How Social Workers Help Improve Family Relationships

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Family bonds are among the strongest ties we experience in life. Sometimes, however, relationships become fractured, or families are torn apart due to outside pressures or disruptions from inside the relationship. Working with a social worker at the onset of relationship issues can often help to promote healthy and happy familial relationships before pressures become too much to bear.

For social workers, a primary indicator of success is helping families repair and build healthy relationships. Professional relationships with social workers not only help strengthen and encourage loving and mutually supportive relationships within families, but also create meaningful relationships between social worker and client—both of which are important factors for the success of a case.  

For this reason, it is beneficial for families to develop a long-term relationship with one social worker, as opposed to working with several social workers. This latter experience can be disorientating, alienating, and, can often undo much of the good work achieved by the original social worker.

Rewarding Work

Helping families overcome obstacles is one of the most rewarding aspects of social work. Many people who hope to become social workers cite family work as the reason why they want to enter the profession. Enrolling in one of the many online Master’s of Social Work programs around the country is one of the best options for those who are considering this career path. The online MSW degree program at Florida State University’s College of Social Work is one of the top-rated social work courses in the country and is fully accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). Designed with working professionals in mind, the courses are flexible, part-time, and include in-field placements for essential real-world experience.

Establishing Relationships

A 2016 study by the Harvard Center on the Developing Child concluded that the most important factor in providing successful service and care for families is the quality of their relationship with the professional. Establishing trust and connecting with families is necessary for honest and comprehensive information is to be shared between both parties, as well as reaching long-term solutions.

Relational Capability

Relational capability measures the ability to have positive social interactions and beneficial relationships. Social workers often have a heavy caseload and must operate within strict boundaries set by the rules and regulations of their profession. Guidelines were created to ensure fairness and even-handedness in how families are treated, as well as to protect both clients and social workers from legal, physical, and psychological consequences.

Some may think social work is simply a process of feeding case information into a system and allowing rules and protocols to deliver a final verdict after receiving this information. Every family is different, however, and comprised of unique individuals. While standard profiles and categories are useful, social workers must also use their own judgement in assessing each situation. Dialogues with families must be opened, both to establish the true facts of a situation and to discover the family’s desired outcomes. Relational capability is an essential skill set for all family social workers.

Working Together

Once a social worker has gotten to know a family and built up a level of trust, both parties develop a working relationship that is difficult to replicate if a new social worker begins working on the case. Families feel supported and better able to cope if they have one professional with whom they regularly interact. Social workers must listen to the concerns of the family and explore possible solutions to achieve a positive outcome.

Family group conferencing is one method that can help family members work out solutions. This is preferable to a family having a solution imposed upon them. This approach requires flexibility from social workers and a determination to see the good in their clients. Social workers should build on the positive, rather than focusing solely on negative behavior or incapability.

A Basis of Trust

In working with a family, the best results are usually achieved when there is one dedicated case worker that the family knows and trusts. The family will hopefully develop a deep working relationship and feel confident that the social worker will listen to their problems and understand their circumstances. The social worker should never be seen as a threat or meddling outsider. Ideally, they become close to the family, yet remain at enough distance to be objective and avoid family feuds and disagreements. 

The social worker should be a respected helper who always does their best to assist families.. They are entrusted to act impartially and in the best interests of all family members—especially children.

Putting Children First

Family-based social work often focuses on helping young people and children. Family case workers have similar job descriptions whether they work with youth, children, or teens. They aim to assist families in need—especially the younger members—and help them access financial, educational, and behavioral resources, as well as appropriate support services.

Social workers try to improve the immediate circumstances of vulnerable young people and strive for positive long-term outcomes. Removing children from families is always a last resort. Social workers should always try to improve the overall family situation before taking further steps.  Although helping children is the top priority, doing so almost always involves trying to help the whole family as well. 

Engaging with families 

A family social worker may be employed by the state—such as at the Department of Social Services—but may also work out of a school, hospital, or other community institution. They may engage with a family via a home visit—to meet its members, talk about their difficulties, and assess their circumstances.

Several visits and meetings may be necessary before a family fully trusts their social worker. Reaching this point is essential for the social worker to fully understand was has caused the family’s problems, as well as the obstacles that need to be overcome before finding solutions. 

While some obstacles may be immediately apparent—such as financial difficulties or a lack of access to essential resources—others may only be revealed through ongoing interaction with the family over time. There are often deep-rooted issues that manifest in the interpersonal dynamics between family members. These issues may not be fully articulated, recognized, or even understood by those involved. By gaining a family’s trust, a social worker can observe these interactions and discover how they contribute—either positively or negatively—to the family’s current situation.

The Family Ecosystem

Not all social work involves working with families at home. Social workers often assist and monitor young people in school or other institutional settings. Although they may initially focus on one problem area—such as behavioral problems in the classroom—social workers will also investigate the underlying causes, which may lead to a wider and more complex set of issues.

