Study group: Language and communication

To gather evidence for a United Nations review of the UK’s human rights compliance, ATD Fourth World is running a two-year series of study groups on poverty, social work and the right to family life. Four earlier sessions focused on risk, neglect, parent advocacy, and disability and racism. ATD submitted its first report to the UN in December 2022.

The 5th session, on 1-2 June 2023, focused on the theme of “Language and communication”. The 18 participants included 10 lived-experience activists; four practitioners of social work or family support work; and one academic. Our invitation said: Some language is stigmatising and some language is jargon. How can we improve communication to foster empathy?

The language in social work campaign

In 2020-21, parent activist and expert-by-experience Tammy Mayes collaborated with social worker Jason Barnes to create the #NotAServiceUser campaign about language in social work. Tammy says: “Why is language important in life? For me, language is the be all and end all.

“Life is about building people up, not tearing people down. And language is a big part of that.

“We need to use words that don’t dehumanise and degrade people. Take ‘service users’ for instance. We always have to be mindful of how we talk and there’s different ways of talking. So how do you communicate with people who just don’t hear you? It’s not just how you speak to people. We’re trying to build a model where we can all work together with the same goal in mind.”

As a special guest speaker at this study group session, Jason explained: “The way that we communicate lies the building blocks and foundations for relationship building. So often we get it wrong. The social work profession in the UK can be very alienating, very bureaucratic, very blaming towards families. A lot of individual social workers feel as though they don’t really have the power to change the way things operate, but actually I feel strongly that we do when we come together and speak up and take actions in our own roles, we can create a different kind of environment.

“The language in social work campaign started with the Social Work Action Group (SWAG), which I founded in 2016. It started off as a professional development group for social workers across three different local authorities in Sussex. We were thinking about ways in which we could develop ourselves as social workers in terms of our work with families being more person-centred. But during the lockdown and the pandemic things changed and we decided that SWAG could be more effective if we made use of virtual opportunities to reach out to other people across the whole country.

“Tammy and I came in contact with each other and the rest is history. One of the campaigns we had was about language in social work and we created a 40-minute video which is on YouTube. I’m very proud to say it’s been viewed thousands of times now and is used in lots of different training sessions in local authorities across the country. The whole heart and soul of that campaign is to challenge the very stigmatizing language and the very blaming disempowering jargon that is often used in social work. There’s a huge amount of pressure for social workers to conform to a way of speaking, writing, and thinking. As I’ve become more experienced and more confident in myself as a social worker, I’ve learned that it doesn’t have to be that way. We can challenge the norms within social work.

‘Words stick with us’

“In that campaign, Taliah Drayak, Tammy, myself and lots of others were challenging our profession to think more critically and clearly about the type of language that we use, whether that be things that we’re writing down in reports, saying in child protection conferences, or things that are said and communicated to children who are in care. Something that all of us will know in our own personal lives is that something that someone says about us can really stick with us in our heart for a very long time.

“Words have got such power, especially when they’re spoken by someone who is in a position of authority or position of power. And what I have experienced in social work is that labels or words can be written down in a report about a family, a child, or a parent, whatever it might be, and that word or phrase can follow that child or family for many years to come, even after many many changes of social worker and completely different circumstances for families.

“For us to be able to change the culture in children’s social care, and to change the way that we function, operate and work with families, it’s absolutely vitally important that we work in partnership with parents, young people, and the people that we’re actually there to serve. It’s not a top-down approach of telling people what to do and telling people how to run their lives.

“In my current role, I work as a child protection conference chair. Always, I’m clear at the beginning of the conferences, and also in my pre-discussions with the family, that the way the conferences are run is respectful for the families,

that we don’t use blaming language, and we’re not there to judge.

“We’re there to support and help and empower families to make the changes that they want and need to make. Sometimes you’re working in a context where there’s expectations about how some of these conferences are run, but for me, what is vitally important is when we create a safety plan together. It’s absolutely meaningless and pointless for professionals to create a list of to dos for families, or for parents, or for young people. It’s not worth the paper it’s written on unless it’s a plan that works for the family and a plan that the family are invested in.”

Key discussion points

  • Context matters.
  • Classism is rooted in language; it also causes emotional communication to be judged harshly.
  • Power dynamics matter.
  • The language used by social workers shapes how they see their role.
  • Language impacts our emotional well-being and impacts identity; dehumanising and belittling language lowers confidence and undermines people.
  • Active listening includes taking care about body language and being aware of neuro-diversity.
  • Language changes when it gets written down.
  • ‘Positive thinking’ is sometimes unhelpful. Meaningful conversation requires co-creating mutual understanding and protecting boundaries.
  • Language has to be matched with action; and inconsistent messages erode trust.
  • Values are embedded in language.
  • Social services have ‘corporatised’ certain words about relationships.
  • Using language for self-empowerment.

