family, what a difference that can make.

It will be interesting to see how this experiment develops – there has to be a better way than the often ill-co-ordinated reactive and inconsistent interventions of agencies based around the individuals of the family who come into their reach (school, police, social work, health visitors…).  However there is also no doubt that social structural factors – employment opportunities, community activities, school ethos, transport networks, gang culture – all play an important role.  For children, that is why the ‘community of the school’ can be so important.

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