Part I: The Family Lab
Meet the Jones family
The Jones family consists of four members: mother Caroline (age 75), and her three adult children, Sally (age 52), David (age 49), and Sam (age 46). Sam has a daughter, Lily (age 7) and David has a wife, though neither of these family members have attended a session. Also pivotal in the family dynamic are Caroline’s sister, Janet (age 77) and Caroline’s ex-husband Greg. While “Aunt Janet,” as she is most frequently referenced in sessions, is still a beloved and active part of the family, Greg has largely been absent since the children were ages 9, 6, and 3, respectively.
Initially, the Jones family came in to see the social worker to discuss assistance for Caroline. Her children have noticed her having a few difficulties with memory and have some concerns about safety issues in her apartment, which is in disrepair. Her memory issues are related both to forgetfulness surrounding medications she should be taking daily as well as severe lapses where she is out in public and forgets where she lives. All family members would like Caroline to continue to live independently, so this intervention is in order to seek out resources and assistance to ensure their mother is safe.
In a more specific breakdown of the family’s viewpoint, Caroline feels like her children are exaggerating her troubles but is willing to meet with the social worker to see what compromise can be achieved. Sally is the most vocal, the most frustrated, the most exasperated of the children and, as such, is seen as the “bulldog” of the family. As the sessions progress, focus on Sally’s reaction to Caroline’s issues brings up additional family dynamics related to her unrelenting need to be in control. David is often passive and sometimes literally absent, certainly the most quiet of the group, but does see a need for his mother to improve her circumstances. Sam is the peacemaker of the group, clearly her mother’s “favorite” -- or if nothing else, the one who most easily breaks up the tension. Caroline seems to listen best when Sam speaks. What the youngest child often is saying is similar to what Sally is saying, but the entire group receives it better from Sam than Sally.
Jones family subsystems
The Jones family had a number of dyads: Caroline and Sally; Caroline and Sam; Sally and David; Sally and Sam. Interestingly, there didn’t seem to be a clear dyad between David and Caroline as Sally seemed to bulldoze over her brother’s direct connection to their mother. Sally’s dyad with her younger sister seemed much more calm and grounded as the two displayed mutual respect for each other at all times. Sally’s relationship with her mother as well as with her brother was much more fraught with tension and a perceptible power struggle. Caroline’s dyad with Sam was very sweet and loving.
Triads came into play, too, namely with the three siblings forming a unit that started out solid, became tense as Sally and David experienced flare ups, and eventually settled back into a very unified group by the end of treatment. Sam’s peacemaking skills helped her two older siblings return from the brink of nearly literal warfare to agreement on common goals and understandings of how to achieve them. The other triad formed with Caroline, David, and Sam who banded together to “gang up” on Sally and ask her to lessen her grip on the situation. Again, Sam played the peacemaker here, too, bringing the whole family back together.
Family systems theory in relation to the Joneses
For the Jones family, their system hangs in a delicate balance. Hepworth, Rooney, Rooney, and Strom-Gottfried (2017) note that “assessing terms of family functioning deemphasizes individual pathology and blame and often diffuses responsibility for participating in solutions among multiple family members simultaneously” (p. 255). In the case of the Joneses, however, the opposite result seems to come into play. While Sally initially presents as the one “in control,” the spokesperson for her siblings as well as her mother, that dynamic shifts quickly as Caroline, David, and Sam express (in their own distinct way) a desire for Sally to deal with her own issues better and take a more passive role in family decisions.
In a more methodical breakdown of these family subsystems and their dynamics, initially, discussions were dominated by squabbling between Caroline and Sally, but as the weeks went on, more focus shifted to Sally as both Sam and David expressed concern (largely Sam) and annoyance (largely David) about Sally’s attempts to control the situation. Tensions between Sally and David seemed the highest, ultimately, as Sally belied her brother’s frequent absences and intense focus on his own life/own job and David expressed that he believed his sister was essentially bullying him and casting undeserved blame when he felt his focus on his work was for the betterment of their mother’s life.
