Jenni Whitehead offers advice about recognising and coping with stress brought on through child protection work

Named persons for child protection have to be on the management/leadership team. The level of decision-making involved in the role demands a high-level response. Often in primary schools it is the head who takes on the role and I know many heads who say they do not want to put other members of staff in the role because it feels unfair to expect others to take it on. People who have reached the top of the hierarchy are often expected to manage the very difficult situations; in effect that’s why they are there. I remember a head saying to me: ‘The buck stops here.’ This meant that she felt responsible for everybody else’s work and didn’t expect others to manage her needs. This is how hierarchy works. However, child protection work can place even the most experienced and responsible person under a level of stress not experienced through the other pressures of their job. Child protection work reaches the parts that other work doesn’t touch! In this article I will discuss the nature of such stress and hopefully offer some useful advice on how to manage it.

The crisis

We may normally be able to cope with very difficult issues including child protection cases; however, we may find that a particular case affects us more than the others. We might have no idea why this particular case causes us so much distress or we may have a very clear idea what it is that is affecting us so badly. It might be something about the case that taps into our own past experiences, not necessarily abusive experiences but experiences of childhood. I remember a teacher telling me that when she looked at a child who she had had to refer, the child reminded her of her own very happy childhood and she felt incredibly guilty that she had had a good childhood and her pupil hadn’t. Often its only after we have managed someone else’s crisis that we start to feel the effect on us. It’s as though we have to wait till the fuss has died down before our own feelings hit us. Others have watched us manage a traumatic event well and therefore expect us to be OK but inside we may feel very alone and not able to cope. It may be that in managing a case we have made mistakes, errors of judgement (we are all human!) and for experienced people this can prove very difficult to manage. We may experience feelings of shame and embarrassment about not feeling we can cope and this may stop us from asking for help.

Shock

In the immediate aftermath of a crisis named persons can experience shock. Feeling numb, having difficulty taking anything in. Short-term memory loss is often experienced by people in shock and sometimes people describe it as being like a dream/nightmare.

Intrusive thoughts and imagery

The memory of events may keep coming up, sometimes in a very intrusive way causing us to go over and over it in our minds. Sleep disturbance or just not being able to sleep is not unusual. Intrusive imagery is very hard to cope with. A headteacher told me how the image of a child being dragged kicking and screaming out of her school by his mother kept coming up in her head. She said: ‘I would be getting on with something and then experience a flashback of this child’s distress.’ (The court had, in its wisdom, decided that a transfer of care from the child’s father to his mother should occur at school and the child wanted to stay with his dad.)

Angry feelings

Child protection work can bring out some very angry feelings. Anger that something so awful could have happened to a child, anger about the abusive parent or about the parent who hasn’t protected the child. Anger about a worker who has delayed reporting something or anger at ourselves for not picking up on something quickly enough.

Fear

Fear is another common feeling experienced through dealing with child abuse. Fear that something dreadful might happen to the child. Fear that a parent may attack us as a result of making a referral about their family. Fear that we may get it wrong.

Remember

All the above feelings and concerns are within the normal range of reactions to stressful events.  Being in a management/leadership position does not make us immune to them and in some ways it makes them harder to tackle as we may have a belief that we should be able to cope!

Physical effects of stress

Some feelings are experienced within the body and can lead us to think we are physically ill when in fact our body is showing signs of emotional distress. The following are common:

  • tiredness
  • dizziness
  • a racing heart and shaking
  • difficulty in breathing
  • tightness in the throat and chest
  • feeling sick and diarrhoea
  • headaches, neck aches and backaches
  • period problems.

Remember: These physical reactions can be normal reactions to stressful events. However, if you are worried about them talk to a doctor and get them checked out.

What can help?

Trying to forget, or avoiding things to do with the incident or issue may seem like a good idea at the time, pushing things to the back of our minds can allow us to get on with other things for a while. However, this is usually short lived and the feelings are likely to resurface. Talk to someone about the events and how they have left you feeling. If possible talk to another named person as they are more likely to understand something of your experience. (Make sure it is someone who can listen though, not someone who is just going to say, ‘I know just how you feel the same thing happened to me…’, and go on about their own experiences!) Talking about these issues isn’t easy but it does help. It may not be possible to entirely forget but talking can help to reduce painful and often overwhelming feelings. Why not set up a local named person’s support group that meets on a regular basis. This group would offer opportunities to share ideas as well as feelings. In the immediate aftermath of a stressful event try to ensure that you are not going straight into another situation where you are expected to make important decisions. Try to clear the rest of the day’s diary of meetings or at the very least clear the next hour: recovery time is important for wellbeing. Be especially careful with your driving after a stressful event – accidents are more common after stress. If possible take someone in the car with you or get a taxi home.

Seeking further help

If you are finding it difficult to handle the intensity of your emotions or body sensations and these feelings are not easing after two to three weeks, it’s time to consider seeking further help. Remember: Seeking further help is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign of taking responsibility for your own health and wellbeing. If you work for a local authority you may be able to access confidential support through occupational health. Trade unions and professional associations are also usually good at providing support. Where you are not able to access support from these services your own GP should be able to identify appropriate counsellors.

On a personal note

Ten years ago a particularly difficult case caused me to seek the help of a counsellor. I didn’t want to go and put it off for ages. It got to the point that I could not focus properly on my work and I just felt angry all the time. My boss was brilliant and set time aside for me every morning and eventually I told him that I had to get some help. To my surprise he had already set something up; he said he was just waiting for me to get to the point where I would accept an offer of help.

I have to say that going to see the counsellor was the best thing that I could have done. The first session just involved me getting it all out of my system – the counsellor didn’t get a word in! Over the next four sessions I was able to begin to unpick why that particular case had affected me so badly. The counselling was completely confidential and at the end of it I found I could think more rationally about work. I remember going to the fourth session and at the end of it just thinking, ‘I don’t need this anymore’ – and I didn’t!

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