Excerpts from the discussion

“I’m not sure you can ever change language, it will always be evolving, it’s like a train, it will always have a departure date and it will always leave and change and evolve. It’s more the interpretation of language: how do we foster the time to be able to process what people are saying and the understanding of that?” [parent]

Context matters

Parents may feel comfortable speaking freely to peers; while saying the same thing to professionals can make them feel they’re being put in a box and labelled, especially if professionals don’t understand the context of parents’ lives.

“It’s about tailoring language to the family or the people you’re talking to.  I would not open up if there was a load of social workers in the room.” [parent]

“You kind of make a bespoke answer to the person that you’re being questioned by.

“If a professional was asking me, that evokes loads of feelings that make me anxious. My brain wants to appease the professionals.

“I’m aware that my language needs to be different for all different types of people. […] When I was dealing with social workers they weren’t even interested in getting to know the journey, or the story behind what was going on. How can you come into my home and tell me I’m abusing my child when you don’t know anything about us? You haven’t sought to learn anything about us, our background, or understanding, or our experiences, and then to constantly use the word abuse, when I’ve had it done towards me my whole life—I have been through institutional abuse for over twenty years, so it was insulting more than anything. It raised that much more emotion because they were using language towards me that had been actioned towards me my whole life.

“I appreciate social workers haven’t got the time to understand the background of every single family but in order to be relational and get to an empowerment stage, that’s time well invested at the beginning of a case: get to know your family, their background, to get to know their struggles because if you don’t do all that, how do you guide somebody? A parent wouldn’t be able to guide their teenager if they didn’t know their background. It’s completely impossible.” [parent]

“If a professional doesn’t know about you, it’s not your fault, it’s lack of professionalism. They should know their cases and the history. They should know what the parent has been through, because if they don’t it’s going to cause a roadblock. Why would you want to work with somebody who hasn’t got the time to read that file and also find out about you?” [social worker]

“When you label someone, you put them in a box. You have stereotypes, like thinking ‘all autistic people are like this’, which is not true because every person is different.” [practitioner]

Classism is rooted in language; it also causes emotional communication to be judged harshly.

We need ground rules that create open spaces for communication and we need words that bring us together and set people up to succeed.

“I’ve attended conferences as a social worker for about twenty years, and they are top-heavy, talking down to the client, and incredibly oppressive. The only time they haven’t been oppressive is when middle-class parents attended conferences because they could engage well with the professionals. Sometimes they had friendships with the professionals, and that was the only time when the plan worked for the parents and it was beneficial from the parents’ perspective for the children. I’ve been a service user. My dad had a stroke and we were completely patronised until we opened our mouth; but I think I sound middle class or educated. When we used their language, my dad got better service.’ [social worker]

“About middle class, I don’t believe it’s just about language; it’s emotion. When you can’t control your emotions, you seem like you’re mentally unstable or mentally unwell and you’re causing emotional harm. It’s not that; it’s you’re separated from your child, so there’s a trauma and excruciating pain there already every single day, then you’re having to go through the process that you’re not educated on, and you’ve also got the real world going on, where you should be working — but you can’t do that because they are demanding your time, while there are professionals around that table being paid a lot of money for their jobs. That’s where the parents’ anger comes from.

“When my child was first removed, it wasn’t because I was a hothead who was constantly angry. I was filled with all these emotions that I couldn’t communicate clearly. And no one said to me, ‘don’t do that in front of social workers, do it after the meeting’. Once I learnt that strategy myself it was better for me and I teach parents this now: ‘Go into the meeting, I don’t care how many times you have to breathe through that meeting, do not swear, do not raise your tone of voice, keep calm, come out of that meeting, phone me and say whatever the hell you want.’ These parents come out of their meetings and scream, shout, swear. But it’s just suppressed emotions of what they’re going through. The micromanagement and the communication is awful and this is what causes so much anger in people because you don’t look like you’re trustworthy.” [parent]

“How we put words together, if you put it wrong it can land you in big trouble.

“I have a friend who had a son taken away from her and it all came from the words she used. She was having a conversation with her GP about the son. The son was a very difficult child, to handle him wasn’t easy, and he was also having issues at school. The school contacted social services, who contacted the GP. When they were talking with my friend on the phone, she was frustrated and she was raising her voice. And that’s fine, this is how she usually speaks, that is her tone. But the GP perceived it as a very violent parent, like she’s bullying the child, or she’s treating the child badly. So the way the GP was coming at her, she was like, ‘If you take my child away, I’ll kill myself’.

