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Approach to the Assessment of Parenting and Family Relationships

Considerable research, such as the seminal studies of fatal child abuse carried out by Reder and Duncan in the 1990’s, suggests that understanding the way parents think is a more critical indicator as to the risks or potential in child development, than simply noting the specific things parents do (Reder and Duncan 1999, Farnfield 2014a, Grey and Farnfield 2017a).

‘Missing the Mark’ – the Problem with Parenting Skills Assessments

Parents fail in parenting less because they do not know what they should be doing, but more because, for a variety of reasons, they cannot apply generalised parenting ‘knowledge’ to the specific child in front of them. Many traditional assessment methods are therefore unsuited to endangered parents and families at significant risk.  Parents who have had adverse childhood experiences, which remain unresolved, may come to distort the meaning of their own and their child’s experience in ways that are self-protective and relate to their own experiences of danger and threat, but are not protective to their child (Crittenden 2008).  Assessing the impact of past experiences of trauma and loss should be a central part of the assessment process, otherwise central and pertinent issues may be overlooked.

Using Psychological Procedures to Assess Attachment and Family Relationships

The work of Cambridge Centre for Attachment differs from Independent Social Work assessments through the use of psychological measures that examine the impact of the attachment relationships of the adults and children upon parenting and child welfare. These interviews are recorded and transcribed verbatim. The interviews are then coded and classified, which requires subjecting the text of interviews, usually about 20-30 pages long, to in-depth analysis according a standardised procedure in which we have been trained. In terms of the measures with the children, these are usually videoed, which again gives rise to a process where the DVD video is analysed and classified.

This classification process is at the heart of our family risk assessments, and the use of properly conducted validated assessment procedures allows us to offer both the depth of analysis and evidenced based assessment of risk in relationships. The use of transcripts and videos also mean that our evidence is verifiable by other trained professionals should that need arise. It is our experience that mistakes are made by even the most qualified and trained professionals observing and interviewing with the ‘naked eye’ (including ourselves!) that can be corrected by the use of procedures that involve the analysis of transcripts or videos – put more simply, things are not always what they seem. This is especially the case with the most ‘at risk’ pattern of attachment and relating, where children and adults have learned to behave in ways that mask what is going on, for their own safety.

This methodology leads to more in depth understanding of attachment relationships and their impact upon parenting, as well as more valid and reliable information, than ‘adhoc’ observations made by an individual professional, without use of a validated procedure to assess attachment (Crittenden et al. 2014), or assessments that ignore these issues altogether.

Attachment procedures can also be used to shed light on difficult or complex issues in child assessment and welfare, such as denied child abuse, learning disabled parents, parental alienation, and the field of adoption and fostering more generally.

“Evidence based, in-depth assessment using investigative processes to illuminate the effects of trauma and danger upon adult and child relationships, and highlight any potential for change”