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Theories A Social Worker Might Employ To Assess A Family Social Work Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Social Work
Wordcount: 3982 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The aim of this essay is to use knowledge of human growth and development to critically discuss the theories a social worker might employ to assess a family and better understand their behaviour. A family profile will be provided and two family members selected for further discussion and the application of appropriate theories. These theories will be critiqued in terms of how they might assist social workers in making informed assessments, as well as where the theories are limited in their application.

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Sylvie and Greg met when they were 19-years of age. They had been together for 5-years when their daughter Molly was born. They split up when Molly was 1-years old, but got back together 6-years later when Molly was 7-years of age. Greg said that they split up because he was unable to handle Sylvie’s total lack of trust in him. This caused huge arguments between them, with Sylvie constantly questioning where he was and his commitment to his family. Sylvie said that she was devastated when Greg left, but knew that it was going to happen. During their time apart Sylvie turned to alcohol and drugs, but sought counselling and support for this and the issues in her past. As a result, she has been drug and alcohol free for over 4-years.

Greg always maintained a good relationship with Molly during the 6-year separation and she lived with him and her paternal Grandparents at different points when Sylvie was not coping. Molly said that she was happy that her parents got back together.

Mason was planned and both Sylvie and Greg felt they had resolved historic issues and were committed as a family unit to having another child. Mason was born with Global Developmental Delay, which is a condition that occurs between birth to 18-years of age and is usually characterised by lower intellectual functioning and significant limitations in communication and other developmental skills. Sylvie blames herself for Mason’s condition, believing that it must somehow be linked to her ‘wild’ years of drinking and drug binges. Despite being reassured to the contrary by medical professionals and a social worker, she remains low in mood and feels that she has let everyone down. Sylvie has found bonding with Mason difficult and she feels frustrated by him not meeting his developmental milestones. Mason is in nappies, he is not yet talking, he is very unsteady on his feet and he lacks co-ordination. As a result, he still requires feeding at mealtimes and has not begun to develop independent skills. Sylvie has said that she feels like ‘sending him somewhere.’ Greg, on the other hand, feels very attached and protective towards Mason and Sylvie feels that he ‘lets him get away with anything.’ Conflict has developed between Sylvie and Greg, resulting in Greg staying at work longer and meeting up with his friends more in an effort to avoid the arguments and tension at home.

Elsie, mother to Greg, owns the large family home in which they all live. Sylvie and Greg decided that they would move in with her shortly after they got back together, as Greg’s father died very unexpectedly. The plan was that they would all support one another financially, practically and emotionally. Elsie is very involved with the children as both parents work. However, recently Elsie has been forgetting things, such as collecting Mason from the specialist childminder and this has caused tension between the adults.

There have been some difficulties with Molly at school. Sylvie was called in to Molly’s school last week as a result of Molly using racist language towards another student. The school state that Molly is very close to being excluded, as a result of her angry and disruptive behaviour. Sylvie broke down upon hearing this and explained about her low mood, feelings of despair and worries about Greg’s mum. Sylvie cannot understand the change in Molly’s behaviour and said that she and Greg need help.

Applying Human Growth and Development to Social Work

As part of this essay, there will be a focus on two members of this family: Molly and Elsie. The two theories of human growth and development to be applied to Molly are Attachment Theory and Life Course Theory. The two theories of human growth and development to be applied to Elsie are Ecological Theory and Disengagement Theory.

Anti-oppressive practice will underlie the critique and has been defined as “a form of social work practice which addresses social divisions and structural inequalities in the work that is done with ‘clients’ (users) and workers” (Dominelli, 1993, p. 24). Anti-oppressive practice is a person-centred approach synonymous with Carl Rogers (1980) philosophy of person-centred practice. It is designed to empower individuals by reducing the negative effects of hierarchy, with the emphasis being on a holistic approach to assessment. Practising in an anti-oppressive way requires valuing differences lifestyles and personal identities. This goes against common sense socialisation which portrays differences as inferior or pathological and which excludes individuals from the social world and denies them their rights.


Attachment Theory

Attachment Theory is a psychological theory based on the premise that young children require an attachment relationship with at least one consistent caregiver within their lives for normal social and emotional development (Bowlby, 1958). Attachment is an emotional bond between an individual and an attachment figure, usually the person who cares for them. Psychologically, attachment provides a child with security. Biologically, it provides a child with survival. Ainsworth et al. (1978) formulated four types of attachment that provide a tool for social workers to assess and understand children’s emotional experiences and psychosocial functioning: secure; insecure, ambivalent; insecure, avoiding; and disorganised.