“Maybe she shouldn’t have said it, but she wanted to show how passionate and scared she felt. She was just trying to emphasise, how can you separate a mother from her son?? But then GP straightaway said ‘that mother is a danger, she’s suicidal, the child should be immediately removed’ and this is what happened. The child was removed, and she even has no right to visit whatsoever. This can really demonstrate that the way people perceive language, the way we communicate, which includes our feelings, our emotions, our body language, eye contact, sometimes even their hand gestures, some people can see it as dangerous.” [parent]

“From my experience, when they talked about emotional harm, it was because I couldn’t regulate my emotions at the time. They expected me to show no emotion but I don’t understand that concept from children’s services because somebody who shows no emotion whatsoever is psychopathic. If I worked with a parent that had absolutely no emotion, I would be very concerned, one for them, and two for the child, because to show no emotion is completely not normal. Human beings are emotional beings, so we should have emotion.

“I wasn’t allowed to tell my son that I loved him because it was called emotional harm, it was putting my stuff onto my child.

“How can telling your child you love them be putting stuff onto them, for God’s sake? These things just don’t make sense to a normal mind.” [parent]

Power dynamics matter

“When I was a child, I had a social worker involved with my family. It’s given me real pause for reflection on the often uncomfortable power dynamics that there are between social workers and the people that they work with. I remember those feelings of being a child and feeling very anxious and very scared about what this social worker was going to do, what decisions they were going to make for me and my life, and my family and that all feeling very kind of uncomfortable and out of control for me.

“That power imbalance is a barrier to actually being able to get alongside people to support them, to help them make the changes that they want and need to make within their own families and within their own lives. I try to draw upon the experiences I had with social workers as a child and feeling at that time the real sense of shame that I carried for quite a long time because I had a social worker. And for at least the first 6, 7 years of working as a social worker in England I didn’t mention to any of my colleagues that I’d had a social worker.

“A big part of that was a sense of shame. In social work, there’s too much of a ‘us and them’ mentality.

“We can really lose sight of the fact that we’re there to serve families and people that we’re working with.” [social worker]

“How we communicate with each other builds a framework for how we’re going to go forward. That can set people up to succeed or set people up to fail. I don’t understand why social workers, who are meant to work with vulnerable people, treat people like you should never treat vulnerable people. When your 2- year-old is learning and growing and they sometimes make mistakes, we would never say to them, ‘you can’t do that, you’re not good, this is too much risk’, etc. We say: ‘I know you can do this, let me help you. How can we achieve what you’re trying to do?’” [parent]

The language used by social workers shapes how they see their role

Tammy played part of the #NotAServiceUser video for the study group where we heard Dr. Brid Featherstone say:

“There’s a phrase that social workers use often in families, that is experienced often by parents as very shaming and harmful and hurtful. It’s when they say ‘I’m the child’s social worker’.

“That actually is experienced by parents as ‘Are they unrealistic and daft?’ Because actually, children and their parents are in relationships and you can’t delineate one from the other in any straightforward sense. Also often it can convey a profound lack of interest in the parents and a lack of respect in terms of trying to understand why they may be parenting as they are and what difficulties they may be experiencing. So language really matters. We need to think a lot about what words we use when we’re talking to people, when we’re trying to convey meaning, when we’re trying to convey things to them. We can convey a great deal of respect by inclusive language; but we can also convey a great deal of disrespect if we’re not careful and we’re not thoughtful.”

“When social workers talk about being ‘the child’s social worker’, that’s something I hear quite a lot. It sounds as though it’s to avoid helping with things that might be really helpful for a parent. For example, a parent was having to go into a drug and alcohol unit and had issues with losing her furniture while she was in the unit. She was wanting the social worker’s support in sorting that out so that she would have furniture when she came out of that unit, which is obviously really important in the context of being able to care for her children. But the response was, ‘I’m the children’s social worker, so I can’t help you with these practical things, that’s outside my role’. That ties in with language and also reflects what professionals see as being most important, which can sometimes be a tick box. And they use that kind of language to describe their role so as to avoid helping with support for that parent.” [social worker]

“It’s riling me up inside because the child’s social worker is passing the buck of responsibility. If you’re the child’s social worker, but you have a parent asking for a supportive role, then your job to help the child would be to contact a service and pass that parent along to those services in order for them to achieve that help that they need.

“It’s not a social worker’s responsibility to completely dismiss the parent; it is still your role to support that leg of that child’s life. That is a leg on the table for that child, take that leg away and your table’s wobbling. […]

“But at the same time, there are different roles. If you’re dealing with a family worker, you’re going to get somebody more inclusive with their language because their job is about a family unit and about collectiveness. If you’re dealing with a child protection worker, their language is different because actually, their role is completely different and it’s not about supporting, it’s about safeguarding.”  [parent]

Language impacts our emotional well-being and impacts identity; dehumanising and belittling language lowers confidence and undermines people.

