Working with family

Mostly I have discussed the journey of professional learning on which I embarked at 22 years of age, as a discovery of the individual, and this is indeed where I and most students begin. There was always some recognition that this involved an over-simplification of the work. I have already referred to the sense in which the parents are always present in the young offender – effective work with young people necessarily involved dealing with the parents, whether you actually met them or not. You also had to discover that in working with an individual you were working with a social and community context. This was very much part of the zeitgeist of the 1970s, though I came to focus on it more at the end of the ‘70s and thereafter, so I will return to this later.

The first step past working with individuals came then in working with young people. It was Donald Winnicott who strikingly pointed out that ‘there is no such thing as a baby’. ‘Young children do not, indeed cannot survive as “isolates”, but instead can only thrive within a primary relationship context.’ It is actually an old insight:

No man is an island

Entire of itself,

Every man is a piece of the continent,

A part of the main.

There is then also no such thing as a teenager – a teenager’s identity acquires its full dimensions in the context of intimate relationships, and where those have broken down, in whatever relationships can be constructed to substitute for that family identity. The importance of this truth is underlined by how easily life goes wrong for young people who have no consistent family presence in their lives and who have to either make something out of fantasies about family, or from the closest they can get to intimacy with often similarly disadvantaged young people. There is a real sense in which all work with young people is family work.

Although I studied family therapy and had some limited experience of it some seven years post qualification, I was doing family work from early in my working life, though I may not have thought of it as such.


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