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Suzanne’s Story

This is an interview with Suzanne, the founder of Sweet Families.

Suzanne’s Story

What does your work involve?

I do different things. I work mostly with families that have adopted children and or long term foster carers, or what are called SGOs, which is Special Guardianship Orders, which is where families or friends have taken on the care of the children. And I work with them using attachment-based therapeutic interventions, particularly Filial Therapy. Filial Therapy is a form of play therapy. In typical play therapy, it would be myself that goes out and sees the child and it’s a one-to-one between myself and the child. And then I would meet with the parents and give them updates. But the relationship and the therapy is between myself and the child. Whereas Filial Therapy is teaching the parents or carers four therapeutic skills and they can actually hold what I call ‘Special Play’ session with their child. I supervise that to start with and there’s a training element at the start. Then there’s supervision, where I watch the session with them while they’re doing it, and then we have a consultation afterwards so we can talk about their child’s reactions and their use of the skills. When they feel confident using the skills in Special Play, we start to look at how we can integrate those skills into everyday situations and in particular in the more tricky situations. 

Once I stop observing, I continue to meet them about once a week to go through how the sessions are going, what themes they’re identifying, and how it’s related to real life and continue to build those skills in everyday situations. And then slowly my input gets less and less until the end.

I also deliver pure Play Therapy for children who have experienced trauma, neglect, and abuse and are struggling. Perhaps they’re not in a family where they can do attachment therapy or their behavior is such that they really need to have one-on-one work first, or the family just can’t do it, for one reason or another. As well as Filial and PLay Therapy I also use elements of CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy). Sometimes this is woven into the rest of the work. Sometimes I add it on at the end, but try to use this as seems appropriate for the child and I find it works well with older children and young people. But I always use a basis of non-directive therapy as foundation for all my work.

Play Therapy and Filial Therapy are based on what’s called a non-directive model, which is a model where you’re allowing the person to direct themselves. For an adult, it’s usually called person-centred approach. The belief is that the person that you’re working with has got the ability to change things for themselves, and really, you’re being the facilitator to help that happen. The non-directed model still underpins everything that I do, such as using the skills of reflecting, mirroring and therapeutic language.

And obviously, as a play therapist, I bring in a lot of fun, and try to innovate and be quite playful. Even though CBT or cognitive behavioral therapy is a more directive model, there are ways of making the two work together, and in a more holistic way. 

The other part of my work is training. I do training for schools and adopters and other groups of people in therapeutic language and attachment too.

How did you get into this kind of work?

I’d have to go backwards a little bit to give you my, my career history, I guess.

When I left school, I did what was then called an NNEB, a National Nursery Examination Board qualification. Now It’s called a BTec in Nursery Assistant or something like that, but you used to be called a nursery nurse. I worked as a nursery nurse for a while. Then I got roles supporting children in mainstream school who were struggling. I did that, and a few of those children had particular problems such as partial hearing and Down Syndrome. I was trying to make the curriculum accessible, and trying to transpose the tasks into things that they could access. And as a part of doing that, I was working closely with teachers, and sometimes I would get left with the class, and a few teachers said that I should become a teacher. So that’s what I did. I retrained and did my teaching qualification. and then I came out of university and decided to teach children who experienced difficulties. I began working in a school in a deprived area and which was the second lowest performing school in the region at the time. They had a lot of children with special educational needs. I think they wanted my previous experience of working with children with those challenges. I worked part time with the special needs children, and part time in Design and Technology, which is what my teaching degree focussed on. And that was great. I think the design and technology part of my degree was really helpful, because I thought of creative way of trying to change the curriculum to make it accessible. And I found that they complemented each other quite well, really.

It was quite a demanding school, and during my time there, I became the literacy coordinator. I was trying to, again, help increase literacy across the curriculum which was a particular project I worked on that as well as my teaching. And as a part of that, I met someone running a family literacy project..They asked me to run summer literacy schools which I did for  a couple years. And then they asked me to go work for them which was an organisation called Read on Write Away which was a literacy organisation for families. I did that for about three or four years.