“My social worker phoned me up and as we were having a conversation, she went to me ‘you do know that it is okay not to be okay’. You can have bad days, you can have good days. For her to say that to me as a social worker was like wow. That’s just stuck with me. Coming from a social worker, it made me feel like yes, they are human and they do understand that as a parent we have days when we’re not okay. I’m still reeling like she understands.” [parent]

“Language massively impacts our identity. When we’re collective, as part of a support group, or a peer group of your own age, you feel more collectively accepted. We feel safer as human beings. The one thing that family workers do different from social workers is they share parts of themselves. They don’t share all of themselves, but they share a part of themselves and that ultimately builds that collective relationship between people.” [parent]

“Calling parents ‘service users’ kind of dehumanises parents.

“It takes away the human side. Also, when a parent is not well, maybe she’s depressed or she’s going through stuff, a social worker will say she’s an ‘unfit mother’. But her being unwell doesn’t make her unfit. She’s just not well and needs a bit more attention. If you’re not part of an association like ATD, you will be really lost and then you will not be able to battle. Language is a big thing if you don’t understand how to fight.” [parent]

“They say LAC to talk about ‘looked after children’. The very acronym says that a LAC child seems really lacking!” [parent]

“In case conferences at times, they just made me feel stupid, I didn’t know what I was talking about. I don’t always feel like I know everything, but I do know certain things about my children. I am the mum.” [parent]

“If someone’s referred to with the wrong pronouns, it can make them feel really disrespected, invalidated, and even dysphoric.” [academic]

“When we use the word ‘neglect’ as a category, sometimes people don’t understand what you mean. Of course, you’ve got the basic definition but then you have to explain why they are neglecting a child and it causes friction. The language used in conferences is disempowering.” [social worker]

“I have got a new social worker now who treats me like an adult, whereas some of them have spoken down to me like I’m a child. The way they talk to me, I let them think that I don’t understand them. But then once they finish I throw everything back at them because I’ve been through the system and I’m still going through it.

“So don’t talk to me like I’m stupid because I can read and I do Google stuff and I have people that I can talk to.

“Then they are like ‘oh, okay, we’ll talk to you differently’ but there’s some parents that can’t speak out. It’s them that we need to help and change social workers’ views.” [parent]

“When I was going through domestic violence, social services saw me as this bad mother. They said, ‘You did nothing to protect your children’. I had no help from family, I had no friends. I had literally no one. It was horrendous and social services just made me feel this small. I felt like I wasn’t able to be a proper mum to my children and I felt the whole time it was my fault. I thought I let them down. That’s why now, I’m sorry to say, it’s thirty years later and I still don’t have faith in social services.” [parent]

“Social workers have judged us as soon as they’ve knocked on the door. They haven’t got to know us. The words that they use is: ‘We’ve come to do an assessment on you’. It’s not even ‘hello, how are you?’ It’s not even a conversation. It’s literally knocking on the door and saying, ‘We need to come and do an assessment on you, is it okay to come in?’ And if you say no, then they use that against you. Even if you say yes, they come in, and then they belittle you. I’m not saying all social workers do that but in my experience of the twenty odd social workers that I’ve had, only one of them didn’t do that. One in twenty treated me like a human being and that says something to me. If you don’t give respect you don’t get respect back.” [parent]

“I want to highlight the stigmatisation through child protection conferences. They’re an absolute disgrace, not humane at all. They didn’t even see me, I may as well have been invisible. It was an absolute joke. That is a huge insult. I am very intelligent. They used to talk over me, they used to tut at me, they used to raise their eyebrows. You could hear huffs in the room, so degrading; even sexual abusers didn’t treat me like that. […]

“That continued until I took the initiative to go to university. The only reason I did my youth and community degree was for language to be taken seriously. When I started to use educational language, that’s when ears started to prick up and people started to listen to me and take me seriously. It’s because in a meeting I could actually hold my anger for an hour, not let it out and speak academically for an hour. (Then I used to go out of the meeting and eff and blind at my support network!) But I shouldn’t have had to have got myself into extreme poverty, through student loans, just to be heard. I will now be in poverty, for probably the rest of my life, because people didn’t want to listen to me.” [parent]

Active listening includes taking care about body language and being aware of neuro-diversity.

“I phoned up the social worker and said ‘I’m just letting you know that my mother has passed because we had a face-to-face meeting for contact with the girls’. She was like, ‘oh yes, we really understand so then we can rearrange it’ — but her body language was like ‘oh no, here we go again, that’s a strike against you that we’ll put in a bad report’. Body language is so important.” [parent]

“There’s cultural differences too. The body language that might be most natural for one person could be seen by a social worker from a different culture as overconfident, or rash, or aggressive or something.” [parent]

“That’s true. I’m at the moment supporting someone who is a Traveller. I’ve noticed the way that just anybody — it can be a social worker, it could be a doctor, it could be just a normal person — look at her and judge her. It’s horrible. Especially social workers, just the way they are around her with their body language. And it makes me just wonder, with somebody that was not a Traveller would they treat them so differently?“  [parent]