Molly appears demonstrates insecure, ambivalent attachments, where parental care is inconsistent and unpredictable. This type of attachment is characterised by parents who fail to empathise with their children’s moods, needs and feelings. Indeed, Sylvie cannot understand the change in Molly’s behaviour, indicating an inability to empathise with Molly.

Children with insecure and ambivalent attachments often become increasingly confused and frustrated. They can become demanding, attention seeking, angry and needful, creating trouble in order to keep other people involved and interested. Feelings are acted out, as Molly has been doing at school. This is because insensitive and inconsistent care is interpreted by the child to mean that they are unworthy of love and unlovable. Such painful feelings undermine self-esteem and self-confidence and an understanding of this can ensure that social workers resist stereotypes of the moody, anti-social teenager, and instead explore the underlying reasons for changes in mood.

For Molly, the development of an attachment figure was likely to have been compromised during her early developmental years. In particular, when Molly was between the ages of 1 and 7-years old, her mother was addicted to drugs and alcohol and thus was emotionally and physically unavailable. Despite living with her father and paternal grandparents for a period of time, the overall insecurity within her family unit is likely to have impacted her ability to attach to others. If Molly did develop an attachment figure it is most likely to have been with her father or maternal grandparents, who were not unavailable due to drug or alcohol abuse during this vital developmental phase of Molly’s childhood.

Taking this into consideration, there are a number of significant changes that have occurred in Molly’s life and that involve potential attachment figures who have provided Molly with much-needed security and safety. For example, Molly’s father, whom Molly has remained close to throughout drama within the family, is no longer at home as much in an effort to avoid arguments with Sylvie. When he is at home, the tension is likely to impact the duration and quality of time spent with Molly. Indeed, marital conflict has been found to influence adolescents’ attachment security by reducing the responsiveness and effectiveness of parenting (Markiewicz, Doyle, and Brendgen, 2001). Strained marital relationships can also lead to increased marginalisation of the father who can become distanced from their children, as has been the case within this family (Markiewicz, Doyle, and Brendgen, 2001).

In addition, Molly has recently lost her grandfather, which her grandmother is also trying to come to terms with. Not only has Molly lost her grandfather, but her grandmother’s behaviour is likely to have changed as she comes to terms with her own loss. All of the key attachment figures in Molly’s life are either emotionally or physically unavailable at present. It is important to consider this within the context of Molly’s current developmental stage, which is that of adolescence.

Attachments to peers tend to emerge in adolescence, but the role of parents remains vital in teenagers successfully achieving attachments outside of the home. It is a time when parents are required to be available if needed, while the teenager makes their first independent steps into the outside world (Allen and Land, 1999). Molly’s recent problems at school could be the result of this lack of availability from adults in her life. She might also be anxious about losing her father again, creating anticipation and fear about separation from an attachment figures. The anger she expresses at school could be transference of the anger and fear created by her unstable circumstances at home. The fact that she has become racially abusive might suggest that her anger lies with her mother, who is of dual nationality.

The main critique of Attachment Theory has been in the guise of the nature versus nurture debate, the former being genetic factors and the latter being the way a child is parented. Harris (1998) argues that parents do not shape their child’s personality or character, but that a child’s peers have more influence on them than their parents. She cites that children are more influenced by their peers because they are eager to fit in. This argument is supported by twin studies showing that identical twins reared apart often develop the same hobbies, habits, and character traits; the same has been found with fraternal twins reared together (Loehlin et al., 1985; Tellegen et al., 1988; Jang et al., 1998). It is likely that nurture plays a greater role in the younger years, when parents and caregivers are the child’s primary point of contact. On the other hand, when a child enters adolescents and engages with society more, nature might take over.

Another limitation in Attachment Theory is the fact that model attachment is based on behaviours that occur during stressful separations rather than during non-stressful situations. Field (1996) astutely argues that a broader understanding of attachment requires observation of how the caregiver and child interact during natural, non-stressful situations. It is agreed that behaviours directed towards the attachment figure during separation and reunion cannot be the only factors used to define attachment.