After that I went self-employed. I had been a senior manager up to that point, and I didn’t particularly like managing people. I began to work with lots of community organisation, for example one of the projects that I had got funding for was converting under the standss of the football ground in the town I lived in so that they could run literacy and numeracy clubs for kids using the football club as a base and as a subject. And that was great, so I did that for a few years, along with other self employed work as well. I was also one of the quality coordinators for the education authority and a quality consultant, basically, making sure that education providers did a good job.The the local authority approached me about doing some evaluations of the work they were doing with children who were out of school. It was during this piece of work, I met a woman, who started to talk to me about something she called Play Therapy. I’d never heard of it before. And she asked me to deliver a course with her to some staff in a school. Something just clicked. I thought, oh, my goodness, this is amazing. I started looking into careers in Play Therapy, and found out how to do it, I applied for the course and got in at York University to do a Post-Gradulate qualification in Play Therapy.

And obviously it was very hard work having to work at the same time as doing the course. But the thing that clicked was that I always wanted to work with those children that struggle, not just the mainstream kids. As a teacher, I had found it frustrating because I was trying to work with young people to provide education, but actually, they weren’t at that point. They were struggling, socially and emotionally, and they weren’t able to access education because of their own situations. Some of that was because of family difficulties, but a lot of them couldn’t control their emotions, they didn’t know how they were feeling, for example, I had a child in my class who was mute. He’d never spoken, and yet, we were trying to find ways for him to access education.  Play Therapy to me seemed to be a great way through these problems.

In the years since then, since you initially got into it, how has that practice grown? How has it changed?

I was approached by some of the head teachers that I knew and they wanted me to deliver what I do in their schools.  So I started to go around schools and deliver play therapy, and then obviously, word spreads, and that’s how that all started. After a couple of years of fulfilling work  we were moving out of the area, I looked for a job closer to the area I moved to. I applied for a job in in CAMHS, the child and adolescent mental health services. They were looking for what was at that time called a TaMHS worker, which was a Targeted Mental Health in Schools project.  That was really full-on project where I had to basically work about 20 schools in both secondary and primary in improving their mental health provisions. Part of that was delivering Play Therapy and part was training staff. I trained staff to be able to do the things that they needed to be competent in mental health awareness, and I also delivered training to some staff in how to deliver special play sessions, along with some consultation work with staff who were struggling with particular children.

And when that project was ending,which was a national project, they asked me to stay on, and work with CAMHS. That was really my first experience of working with children in the looked after system. My caseload was with children who had more challenging needs, I also underwent trainign i using CBT whilst here which again really complimented my work. So I continued that part time and then phased in working privately as well. I got a lot of experience at that time  including training in schools, and I wrote a confidence course based on CBT, and delivered that in some schools which went down well, particularly with teenagers and staff went on to being trained to deliver the courses too.

I was developing my own private practice as well and did some work for the local authority with both Looked After Children and Adopted children and families. a lot of looked after work at that point, and also a brief contract with an organization called Foundation, UK. who worked with the homeless and victims of domestic violence.

So then it was time to move house again, and I applied to be a provider for the Adoption Support Fund, which is a national fund that’s just gone into its fifth year now. And I’ve worked on that since their second year working with adopting families. And that is mainly what I do along with some local authority work with foster families.

What are some of the frustrations that you experience in your work?

That’s a tough one, because some of the problemes are part of the systems around the child. That can be frustrating, because, you know, the children are in a system, as soon as they get taken into care. The parental responsibility lies with the  local authority and they’ve got many people involved with them, such as school, social care, foster carers, and they’ve still got their birth families. So there can be an awful lot of people to liaise with, and I find that quite frustrating trying to help them to understand my role. And sometimes they want me to talk about everything, whereas actually, it’s not okay to do that. I don’t want to give more information than is necessary. It’s play therapy, you know, so it’s still the child’s session after all. Obviously, if it’s an issue with safety, then I know who to share that with. I’ve come up with ways of being able to share information without breaking the confidence of the child. So I will talk about themes, rather than particular details. 