One session was only Caroline and Sam it was during this time that things were the calmest and most productive as deep family history was uncovered and understood better by the two women sharing as well as the social worker. This session focused heavily on the time surrounding Caroline and Greg’s divorce, the heightened role of Aunt Janet once Greg left the family, and Sally’s shift to more adult responsibilities than most nine-year-olds experience. With both Sally and David absent from that day’s session, the focus shifted completely away from Caroline and her issues and settled squarely on Caroline and Sam’s assessment and worry about Sally and what they could do to ease her burden of responsibility.
When they were all together, Sam served both as the joker and the hero, blending those two roles into what can only be described as the “voice of reason.” David, the lost child, seemed to want to keep mostly to himself and help his family in a more specifically financial way, while Sally was the clear scapegoat, seemingly wanting to be an effective leader but perhaps with too hard of an approach. That said, Caroline expressed that she was the scapegoat in this family’s dynamic since her kids were all “ganging up on her,” when she didn’t think there was any call for worry.
Considering the family, then, as a system, their dynamics revealed a power struggle between Caroline and Sally, both of whom simultaneously expressed feeling badgered by their family members while also both displaying the need for better coping mechanisms. The tension with David was a flare up of frustration where he felt like Sally was asking for more than he was able to give, considering the stressors with his professional life.
As the social worker, what’s notable about the homeostasis of the Jones family -- their status quo, so to speak (Hepworth, et al., 2017) -- is the balance of power between Caroline and Sally. All family members recognize that Sally had to “grow up quickly” because Greg and Caroline got divorced, essentially putting Sally in a parental-type role to help her mother out. As a result, she devoted a lot of herself to the protection and preservation of their family unit, resulting in her hyper-focus on her mother’s mental and physical well-being in this current circumstance that has brought the Jones family to meet with a social worker. Sally doesn’t permit any boundaries with her family members, insisting, instead, that she is involved in every step of everything. While that may have been the “norm” for many years, the Jones family addresses this issue head-on in most sessions. Through conversations with the social worker, this underlying control dynamic with Sally has unearthed some profound circuitry of the way the family has functioned for many years.
Family social work skills utilized with the Jones family
In order to address some of these issues, the social worker used several different skills and strategies. The social worker asked each family member about their ideal outcomes of their work together as she facilitated dialogue between the family members and involved everyone, especially the typically quieter folks, like David. The social worker kept everyone on-topic and asked each family member to articulate not only what they each thought the issue was with their mom but how they thought they could help out. The social worker helped the family set goals that everyone thought were attainable and connected the family with multiple additional resources. For the family’s final session, the social worker used consolidating gains, a process of “summarizing and stabilizing the changes achieved and developing a plan to sustain those changes” (Hepworth, et al., 2017, p. 580), to help everyone examine where they started in their work, what they had accomplished, and what could still be coming down the road.
Tools that worked best with the Jones family
Goal-setting worked extremely well for the Jones family. They could all easily agree on goals and when there were check-ins about progress, uniformly all members were achieving said-goals. This process seemed to calm the family dynamic over the weeks, too, making everyone seem less panicked about Caroline’s immediate safety. Each family member reported feeling empowered by following through with the plan set up each week. As everyone participated in this process, Sally seemed to relax her hyper-vigilance and the sessions grew calmer and more productive.
More work is likely in order for this family. David, especially, made pointed remarks on more than one occasion that “Sally needs therapy.” Sally did not react favorably to this -- she called it a personal attack -- and so it is not clear if she is open to doing any solo work or if there will be further tensions between Sally and David. Sally maintained that the focus of the sessions should be on Caroline, despite the fact that conversation inevitably circled back to Sally’s behavior more than Caroline’s. Whether this is a deflection from the central issue that brought the Jones family in to see the social worker or an issue that was uncovered as a result of the sessions, there is clearly an opportunity for deeper work for the family -- and for Sally -- to do in order to heal more of the family tension.