“My son has autism, so he has few words. To understand everything, I associate to it his feelings, his reactions, and his body language. When social workers come to your house, they just take one second to see your child and they believe that what the child is saying is the true answer. Whereas you will try to tell them as a parent what your child is expressing with body language, but they will not always listen. But you have taken into consideration the tone, the reaction, the action, the feeling of the day and so on.” [parent]

“You’ve just highlighted the difference with active listening. The social worker should listen actively by taking accountability and unifying herself with you to empower you. Language is way more than words. If you’re working with people that can’t talk, or are non-verbal, or deaf, or have disabilities, then of course, you have to do more with your body language.”  [parent]

Language changes when it gets written down

“There’s also written language. When it’s written down, it’s harder to interpret it because you don’t know the intentions behind it. But also, things that are written down are more set in stone. You can trace things back and they feel more real. You can go back to it and be like, yes, this happened that day and that could be a good thing. But it can also be a very bad thing because it’s harder to change language that is written than changing language that isn’t written.” [practitioner]

“Yeah, if it’s not on paper, it’s nothing. That’s how I eventually got my son back: I wrote everything on paper. Everything had a permanent footprint. I didn’t speak on phones any more. Every single thing had to be written down. And once it’s written down, no one ever changes it, even when it’s not factually correct. None of my reports throughout my whole life were changeable. Nobody has ever gone back to correct them, or adjust them or rewrite them.  Also, unless it’s on paper, it may as well have not happened, whether it’s true or not. Without a paper trail, it’s invisible because you can’t advocate for yourself, you can’t prove it.” [parent]

“The language used in reports is frequently quite negative. A social worker wrote about a young boy that I support at the residential school. The report said he was placed in residential care because he was so violent, so difficult, such a troublesome boy, it’s all about how it’s all his fault, rather than seeing him as a child who has been struggling. And now the boy is set to receive that report. I’ve been working with his educational support team around how we handle this?

“We don’t want to give it to him, not because we don’t want him to have his life story, but we don’t want the way it’s told to break down his sense of self worth and all the progress he’s made. This report very much reads like a battering axe. Frankly, from my perspective as a parent, it feels like abuse.” [parent]

“The way things get written down decides everything. Some people aren’t depressed; they’re just exhausted. They’re tired of being abused all the time, and being dismissed and being invisible. That’s the way I was feeling last winter. If you were to talk to a mental health nurse, they would tell you you’ve got depression, but I know I’m not depressed clinically; I’m exhausted mentally and my soul is just drained like, I’ve got nothing left in my soul to give the world or myself right now.

“When my son was being removed, I was diagnosed with so many mental illnesses, it was unbelievable. Then five years later, the same person assessed me and completely wiped all of those diagnoses off and said ‘You haven’t got any of those things, it was down to the experiences’, but that report had a huge impact on mine and my child’s life. That report was the final nail in the coffin to say this woman cannot be a mother right now.

“But depending on who you sit with, depending on the interpretation of the language that you use, you need someone to understand: I wasn’t trying to say I was gonna go and commit suicide, I’m just saying I’m exhausted right now. But had I been sat with a psychotherapist saying that, they probably would have assessed me as ‘this girl is suicidal’. What I needed instead was someone to give me time and hold space for me with no judgement.” [parent]

‘Positive thinking’ is sometimes unhelpful

Meaningful conversation requires co-creating mutual understanding and protecting boundaries.

“We can have people tell us that we’re strong, they don’t know how we do it and everything else. But what am I supposed to do? Just sit there and not do anything? But sometimes you can’t stand it when a professional turns around and says ‘you’re amazing, I don’t know how you do it’. It’s just how we’ve had to be from what we’ve had to go through and we didn’t get a choice. Some people do thrive from someone turning around and saying ‘you’re strong’. Whereas, others don’t thrive from it because they don’t see themselves as that. It’s not just about the language, it’s about the tone that you use. One word can mean something totally different to two people.” [parent]

“In looking at what works, I was thinking about my conversations with my husband. When we have challenges, we ask each other: do you want sympathy, just somebody to listen to you? Or do you want somebody to troubleshoot and actually come up with ideas? Because if somebody’s giving you a lot of ideas to solve a problem when you just wanted them to listen, it can make it more challenging to feel supported. The language created by the Relational Activism team with ‘Love shows up’, that’s so meaningful and so powerful but it works because it was co-created by them.” [parent]

“There’s a major communications campaign about poverty in the UK that did not co-create language with anyone who had lived experience. Five years on, the group that designed the campaign is only now voicing regret that it wasn’t co-created. And at the same time, they said they were wary of  ’mining trauma for communication’. Obviously it’s wrong to do that! But they weren’t really understanding what genuine co-creation involves.” [practitioner]

“One thing that co-creation means is that parents have to be able to protect our own boundaries. When a professional asks you a question, sometimes you have no choice, you have to tell them everything. But that’s not always true. Sometimes, it’s up to you. But it’s hard to know in the moment.