Another frustration  that relates to our envisioning of Sweet Families is the fact that my kind of work is not available to everybody, and it’s an expensive service. I have been approached by private people in the past, and I do work with them, but at a much reduced rate, because it wouldn’t seem fair. So my frustration is that more families need support and help but cannot get it unless things get worse! Then they’d get seen at CAMHS.

There’s a lot of information on the internet but this can be very  theory-based and, you know, quite complicated, unnecessarily complicated sometimes. I’m not training people to be play therapists, but there’s an awful lot I can give people that they can learn to use easily. That makes a massive difference to their children and to their lives. So getting this out there is a primary thing for me.

So do you see the services that you offer as only being applicable to families with serious problems, or are they things which could help any family?

Children that have been neglected or experienced trauma and abuse, their needs are big. But some of the problems everyday families experience are also distressing. Getting them to bed, getting them up, getting them dressed, taking them to school, getting them to eat a good, healthy diet, getting them to do homework, do the things that they are asked to do. Most families have got the same kinds of issues. For me I feel I can offer skills and experience that is accessible and available to any family. These everyday difficulties can affect the relationships within a family, which can be damaging and where out the adults, so I think that if anything can be done that can help them manage situations, manage behaviours, without damaging the relationship, I think that’s a primary aim for me as well. A lot of things I’m going to present are about that, that the relationship remains intact and doesn’t break down.

What are some of the changes that you have seen over the years in your particular field?

I think one of the big changes is around funding. It’s always been quite difficult to get specialist help,and the main specialist help for families whose children have difficulties is Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services. But over the years, that help has dwindled. And now the threshold to get help is getting higher and higher. And so, you know, that means that there are fewer families that can get that help, and even fewer at the early stages. There were always tiers to this service, where tier one would have been a school situation, that could be dealt with through a small group activity in school, then tier two would be mental health workers working with families at a lower level with less intense problems. And these include preventative methods. And then tier three is when there is the intervention of a clinician, a psychotherapist or a psychiatrist. So what I do, the CBT work and play therapy would fit into that as well. And tier four is when the child is in inpatient provision. But the early intervention work at the lower tiers to prevent difficulties escalating is not happening.

And of course, the other thing that’s happened is they used to be lots of parenting groups running for example, Surestart set up years ago. And they provided a lot of, not just nursery places for children, but lots of training for parents. Well, a lot of the funding for that has gone. So I think funding has become a massive issue.

The other thing is the internet, where there is a massive amount of information, a plethora of all sorts of different advice that at times conflicts and sometimes doesn’t really tell you anything, or it’s repeated, or it’s too long or doesn’t really fit your situation, or there’s just an overabundance of information. Many parents and carers face a problem, and they Google it then they get all mixed up and confused. Parents can have lots of questions; For example What’s wrong with my child? Am I doing something wrong? And they just need somebody to help them and guide them through those issues. Small interventions made early can prevent problems getting beyond their control. Families want guidance, and they want help and I guess they want it in a timely manner as well. That’s why I think what we’re doing with Sweet Families is so amazing, because we’re offering help where families are, and in a way that they can access it whenever they need it. But also, this is help and advice that is underpinned with theory, knowledge and most importantly experience. So people can feel confident that what they’re doing is the right thing. And despite those problems with information based on the internet, it is such a great tool that people can use to access the information and help that they need.

So I see a real positive value in this new way of approaching the work I’m doing, and I’m really excited by it, because I can only see a limited amount of people and this way I can reach far more. I believe in the work that I do. I get good results, and I see the difference that it makes to families. And it’s good to know that more people can access that.

One comment

  1. […] My name is Suzanne, I have more than 35 years experience working with children between the ages of 2 and 16 years in a wide range of settings including, schools, Children’s Centres, CAMHS and Local Authority Care. I am a registered Play Therapist with The British Association of Play Therapists (BAPT). I have also worked as a Quality Consultant for the Learning and Skills Network. I have qualifications including NNEB, B.Ed. Hons, a Postgraduate Diploma in Play Therapy and have completed the Intensive Advanced Filial Therapy training, Adult Attachment Style Interview (ASI) and I am a registered BAPT Supervisor. This experience and training enables me to work with children with a wide range of difficulties and needs. Read More […]

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