Despite these limitations, the theory does provide valuable information regarding relationship dynamics and bonds, which social workers can use to better understanding the individual being assessed. It is, however, important to remember that what is seen as healthy attachment will vary culturally. Consideration of this is crucial to anti-oppressive practice.

Life Course Theory

Life Course Theory has been defined as a “sequence of socially defined events and roles that the individual enacts over time” (Giele and Elder, 1998, p. 22). Within this theory, the family is perceived as a micro social group within a macro social context (Bengston and Allen, 1993). According to Erikson’s 8 stages of human development, Molly is in stage five, which is characterised by a conflict between identity versus role confusion. Being of dual heritage might cause issues within this stage and within Molly’s search for identity. Evidence within the literature has shown that adolescents of dual heritage report more ethnic exploration, discrimination, and behavioural problems than those of single heritage (Ward, 2005). Indeed, this could explain why Molly is being racially abusive, in an effort to determine her own thoughts and feelings on ethnicity and the confusion it can cause. The racial abuse directed at other children might even be representative of her own anger at being of dual heritage.

Adolescence is difficult to define, but it is traditionally assumed to be between 12-18 years of age and characterised by puberty (i.e. the transformation from a child to a young person). During this time, hormones strongly influence mood swings and extremes of emotion, which might explain Molly’s difficulty controlling her anger at school. Adolescence is also when an individual starts to develop socially, increasing their independence and becoming more influenced by peers. During this time, according to Piaget’s (1964) theory of cognitive development, an individual enters the ‘formal operational stage’ and starts to understand abstract concepts, develop moral philosophies, establish and maintain satisfying personal relationships, and gain a greater sense of personal identity and purpose (Santrock, 2008).  Risks to social and cognitive development include poor parental supervision and discipline, as well as family conflict (Beinart et al., 2002), showing this to be an important time to intervene with Molly.

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It is these biological and social changes during adolescents that can create the stereotype of the moody, anti-social teenager. It is important that social workers do not allow negative stereotypes to influence their expectations of Molly. Instead, they need to take a holistic approach and examine where she is on the life course as well as what the character and quality of Molly’s behaviours and relationships tell them about her internal working model, defensive inclinations, emotional states and personality. This ant-oppressive approach will also allow social workers to identify links between past and present relationship experiences.


Ecological Theory

Bronfenbrenner’s (1977) Ecological Model of human development posits that in order to understand human development, an individual’s ecological system needs to be taken into consideration. According to the theory, an individual’s ecological system comprises five social subsystems:

Micro-system – comprising activities and social roles within the immediate environment.

Mesosystem – processes taking place between two or more different social settings.

Exosystem – processes taking place between two or more different social systems, at least one of which does not involve the individual but indirectly affects them.

Macrosystem – includes ideology, attitudes, customs, traditions, values and culture.

Chronosystem – change or consistency over time in individual characteristics and environmental characteristics.

Ecological Theory is, overall, a model of how the social environment affects the individual, with these five systems interacting and thus influencing human growth and development.

Elsie’s ecological system has been continually changing for many years. At one point she was living with her husband, son, and her granddaughter. This was followed by living alone with her husband. On losing her husband, Elsie’s son moved in with his wife and two children, one of whom has a disability. There has been very little environmental stability within Elsie’s life, at least over the last 7-years or more. It is perhaps understandable that her health has started to deteriorate. She has recently lost her husband, experienced continually fluctuating environmental conditions, and is now living in a tense atmosphere due to issues within her son’s marriage. It is also important to note that, children’s behaviour and personality can also affect the behaviour of adults; Elsie’s behaviour might be negatively affected by her granddaughters struggle through adolescence and her grandson’s disability. Taking into consideration Elsie’s ecological system highlights the importance of not making assumptions that Elsie’s increased forgetting is a sign of dementia; her symptoms may be the result of stress within her ecological system.

Despite the relevance of this theory to understanding Elsie’s situation, the critique does highlight limitations in its operationalisation (Wakefield, 1996). In particular, since past experiences and future anticipations can impact an individual’s current well-being, lack of inclusion of this element of human growth and development within the Ecological Model is a serious limitation. In addition, the emphasis of the model is on adaptation and thus it has been argued that the theory can be abused and used to encourage individuals to accept oppressive circumstances (Coady and Lehman, 2008). Social workers using this theory in their assessments ideally need to be aware that oppression and injustice are part of the environment that needs to be considered in an ecological analysis. With this consideration, the theory offers social workers a way of thinking about and assessing the relatedness of individuals and their environments; the person is assessed holistically and within the context of their social circumstances.