“When you can think beforehand with people who’ve been in your shoes, that can help you to decide what you want to keep more private so that when you get asked certain questions you know already that you don’t want to say too much.” [parent]

“Looked-after child reviews are meant to be co designed. We were told this was gonna be a participatory approach.

“But then we were promptly guided through what felt like they were hand-holding us up the steps to a guillotine!

“We weren’t allowed to ask questions, but we were told what we’re allowed to talk about. The first thing I had to do was say three things that I felt the foster carer was doing well with my daughter. My next contribution was then to find three things that I felt that the local authority social workers were doing well in our case. In that meeting about my daughter’s looked-after review and her plan, all I was allowed to contribute was to praise people. It was structured so that that was the only input I could give.

“I’m sure there’s a backstory as to why they created this system. Maybe the hope was that parents would leave feeling positive about the meeting because we’d only talked about positive things, and hopefully staff would also feel positive because they had just been praised. But it meant that I couldn’t voice any of my concerns or give input into how she was being cared for. I kept being told ‘that’s a conversation for another time’. I think I was told that a dozen times within the meeting. Positive feedback is undoubtedly important but it has to not be tokenistic and it can’t be box-ticking. Just because I spoke doesn’t mean I actually participated.  [parent]

Language has to be matched with action; and inconsistent messages erode trust.

“I always pull people up on words. Nine times out of ten, it’s because words are meaningless. I get furious because their actions do not match their words. Do we mean what we say? Or are we just saying it for the sake of saying it? When there’s no action, I end up infuriated because it was meaningless communication.” [parent]

“Another aspect that’s often talked about amongst parents is the trust factor that comes from inconsistencies. Parents often feel that social workers don’t tell the truth, or are misleading them. I can imagine that a social worker might be trying their best but then go to the team meeting, and there’s different information and processes not always 100% within their control.

“But from the family’s perspective there’s a lot of mistrust due to inconsistent communication that ends up just knocking down the entire potential of the relationship.

“For example, when my daughter was taken into care, I was told I could phone the social worker every day for an update about her. Needless to say, that’s exactly what I did. I phoned every single day. In 137 phone calls over 120 days, did I ever get an update? And then they had the nerve to say in a case conference, that I was avoiding them and was difficult to get into contact with! There was an equal volume of my emails that all went unanswered. Their lack of follow-through built this foundation of miscommunication where I had to guess what they might really mean when they’re telling me something, guess what they might really be wanting from me because what I heard clearly wasn’t it.’ [parent]

Values are embedded in language

When social workers are trained with cold analytic language, human connection is harder.

“I can see why social workers operate like that, because they are only taught to assess the risk, and only taught to say ‘service users’. It’s all risk, risk, risk, risk risk for three to four years. It is embedded in their professional conscience. They’re not taught to assess the social needs of the family or the person. It’s not about feeling what that family is feeling. The language we use in education is not useful. It’s not useful to talk to families this way.“  [parent]

“Not every word is always going to be right when we speak to somebody but you can foster empathy through language. I think it’s just about remembering, regardless of who we are, what role we have in society, anything, we are all human beings. So I think to foster empathy, it’s just about having that understanding.” [parent]

“To treat another person with respect, to hold space for another person, acceptance and respect is all that’s necessary. We don’t have to have lived something or even understand something. We can just say, ‘okay, I’m gonna sit here with you and let you be the guide in this situation because you know what you need, and I’ll learn from you and be beside you, as you guide us. […]

“There’s a big conversation about language within the disability community. Some parents say their child has a disability, some people say their child has special needs, some people say their child is differently abled. There’s a lot of different terms and there’s even disagreements within that community. I suspect there’s disagreements within every community about how people wish to be labelled.

“I suppose again, it comes back down to holding space for another person to have their own identity, their own perspective, their own experience and letting that be the driving force behind their life choices and their ability to to be empowered in their own situation.” [parent]

“I have friends that have mental issues and they have been categorised by the NHS as disabled and they take that and advocate for that and say, yes, I am disabled and try to make it a piece of themselves, to empower themselves through that. But there’s other people that that word might trigger them or they don’t feel comfortable with it. For example, I got diagnosed with ADHD and theoretically I have a disability but I don’t like to say that, not for shame or anything, but I just feel like I am not the same. The word just means so many things and I just feel like I can’t say I am because I’m privileged enough that my disability is not to a point where it’s either visible or really impacts me much in my life.” [practitioner]

“As a mum to children with disabilities, I wish we would create a space for everybody in the world that they can accept they have some challenges, they have things that maybe require them to pre-plan to do things differently for themselves but that the world is empowering enough and inclusive enough that they don’t have to feel that they are disabled. My daughter in her wheelchair doesn’t feel disabled, right up until she hits stairs as the only entrance to a building—but it’s the stairs that are the problem, not her paralysis.” [parent]