Part II: Self-Assessment and Course Reflection
Similarities and differences between working with individuals and families
Working with families is very different than working with one client. With only one client, the perspective is narrowed to that solitary point of view and so the social worker’s job is to read the body language and assess the content of the person’s story in order to facilitate goal-setting and other productive treatments. Working with a family requires the social worker to multi-task, to listen more broadly and intake the information with a wider lens. As Hepworth, et al. (2017) suggests, “Family assessment focuses social work attention on the family as a unit, with transactions among individuals providing clues about the properties of the family system” (p. 255). Additionally, Hepworth, et al., (2017), points out that while each family member may be characterized by a particular mood, behavior, or action, the actual assessment considered everyone’s role in the dynamic as well as how each person adheres to the boundaries and rules created by the group. In both individual and family social work, the presenting issue may turn out to be a symptom of the underlying cause that brought the individual or the family in to speak with a professional -- the difference in family social work is that likely means the complexity of the overall dynamic can skyrocket quickly and prove more difficult to “untangle” than in a setting with only one client.
Even though I only had the opportunity to be the social worker for one session in the Family Lab, I much preferred it over the one-on-one sessions. Perhaps it is because of my +20 background as a manager, but I am very comfortable in group dynamics and can pretty swiftly “read the room,” so to speak, and understand how people relate to each other. Seeing all of the players in the same space revealed more about the presenting problem of Caroline’s memory issues and questionable housing and why those issues were important to each family member. Watching the siblings react to each other -- and react to their mother -- spoke volumes about how the family functioned and why. Assessment, therefore, was simpler to dive into quickly than it was in an individual session where my client was more stuck on a loop of feeling “off” (as she put it) in her postpartum state. While the Jones family ping-ponged off each other and generated a ton of information quickly that resulted in massive steps forward, Michelle (my previous client) moved more at a glacial speed -- slow and, at times, barely perceptible.
As the social worker, I felt much more comfortable with the family than with the individual client. Even silence felt better with more people in the room than it did with just one. The interaction felt immediately productive and beneficial with the Jones family, while it took weeks to feel like the work I was doing with Michelle was having an impact at all.
Social variables applied to working with the Jones family
In my Reflection Paper, I focused on gender, age, and race. Perhaps because of the nature of role-playing (and not necessarily looking like or being the characters we were portraying), I am not certain any of these factors were conscious considerations during the family sessions.
Thinking about it retrospect, though, it is certainly interesting that David, the token male, broke out of his “quiet” shell on a few occasions to point a fairly accusatory finger at his older sister Sally. He also was the most focused on money, believing he had to work hard in order to help support Caroline. While Sally was intent on being physically present and involved directly and daily with her mother -- arguably like a partner would, an interesting note, given her positioning from the age of nine as co-parent with Caroline -- David seemed to want to be the “man” of the family and provide for his mother financially. These gender roles are congruent with stereotypical male/female familial expectations. Additionally, they help explain the burst of tension between Sally and David, who were both trying to “mother” or “father” -- parent -- Caroline.
Certainly, age was a factor, since the concern around Caroline was linked to her being older, living alone, and not necessarily demonstrating that she was able to do it all on her own, as she wanted to do. Age also had relevance in regard to Sally, who was rushed to a more adult state of mind at an early age because of her parent’s divorce. As a result, Sally and Caroline perceived each other more as peers rather than mother/daughter.
Race was never a tangibly considered factor, since all of the role-players were white and ethnicity, skin color, or other aspects of race were never discussed by the social worker or the Jones family.
Similarly, because all of the role-players were white women, the unspoken assumption seemed to be that the social worker was a white woman every week. It was never discussed and there seemed to be no major tension with the social worker and any of the members of the Jones family. As a result, the social worker role felt largely unchallenged and fully accepted by all members of the Jones family.
