Introducing…. “Difficult Conversations”

There has been quite a pause in the business of MadeToLast since I adopted a little boy and Kate had a baby earlier this year.   However the wait is over and we are back, or at least I am for now, with a raft of new ideas and ways to embed true resillience into society.

I have been working closely with Bristol University to develop a bid for the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) to co-create training for social workers, adoptive parents, foster families and all carers of ‘looked after children’ around how to talk to children about past experiences – things that happened before coming into care – Difficult Conversations about Children’s Care Journeys.

For me the work came about after I had noticed, as far back as my original adoption training in 2013, that lovely adoptive parents were not talking to their little ones sufficiently about their lives previous to adoption.  “We’re in the honeymoon period”, “she is too young to talk about that”, “I worry what his behaviour would be like if we tried to talk about that again…” were all phrases I heard.    This raised red flags for me.  Working in conflict resolution and more importantly conflict prevention since 1996 I had learned that a lack, and indeed a fear of communication is often behind some of the worst disagreements and ultimately costly and painful outcomes in any arena – be that around dangerous chemicals in the environment, ongoing tensions between an IT and an HR departments, or the potential enactment of a highly controversial government policy.  And of course, with our own children.

During my adoption training we were encouraged to meet birth family, find out as much as we could and then use that information judiciously to help our children build an understanding and story of their life.   This was fantastic advice and fast-forward to getting my son,  I was lucky enough to be able to do just that.

This interface between children, the past, the future and adoptive parents fascinated me.  These kinds of difficult conversations were what I “managed” on a daily basis with stakeholders, decision-makers and the public,  so I was eager to learn how social workers and carers addressed this most difficult of areas.   Essentially the advice was to have the conversations, use the facts you know and have them early, but there was little beyond that.

I knew I wanted my child to be as resillient as possible and so I felt I needed to tell some positive stories about his past to create memories and identity.   Based on conflict resolution and positive psychology theory I came up with a number of strategies for slipping in real information into his awareness from a very early age.  He now appears to be now beautifully curious and open about his story – when he feels like it and on his terms!  And of course there will be bumps in the road…. which is why I wanted to find out more.

In January of this year I approached Dr Debbie Watson at Bristol University to see whether my anecdotal experience was reflected in the research.   I had met Debbie at an event for a beautiful “memory box” called Trove, an interactive case where looked after children could place the things that came from their birth parents.   I wondered at that point whether my idea had been already addressed, but it turned out that Trove had been a wonderful way of eliciting conversations from the children, but had now landed the resarchers, parents and social workers with lots of children asking questions they were not quite ready to deal with.   That was exactly what I wanted to help address  –  enter the collaboration on “Difficult Conversations”.

From this deep work with the University and its partners I hope to draw out some of the deep human responses to difficult conversations to be able to use with some of the other difficult questions of the day – not least how we respond to environmental and social breakdown…   Every time I talk, people ask me to develop more gentle conversation ideas around dementia, bereavement, ivf children, and physically and mentally disabled people who feel their lives are being run by medication and doctors.

Do get in touch if you have any ideas or questions.