A young person’s difficulties are always looked at in the context of the family environment or ecosystem. This ecosystem is often wider than just the immediate family and will likely encompass other social networks, including friendship groups, authority figures, and institutions with which the young person is involved. The family is typically the core relationship for pre-adults, however, and must be evaluated closely by the social worker.

The family is usually the first social environment that youth encounter. The family unit is typically where individuals learn their first behaviors and develop their initial psychological and social conditioning. Parents and siblings are often the primary and strongest role models in the family unit. The family home should be where youth feel safe and secure; if itis a place of uncertainty, threat, or recurring violence, however, a child’s development will be severely affected.

Overcoming Barriers

It is important to state that social workers do not always see parents as part of a family’s problems. If an adversarial relationship develops between adult family members and the social worker assigned to them, this can stand in the way of progress in the case. Social workers may need to communicate truths to family members or remind parents of their legal and ethical obligations. In extreme cases, social workers also have the power to take legal action against families. A social worker’s role is to help a family rather than to penalize them or separate family members.

Families are sometimes be wary of a social worker’s intrusion into their lives. The social worker should understand this guardedness and look at it as a barrier that must be overcome. Social workers should avoid participating in hostile relationship dynamics with families, regardless of whether families try to involve them in those hostilities. The goal is always for families and social workers to cooperate.

If the family sees the social worker as an agent of the state who is there to impose the will of authority upon them, solutions will be far less effective than if they have been collectively agreed upon. The social worker should be able to work with the family to achieve a mutually satisfactory outcome.

Working With Parents

Family social workers will often work directly with parents—particularly new parents—if they are having difficulty raising their children. Families with disabled children, or those with learning difficulties, may also have a social worker assigned to them who can help access appropriate resources and care. Social workers can even help partners maintain healthy relationships with each other. 

Families should understand that being assigned to a social worker in no way implies blame or failure as a parent. There can be an unjustified stigma attached to receiving visits from a social worker, however. This stigma needs to be addressed and overcome before real progress can be made, and this can be achieved through building a relationship based on trust and empathy.

Different Families

The definition of family does not only refer to the traditional nuclear family common during the last century. Today’s definition includes many different types of families: one-parent, LGBTQ+, foster, and others. Any collective group that raises children as their own can be considered a family by social workers. All families deserve support and have the same obligations of care as those that are considered conventional.

Each type of family will face unique hurdles and problems which the social worker will try to help them overcome. Social workers will also make sure that children are  appropriately cared for by their family and given the opportunity to thrive.

Typical Situations

Most family social workers will tell you there is no such thing as a typical day or situation while working in this profession. For example, social workers might assist families in finding long-term support for coping with illness or injury, facilitating adoption procedures, or addressing behavioral issues of children in school. 

Social workers might also be called upon to investigate the possibility of child neglect or abuse and to take appropriate action. Diagnosing psychiatric disorders and helping individuals undertake rehabilitation for substance or alcohol abuse are other common job requirements. At some point in their career, all family social workers will find themselves assessing a home situation, providing referrals to support services or appropriate programs, or making formal interventions on behalf of minors.

Meeting Needs and Making Assessments

If a family is unable to meet essential needs due to lack of access to basic resources such as food, shelter, or clean drinking water, a social worker can help them receive emergency assistance. Trained social workers will sometimes be called upon to act as family therapists, leading individual or group counselling sessions to resolve problems and facilitate dialogue.

Social workers must determine the type of help needed by a family, based on individual and collective assessments. These assessments may involve mental and physical health evaluations. Based on the results of these assessments, an action plan is created, ideally in collaboration with the family. Other professionals, such as doctors, teachers, or law enforcement representatives, may also be involved.

By acting as a liaison between the family, relevant authorities, and other stakeholders, social workers are able to make sure that the family is meeting the agreed upon obligations of their action plan, as well as their own needs. At each stage, the social worker will monitor the family’s progress and adapt the plan, if necessary. Referrals to other services and programs may be made. 

Social workers provide families with assistance needed to complete paperwork and comply with requirements. They will also fully document the entire process and provide regular written progress reports and ongoing risk assessments.

Professional Conduct

While it is essential for social workers to cultivate strong and effective professional relationships with client families, it is also necessary that they do not become personally involved with those they are helping. In some cases, this can be difficult, as building trust requires a reciprocal sharing of confidence that can easily lead to genuine friendship. Becoming personally involved with a client is a clear breach of professional conduct, causing conflicts of interest and problems of confidentiality.

For this reason, a social worker should not work with a client that they already know personally. They should maintain strict boundaries between their work and private lives. A good relationship with a family is built on the clear understanding that the social worker is a professional who must always maintain a discreet distance, even as they do their best to help.

Providing Families With Solutions

Many of the problems faced by families are the result of disintegrating relationships. These can be relationships within family systems or relationships between families and external connections. Providing families with effective tools to repair and maintain these relationships is a large part of a social worker’s job. In order to achieve this, they must build relationships with those they are trying to help so that proactive solutions can be implemented.

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