VolunteersPivotal in enhancing child development –

By Charlene Borg. BPhil Inclusion and Special Educational Needs, PG Dip. Systemic Family Therapy

Parent Relations Manager at Inspire – The Foundation for Inclusion

Every day for the past 18 years, I have been meeting with families who eat breakfast with uncertainty. The not knowing and sometimes not even being able to imagine how the future of their children, grandchildren and/or siblings will be, is the rule of the day for such families.

Drawing on personal experience of working with families that struggle with disability, I put forward witness of how much this life experience is a relationally traumatising one. Not just for the disabled person, but also for the other members of the family and extended family.

In this article, I will be using 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. I will discuss what is gained by opening conversations with families who suffer from relational trauma. I will draw the attention towards the roles of hope and hopelessness during one’s journey and finally, the value of emotional support for the family which is pivotal, not only to overcome trauma, but more importantly to provide our young ones with a healthy sense of self and emotional development.

Since social scientists have shown considerable interest in researching about narratives or stories, we have been able to understand that personal, social, and cultural experiences are constructed through the sharing of stories. Labov and Waletzky’s (1967/1997).

The narrative voice within the self is a significant resource for human healing. This means that being able to voice out what happens to us, our thoughts, fears and reasoning, helps us deal with hardship and uncertainty.

Clandinin and Connelly (2000) explain how narratives capture personal and human dimensions of experience over time. This is why our stories change each time we narrate them, in order to make space for the new learning we gather. Narratives take into account the relationship between the individual’s experience and the context in which it took place and very important, they help organise information about how events were interpreted; the values, beliefs and experiences that guided those interpretations; and their hopes, intentions and plans for the future.

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

A crucial aspect of our narratives is that they need to cohere for us and for others, they need to have continuity and be able to predict, even if to some extent, certainty about the future. The difficulty with disability is that the future has been wounded and creating a conversational space that can embrace both the hope and hopelessness that coexist in the family experience, helps them heal and 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 son/daughter receives intervention from any of our educational programmes. These regular meetings provide our families the peace of mind that there are people and professionals in the field of support who are ready to listen and be with them in a way that helps them grow.

Additionally, within our multidisciplinary team all professionals together with the parent support department work hand in hand to assist not only the individual with a disability, but also his/her family making sure that they are adequately equipped throughout their journey of having a family member with a disability.

Research by Snyder, Cheavans & Cheavans (1999) demonstrates that; ‘Individuals who are hopeful do better at problem solving, at managing challenging situations and even coping with illness and disability’…

…however, hope does not exist in a vacuum, it originates from powerful lived experiences. It is embedded in family history and that of the wider community, and it’s influenced by social context and circumstance.

Hope is relational and ones role in the family unit or with extended family, determines ones position towards hope and hopelessness:

  • Some people hold onto hopefulness.
  • Others bear hopelessness.
  • Some do hopeful actions rather than feel, think or speak about hope.
  • Others sustain beliefs of hope, but are not good at acting hopefully.

In contradiction to what people think hope and hopelessness are not opposing forces, but co-existing ones. As beautifully put by Carmel Flaskas (2007); ‘Hope is the other side of despair. Being closer to one side, reminds us the need of the other’.

Thus 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 (Flaskas 2007). As professionals, our aim is not to fix the despair, but to embrace both for what they are…co-existing human emotions.

This brings me towards the end of this article and how what was discussed above is pivotal in enhancing child development, and at Inspire we do our very best to foster this belief with our families.  Like many, I was recently boarding on the plane looking forward for my holiday. This wasn’t the first time, I had been there many times before, listening to the safety procedures of evacuation of the aircraft. This one time though, the phrase where adults are told that they should first secure breathing masks on themselves and then on their children struck me.

This got me thinking… why should such an instruction be any different for one’s emotional health and stability? If we as adults do not take care of our emotional healing and wellbeing, how can we be fit to support and guide our children? After all, isn’t it true that 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?

Adults/parents are the main role models for our children, so let’s embody our teachings and learnings and children will follow the example. Let’s take good care of our emotional health, only this way we will allow our children to grow believing that they are worth loving not only for the beautiful attributes and immense potential they have, but for who they are.

View the original article in A&H Magazine here