What I learned along the way
For my own experience as the social worker, my strengths came in directing the conversation, asking well-timed questions, listening carefully not only to what the family members were saying but how they were saying it, and diving deep into family history. During my session was when most of the family history came up that helped explain how Sally wound up in this co-parenting-type role and how Caroline, David, and Sam recognized and appreciated all that Sally had done for them, both in the time right after Greg left and in more recent times -- but there was also a desire for Sally to live her own life and let go of some of this need to be in control. Diving into that backstory revealed a ton about the Jones family and what brought them to this moment in time where they were asking a social worker for assistance. I felt extremely confident in this facilitator role and felt like the family responded quite well to me.
Challenges I could foresee as a family social worker are similar to challenges I experienced working with one client. Namely, resisting the urge to give advice or blatantly state my own opinion about why a family is functioning (or malfunctioning). Jumping to those kinds of conclusions aren’t beneficial to anyone and would likely delay any real progress as well as break trust between myself and my clients. Remaining grounded, present, nonjudgmental, and empathetic are all keys to maintaining that sense of professionalism and building repartee with with my clients.
For my own learning, this class has been hugely beneficial. Being a counselor is hard -- especially in a one-on-one setting where it’s infinitely more likely that I might “put my foot in my mouth.” The lab format was hard for me to adjust to in one-on-one work -- and probably because we started with one-on-one work, so it was all new then -- but by the time I got to try it out with the family group, I felt infinitely more comfortable. I felt less pressure to be “the savior” and more like I was an active participator, simply there to help suss out where the true issues were housed in the Jones family. The assignments I have completed through this course have served as great mile-markers for where I started and where I grew along the way. In addition to learning real “hard skills” (as well as soft skills) related to the profession, I learned a great deal about myself and how my past experiences -- including traumas -- might factor into a direct practice setting.
Overall, my first semester at MSASS has proven to be a time of personal growth and strength: I moved to a new city and returned to school after a fourteen year hiatus since earning my MFA in Creative Writing in 2005. Frankly, I have a professional career that is about twenty-four years old and I have served in a leadership position with every business or organization that has ever employed me. I am very lucky to have a long history of excellent and nurturing mentors who have taken me under their wings and instilled me with a strong sense of purpose. Because of the opportunities I have had to be a leader, a thinker, an innovator, as well as a mentor to others along the way, I found my way to MSASS. I wanted to take the skills I had developed as a manager and apply them to activism, to social justice, and to the welfare of lives I am fortunate enough to be a part of. While learning this brand new career, I am able to draw in aspects of what my previous career trained me to be: an advocate, a voice, and a presence. I am able to think critically about what being a leader means from a socially-driven perspective. The wealth of experience I have working with the public in urban areas for all this time gives me a certain advantage with some of the material covered in these first semester courses. But the beauty of this life is there is always more to learn, always new ways to think about information and apply it to different settings. I find it thrilling to explore these academic and practical pathways to see what is familiar, what merely seems familiar, and what is brand new.
While many of my experiences this semester have helped me develop as a social worker, this course is the ideal example of starting from scratch with preconceived notions of how to work with people. As I’ve discussed many times over in assignments this semester, I’ve been frustrated with myself or felt inadequate for my client, but I’ve persevered. I’ve willfully decided not to give up, to keep trying, to be vulnerable and willing to fail. I am not yet ready to be a leader in the field of social work -- that likely goes without saying -- but I am ready to embrace all of the challenges that come along the way as I work towards that goal of achieving eventual expertise in the professional competencies I am learning in the program.
Looking forward to community practice
Next semester, I am excited to move into macro/community work. I am a community practice student and doing my field in a community practice setting this year, so I am hopeful that I feel in my element learning the in’s and out’s of macro social work. While I expect challenges to crop up along the way, I will go into the sister course to Direct Practice with a little bit of true experience and a keener sense of how to navigate that terrain. Undoubtedly, I will carry what I’ve learned this semester with me in my pursuit to be mindful of my place in any given interaction, community, or organization. I look forward to turning the page to what’s next and learning from it all.
Hepworth, D. H., Rooney, R. H., Rooney, G. D., Strom-Gottfried, K.. & Larsen, J. (2017, 2013). Direct social Work practice: Theory and skills (10th ed.). Boston: MA: Cengage Learning
Written in pursuit of my MSSA (2019)
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