“I think words can also be liberating. Someone was diagnosed with autism when they were an adult and for so long, they had felt like something was wrong, they didn’t fit. After therapy, after someone working with them, explaining to them and going through the process of accepting calling yourself that name, the world around them made more sense as well. I think it’s also coming to terms with accepting to call yourself that name and removing all the stigma attached to the word. That takes time.” [practitioner]

About the Relational Activism team and its ‘Love shows up’ events: “We have lots of conversations with different people from different circles to learn from each other, along with poems and singing. In that space, everyone is equal, regardless: service user, the higher member of council, or any professional, we can see in ourselves to be taught and learn and share to explore together Human beings live by love. Love is how you care about your neighbour. Social work is all about remembering this love.” [parent]

Social services have ‘corporatised’ certain words about relationships.

“I’m sure it’s a great project but hearing that, I actually had a major red flag going off in my mind because love to me has always meant abuse. I feel so triggered through feelings and emotions right now. Love is a buzzword that social services are using at the moment to push for separation of families.

“They spout about ‘love in the system’ and ‘corporate parenting’ while we know the facts of the percentages of children that are abused through care.

“I’ve only ever had tough love. In order for me to come into that circle of love, do I love people when I’m saying, ‘You have to take responsibility and accountability and we have to move forward’? Sometimes love is sitting down in a room with somebody and telling them straight and honestly and saying I’m here, regardless of all of this, let’s move together. That’s love to me, but to a lot of people that’s aggression. Love does mean different things to people.” [parent]

“We need a long time to heal. With Relational Activism, I forgive the abuser. I don’t hold anger towards them, I just hope they get the right support to help them to change. Everyone needs love and people who do bad things to others, it’s because of the lack of love in their life. They’ve been cut off from this link with other people and then they turn to the negative. Sometimes I think when someone gets trauma, they don’t even know where to find love. All these years, I didn’t know love, I tried to find love, to fill what I have been lacking, and then ended up going through so many problems. At the end I realised, I can’t find love if I don’t love myself first. When you love yourself, what you put out, you will get back.”  [parent]

“I love the intent and the goal and the philosophy behind Relational Activism. It’s so wonderful that it’s a co-created process.

“But going back to ‘corporate parenting’, this is gaslighting: you’re not allowed to tell your child that you love them at contact because that’s manipulation; but somebody who just works somewhere, they ‘love’ them.

“Part of the Scottish care review is that corporate parents have a ‘duty to love’ the children in Scotland; but their parents aren’t allowed to tell them they love them. If your ‘love’ is dependent on a pay-check (because you can change jobs and never see them again), what the hell is that? Yet the parents will show up to meetings where there’s no benefit to themselves and where they are berated and abused and torn down. They get an emotional and spiritual throttling, and they’ve shown up why? Just because they actually do love their child. That’s love, not getting a pay-check.

“There is a very real risk in the corporatisation of relationship words that is gonna mess with potentially an entire generation’s heads. There’s these buzzwords that the government thinks they can pick up like ‘risk’, it became a buzzword that doesn’t actually mean what it really means, and then it ends up feeling like a stick that’s used to beat people with.” [parent]

“Another word I hate is ‘voluntary’. It suggests you volunteered for something, but largely for these ‘voluntary services’, people did not even invite you in, they did not ask for your services, they did not volunteer themselves to do this. What it really means in this context is the opposite of compulsory. Instead of a compulsory order, this is called ‘voluntary’, but it’s not really voluntary because if you opt out, in most circumstances, they will rapidly make it compulsory. That makes people feel like they’ve both been backed into a corner and tricked because there is no partnership there.

“If we were to create that same dynamic in a romantic relationship, we call that a very bad relationship. But this is meant to be a partnership between services and families so it needs to have a foundation of trust to build a strong relationship so that people can overcome trauma and massive challenges together. These really need to be good relationships but the language used is shooting it in the foot or making big holes in it and causing agitation and weariness and confusion and anger.” [parent]

“I realised last night, these are fallacies, it’s like an illusion they create to gain power over you, expecting you to consent, which would then confirm the ‘voluntarily’ bit. It’s not true, it’s an illusion created.

“They expect you to engage with consent but we do that without often knowing what we’re consenting to.

“When my son was younger, I didn’t really know about these social work procedures and power imbalances. I was just a struggling young mum trying my best.

“The first time I had Children’s Services engaged with me when my child was removed, I consented to that because I didn’t know I had a choice. That instils a lot of fear. But this time round, I refused any engagement with children’s services. They asked me the direct question: ‘Do you consent to this?’ No, that’s my reply. I have not heard of one social worker in almost a year now. The difference is consent.

