How do we cope with highly-sensitive safeguarding matters?
Please note: this post discusses a topic of a sensitive nature related to safeguarding.
When I became a teacher the most challenging situations I initially encountered were staffroom politics: about which chair to sit in without causing offence. As my career progressed and roles changed, I began to encounter situations that were challenging and began to affect me on a personal level.
Initially I felt poorly equipped to deal with these. No course, not even those on safeguarding, prepared me for dealing with a variety of situations I suddenly found myself in.
How do you deal with reading in-depth reports about sexual abuse, rape, and murder? How do you learn to deal with walking into a Secure Unit to attend a meeting or voicing your opinion, in front of parents and other professionals, that you feel that their children are at risk if they stay in their care?
Often I have felt a huge sense of detachment from what I have read or seen and the more cases I have dealt with, the less I have had an emotional response to.
I don’t think this is entirely healthy and I think there are ways I could have approached things in the past that would have made the journey easier, or strategies I wish I had tried sooner. You may not have been prepared to deal with such issues, but there are ways of coping.
Strategies to deal with challenging situations
1. No guilt
Never feel guilty about having an emotional response.
Some of the information you read is disturbing and upsetting; children are both perpetrators and victims of horrendous crimes and the information that is shared between agencies can be graphic and detailed. If you need to cry then do. I have.
Talk to a trusted colleague.
I work with a wonderful woman who is equally responsible for dealing with some challenging situations. Sometimes we just need to talk as we are both aware that we cannot take our questions or frustrations out of the bubble we work in and definitely not home.
Chatting with her over a cup of tea and putting the world to rights is one of the best parts of my job.
3. Get support
Access counselling or supervision. If your workplace offers either then definitely take the opportunity to attend.
Working with an experienced professional to normalise and accept your feelings can really help to get perspective. If there is no such support then, if you can, petition the Senior Leadership Team to put it in place. I am sure you wouldn’t be the only member of staff who would benefit.
4. Draw the line
Symbolically put things to bed.
When I have read or written sensitive reports, I have a little ritual that I follow that is my way of signalling the end of that part of my work and a transition onto something else. I always signal the end of a difficult piece of work by getting something to drink. After I have had a glass or water or a coffee then I close electronic documents down and lock files away.
I always let my computer go into ‘sleep’ mode and find the logging back on to be my signal that I have moved to a different task.
Make use of other professionals. You will encounter people from a variety of professions including social workers and police officers. Ask them to direct you towards training or resources from their work environments that you might benefit from. I have found many are very receptive towards sharing.
Other professions are often surprised that there is not the same degree of training that they have encountered.
Keep a work journal.
I have kept one for many years and I use it to put my thoughts onto paper. It is anonymised and doesn’t contain any specific details relating to cases but it does contain my emotional responses in a very generalised way.
I once wrote pages on how I felt embarrassed in a meeting when I didn’t understand the legal definition of rape. I keep my journal locked in my cupboard and shred the pages frequently. Shredding them is a very cathartic act.
Be kind to yourself.
Allowing yourself to unwind and relax is crucial. Make time to do whatever you need to put you first. Take 10 minutes to go for a walk around the block or make yourself a lunch you will enjoy.
Find something positive for those days that you can predict it might be a bit of a rollercoaster.
8. Keep connected
Keep attached. Use social media to remind yourself that you are not alone in your role. Knowing that there are others out there who know how you feel can be reassuring.
9. Be realistic
Accept your limitations.
The simple fact is you are not going to be able to fix the situations you encounter. Once you have accepted that it is easier to keep a perspective on what you are able to do. You can only do as much as your role allows. Remember there are people involved you can share the load with. There are also people better placed to make decisions that you can’t.
10. Praise yourself
Know that you are doing a good job even if it isn’t recognised – due to the nature of what you do, there is little scope for recognition.
The English department might be praised for their GCSE pass rate and the EYFS teacher for their amazing outdoor space. Yet no-one publicly thanks those involved with safeguarding for securing the conviction of a sex offender or identifying the local source of all of that cannabis.
You have to know it in yourself that the work you have done, however unsung, was work well done.
Roles that deal with high level safeguarding issues are tough, but you are not alone.