The Malta Independent 24 June 2018, Sunday

A&H Magazine: Growing together... Family support is pivotal in enhancing child development

Friday, 10 March 2017, 13:07 Last update: about 2 years ago

Charlene Borg explains why.

“…Stories are the mortar that holds thoughts together, the grist of all our explanations, rationales and values…” Gergen & Gergen (1987)

Recently, I was on a plane looking forward to a holiday.  Not for the first time I listened to the safety instructions. This time, the bit about adults first securing their own breathing masks and then their children's got me thinking. Why should things be any different for one's emotional health and stability? 

If we adults do not take care of our own emotional healing and wellbeing, how can we support and guide our children?  Having a good sense of self, being able to acknowledge and attend to one's emotional needs and having the capacity to reach out for help are central to a happy life.

Every day for the past 18 years, I have met with families who eat breakfast with uncertainty, not knowing and sometimes unable to imagine how the future of their children, grandchildren and/or siblings. Drawing on personal experience of working with families who struggle with disability, I can say this traumatises relationships not just for the disabled person but also for the other members of the immediate and extended family and extended. 

I use the phrase 'relational trauma' because of its effects on the members of the wider system who also show signs of physical stress, isolation and helplessness. As this article shows, families who suffer from relational trauma can be helped by starting up conversations with them. Hope and hopelessness both have a role during one's journey and the value of emotional support for the family is pivotal. It helps to overcome trauma and, more importantly, provides our young ones with a healthy sense of self and emotional development.

Thanks to the work of social scientists in researching narratives or stories, we can understand that personal, social, and cultural experiences are constructed through sharing stories. The narrative voice within the self is a significant resource for human healing. This means that being able to express what happens to us, our thoughts, fears and reasoning, helps us deal with hardship and uncertainty.

Narratives capture personal and human dimensions of experience over time. This is why our stories change each time we tell them, making space for new learning. Narratives take into account the relationship between the individual's experience and the context in which it took place. They help a person to mentally organise information about interpreting events; the values, beliefs and experiences that guide those interpretations; and their hopes, intentions and plans.

A crucial aspect of our narratives is that they need to be coherent to ourselves and to others. They need to have continuity and be able to predict, even if only to some extent, certainty about the future. The difficulty with disability is that the future has been wounded. Creating a conversational space that accommodates both the hope and hopelessness of the family's experience, helps the family to heal and to support their child's development.

This is why at Inspire we offer - free of charge - regular support groups and parent empowerment programmes for families whose children are on our educational programmes. These regular meetings reassure families that there are others, including professionals, who are ready to listen and be with them in a way that helps them grow.

Our multidisciplinary team works with the parent support department work to assist individuals with a disability and also their families. Research shows that individuals who are optimistic are better at solving problems, managing difficult situations and coping with illness and disability. That hope comes from experience. It is influence by social context and circumstance, and it is anchored in the family's history.

Hope is relational. A person's role in the family unit or extended family, determines that person's position towards hope and hopelessness.

◦ Some people hold onto hopefulness.

◦ Others bear hopelessness.

◦ Some take hopeful actions rather than feel, think or speak about hope.

◦ Others sustain beliefs of hope, but are not good at acting hopefully.

Contrary to popular belief, hope and hopelessness are not opposing forces. They co-exist. Carmel Flaskas put this beautifully: "Hope is the other side of despair.  Being closer to one side, reminds us the need of the other."

As Flaskas says, when we open healing conversations with wounded families, when we witness their hope and hopelessness, we do so in a way that nurtures hope and emotionally holds both hope and hopelessness. As professionals our aim is not to fix the despair but to embrace both for what they are: co-existing human emotions. At Inspire we do our very best to foster this belief with our families.   

Parents and other adults are the main role models for children. If we embody our teachings and learnings, children will follow our example.  If we take good care of our emotional health, we will allow our children to grow up believing that they are worth loving not only for the beautiful attributes and immense potential they have, but for who they are.

Charlene Borg, BPhil Inclusion and Special Educational Needs, PG Dip. Systemic Family Therapy, is Parent Relations Manager at Inspire - The Foundation for Inclusion


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