Disengagement Theory

Disengagement has been described by Cumming and Henry (1961) as “an inevitable mutual withdrawal . . . resulting in decreased interaction between the ageing person and others in the social systems he belongs to” (p. 227). Within their theory, they argue that older people do not contribute to society with the same efficiency as the younger population and thus become a societal burden. In order to function, therefore, society requires a process for disengaging older people. By internalising the norms of society, older people become socialised and take disengage from society due to a sense of obligation. The theory further purports that the extent to which an individual disengages determines how well they adjust to older age. In other words, continued withdrawal from society in later life has been deemed the hallmark of successful and happy ageing.

Applying this theory to Elsie’s situation, it could be that the problems surrounding her forgetfulness in collecting her grandson from school is a step towards social disengagement. Furthermore, it could be theorised that this disengagement was prompted by her husband taking the most extreme form of disengagement, which is death.

There has, however, been much critique of this theory, including the fact that many older people do not conform to this image and remain actively involved in life and in society. Hochschild (1976) has criticised the theory with what has been termed the ‘omnibus variable.’ Hochschild points out that while an older person might experience disengagement from certain social activities, such as retiring from work, they are likely to replace this with something else that is socially engaging such as being more involved in the community or becoming more family-oriented. Indeed, Hochschild’s biggest challenge to Disengagement Theory was the presentation of evidence from Cumming and Henry’s own data showing that many older people do not withdraw from society.

Disengagement Theory creates a picture of older people as lacking freedom to act on their own, thus ignoring individual ageing experiences and describing the ageing process in a purely social context (Gouldner, 1970). Indeed, Estes et al. (1982) argues that disengagement is often forced upon older people, which supports the notion that old age is just as much a social construction as it is a biological process. Older people are, in many ways, socialised into acting ‘old.’ Thus, older age is strongly related to Labelling Theory (Rosenthal and Jacobson, 1968). For example, making assumptions about old age and having low expectations of older people can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. This again raises the importance of not assuming that Elsie’s forgetting is a sign of dementia; despite being seen as a natural consequence of ageing, only a minority of people develop dementia (Stuart-Hamilton, 2006).

In many ways, Disengagement Theory serves to legitimise the marginalisation of older people and is, it could be argued, ageist and discriminative. Ageism is the application of negative stereotypes and includes actions such as categorising older people separately from ‘adults.’ This has created immense debate within social work practice, with it being believed by some that distinguishing older people from adults is oppressive and can exacerbate social isolation. Tackling social isolation is being encouraged in efforts to prevent deteriorating health in older age, suggesting that disengagement is far from the ideology purported by Cumming’s and Henry (DH, 2010). The introduction of the Equality Act 2010, which replaces the existing duties on the public sector to promote race, disability and gender equality, now comprises a single duty to promote equality across eight ‘protected’ characteristics, one of which is age. The Act also includes provisions allowing the government to make age discrimination in service planning and delivery unlawful. This is likely to be implemented in 2012 and thus it is crucial that social workers make anti-oppressive practice in the form of tackling ageism a priority. There needs to be a move away from viewing older people as an homogenous group characterised by passivity, failing health, and dependency, as highlighted within Activity Theory.

Activity Theory (Leont’ev, 1978) is a direct challenge to Disengagement Theory in that it suggests that life satisfaction is related to social interaction and level of activity. Nevertheless, as with all theories discussed within this essay, Disengagement Theory can be applied to understanding Elsie’s situation without being oppressive and without taking the extreme position that originally inspired the theory. More modern approaches to human growth and development clearly show the benefits of social engagement versus disengagement; however, disengagement remains a key factor to consider due to ageist attitudes and the socialisation of old age.


This essay has utilised theory and knowledge of human growth and development to demonstrate how social workers can make an informed assessment of a complex family situation. The strengths and limitations of these theories have been discussed, drawing in particular on their application within anti-oppressive practice. All theories offer a better understanding of human growth and development, with some requiring specific adaptation to encompass the core values of social work practice. Such adaptation is not necessarily a disadvantage if the key strengths of each theory are utilised alongside the knowledge and expertise of the social worker.


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