“The first time around, they were able to remove my child because 1) I wasn’t educated, and 2) I consented without realising what I consented to. This time around, I have parental rights and I use them. The first time around, had I known that, my child may have never been removed. So lack of transparency, lack of communication, and lack of education really really matter. Fear, power imbalances, and consent, these are very important things. The legal process is to be transparent and explain your processes of understanding. But when a social worker says, ‘Do you understand?’, they expect you to consent when in hindsight we don’t: I don’t understand your processes, I’m not a social worker, I’m not trained, I don’t know what it is.’ [parent]

Using language for self-empowerment

“’I’ and ‘we’ can make such a different change in the conversation. If you say: ‘This is what we’ve done together?’ ‘What can we do together?’, then you’re automatically making it a collective community conversation, rather than just about a singular person. Just a simple change like that can make such a profound difference in a sentence or conversation but it really depends on the tone. […]

“When I was going through very severe domestic violence, social services used the label ‘domestic violence victim’ and it used to trigger me because they were taking me back into the experience. By calling me a victim, that suggested power was still held over me by that experience. So I changed the power dynamics in that language, and I started to call myself a survivor of domestic violence.

“And I empowered myself through that one word change from victim to survivor.

“At the same time, now I absolutely detest calling myself a survivor, and that’s because I don’t live there any more. I’ve processed a lot of what I went through and I’ve learnt what I needed to learn from it and taken what I needed to take from it. So even though that word was good at that time, it no longer is useful because it draws me back a decade into a time in my life that I’ve moved so far from. Language is always evolving with our emotions and with our own personal growth.” [parent]

“When I’ve been training our newest group of parent advocates and we talk about the Child Protection Conferences, that word ‘abuse’ is always used and there will be a discussion at the end about what is the category of abuse? There’s the legal definition of abuse, and also the word conjures up an image of someone doing something cruel on purpose to someone else. Regardless of the actual definition, we need to think more about what we mean when we’re categorising things as emotional abuse and about how people on a day-to-day basis are interpreting that word. That’s obviously really, really upsetting and an unnecessary way of talking about it. We need to find better language to talk about things that are happening in ways that don’t alienate people and don’t make them feel judged or unsupported.” [social worker]

“Language is empowering, but language changes over periods of time. For myself in relation to ethnicity, what my dad would do to describe himself is not what I would do to describe myself. I even have a brother who would use another term to describe himself. Now as a social worker, I’ve been in a personal situation where I lost power and had to find a way to take control of that situation,

“I went into a house and sat down, and there was a golly doll right in front of me. I find these dolls really offensive; some people don’t. The first time I went to the house, I did my job as a social worker, but I was looking at this dolly and I got really disempowered. I could have gone back to the house and told them off and said that she was racist for having a golly in the home, but it would have completely destroyed our relationship and she would say, ‘Why is he saying that? There’s nothing wrong with this doll’.

“So the next time I went back, instead I explained why I thought it was offensive in the nicest way. And I said, ‘You can have it there but I find it really offensive. When I was a kid, I was called a golly and it brings back the trauma of when I was a child’. But I thought she’s still going to keep it there. But the next time I went back to her home, it wasn’t up on the mantelpiece, out of respect. And that’s what I learned as a social worker: respect goes both ways. I could have just told her off and really had a go at her and that would have gone back to the child protection officer and she would be defined as being a racist. But I don’t think she was. The doll was just something which she grew up with and she didn’t understand why it was offensive. I think it’s about developing a partnership with somebody, getting them to understand your position.” [social worker]

“Yeah, I agree. There was an expectation from the social workers when they were calling me a domestic violence victim for me to know what they meant. But ‘love’ to me is abuse. I saw abuse as love growing up, that was my norm. So when they were saying ‘domestic violence’, I had no concept of what they meant by that and it made me infuriated. It triggered me because I’ve spent a lifetime of abuse and nobody had taken accountability for that. It wasn’t until years later when I sat down with my mental health worker that she explained what domestic violence was that I could reflect back and think, ‘oh, that’s what they were talking to me about’.

“And now my suggestion is always to take a word to the table. Let’s just see what we think of this word: What do you understand by this word? What does it mean to us? How do we feel about it?

“I love deconstructing words and piecing them back together as a collective, so we all have the same kind of understanding and feeling around that word. Is it the right one to use in the session?” [parent]

“I was once doing research with an academic that wanted to take information and data that a whole lot of us had collected and he wanted to take off with it and do the final report by himself, even though he had already agreed to do research in complete partnership with people with lived experience of poverty. But that’s not the way people usually work and so he was using the same language that he had always used in all his other projects, the same way he had always done them.

“It was completely against the spirit of the project but he didn’t know that because words like participation and partnership often get used in a way that doesn’t go very far.

“But I’m not one of these that will pull any punches, and I’m a renegade, so I turned round and said ‘no’ and banged my hand on the table, and ended up parading in front of him and making him feel about yea big cause he ended up going down into his seat. But at the end of it, we had a nice working relationship.” [parent]