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In your role, you will regularly encounter young mothers (or young expectant mothers) partnered with older men. You will also frequently experience older partners who are somewhat reluctant to accept your involvement (and that of other services), which can make aiding your client challenging. Engaging the partner is often integral to supporting your client – thankfully, as a worker, you’ll be well versed in exercising patience and persistence.
The end goal is to equip both client and partner with skills and knowledge to help them function smoothly as a family unit. Connected with a variety of services, educated on anger management and communication skills or whatever else is necessary, your client and her partner stand the best chance of achieving that goal.
Through all the challenges that present themselves to a young mother – her partner’s behaviour or involvement often ranking high on the list – she is expected by Child Protection and other services to demonstrate that her children are her priority and to pursue whatever path best illustrates that fact. This can leave young mothers who wish to remain with their partners in a difficult position. While a client may be legally required to exclude her partner from their children’s lives, her partner might be a key source of support and his exclusion might not only amplify her emotional stress but also make it increasingly difficult to achieve the end goal of unifying their family unit.
Why do young mothers often feel they're going it alone?
It’s common for clients’ partners to be precluded from important events, meetings and appointments during the pregnancy due to their own substance use, reluctance or court orders. Sometimes a client will be aware that their partner’s presence at such events or meetings can raise concerns for others; however, their absence can make the client feel like they’re enduring the stress and difficulties of pregnancy alone, hence why your guidance is crucial throughout the client’s journey – often, you are their primary source of stable support.
This feeling of ‘going it alone’ can stem from the partner’s attitude towards the pregnancy or young child; that is, a partner will view it as your client’s responsibility to engage with all the necessary services throughout the pregnancy and post-birth such as appointments with you (her worker), Child Protection, maternal and child health nurses, midwives and hospital staff or antenatal classes and ultrasounds etc. Rather than viewing the situation as one to work through as a unit, it’s common for partners to step back and for the young mother to shoulder the lion’s share of responsibilities and obligations.
Without wholly intending to, youth workers, Child Protection and other services also tend to view the mother as the party who needs to lead the charge and consistently demonstrate her priorities and capabilities.
Why is it necessary to engage a client's partner?
Your client’s partner is a source of support. Even in cases where the relationship is volatile, your role is to help your client manage and improve the relationship if it’s clear she wishes to remain with her partner.
Working to strengthen your client’s communication skills, arming her with information, forming safety plans and connecting her and her partner with counselling or support services are advisable places to start.
Securing and maintaining a partner’s engagement can be an ongoing challenge. Framing your involvement in a way that highlights benefits for the partner will often reap a positive response. For example, assisting the partner to secure Centrelink financial support, connecting him with job networks, or advocating on his behalf in situations where he’s having difficulties can help to secure his ‘buy-in’ and result in benefits that flow through to your client.
What if a partner falls outside a youth worker's age bracket?
Youth support services are structured to support a specific age group; however, as young mothers are often paired with older partners, offering support and guidance to those who fall outside your target demographic is common. Often in order to best help your client you will need to also assist their partner.
For example, consider the case of 20-year-old mother whose 40-year-old partner’s anger management issues prompted the removal of their children. Child Protection’s order stipulated the male undergo a behavioural change course. Overseeing his progress through the order’s conditions became part of the worker’s role as it was integral to the support of her client despite the partner’s age falling well outside of a youth worker’s age bracket.
When a client wishes to remain with her partner
While many partners are a key source of support for young mothers, Child Protection may still enforce conditions that limit a father’s access to the children or to the mother. This can be especially difficult when it’s clear to workers and other services that the couple is still together. It also presents additional challenges to achieving the end goal, which is of course creating a healthily functioning family unit in which both partners support and help each other to create a stable environment for their children.
When a client wishes to move on from her partner
On the flip side, Child Protection orders might prompt a mother to separate voluntarily from her partner and go on to demonstrate significant progress (perhaps she becomes settled in new housing, links in and engages with new community connections and successfully addresses substance use or high-risk behaviours etc.). Unfortunately, in many instances, a partner will return and disrupt or sabotage the client’s progress. The partner’s presence, behaviours or influence can be emotionally overwhelming and difficult for the young mother to withstand when compounded with other stresses (such as those that come with being a young mother, maintaining engagement with a variety of services, complying with Child Protection orders etc.)
The partner’s return might lead to violations of Child Protection orders or broken or damaged community connections, particularly if the client has to uproot herself and her children to distance herself from the partner. These are especially difficult times for a young mother as she will have left behind support networks, friends and the comforts that come with familiarity and stability. Together, you will need to go back to square one and rebuild a network of new community connections.
How do you keen a reluctant partner engaged with services?
Keeping partners engaged can be difficult, particularly when it comes to Child Protection-ordered services and supports.
While partners might attend the first few mandated meetings or appointments it’s common to see them drop off and attend fewer and fewer or none at all.
This will often lead to the break down of community connections, which will then need to be re-established either with the same services or with new ones (in instances where bridges have been burned). Prior to linking a client or partner in with services be sure to discuss the subject in detail to ascertain if they are ready for that service and to let them know how to proceed and what to expect. These kinds of conversations can help prevent the break down of connections down the line.
Explore the flexibility of services and systems
When it comes to partners’ court-mandated behavioural change courses or counselling, it’s worth exploring services (or tweaking existing services) that are suited to young people. This might involve a little creative thinking and out-of-the-box initiative.
Example cases of negotiating flexibility for partners
A young man ordered to participate in a twelve-week anger management course found it attended by mostly older, long-term institutionalised men etc. Feelings of intimidation and discomfort meant he was unable to absorb the course’s content. It was proposed to Child Protection that instead of attending the course, the young male’s worker include behavioural change content to their weekly meeting. Child Protection accepted the proposal and the young male was able to meet the conditions of his Child Protection order in a way that worked best for him.
A young male ordered to attend an anger management course, mental health counselling, relationship counselling and drug and alcohol support is likely to feel overwhelmed or burnt out pretty quickly. However, the solution might be linking him in with a youth-friendly psychologist whose service encompasses several subjects. This not only consolidates time for the young male but also affords him the opportunity to develop a more meaningful relationship with one professional as opposed to half-formed relationships with professionals across multiple other services. Your advocacy might also extend to negotiating how a counselling session will be structured in order to maximise benefit for the young male. If he’s known to have extreme difficulty sitting still for periods longer than 15 minutes, then perhaps it’s possible to arrange counselling sessions that allow frequent breaks or sessions that run for half an hour instead of an hour etc.
Encouraging and testing support services’ flexibility is something you’ll do regularly.
Educating clients on healthy relationships
A significant proportion of young mothers engaged with young parents’ programs are in relationships that present varying degrees of domestic violence.
When a client’s partner is prone to behaviours that raise flags for Child Protection (domestic violence, substance use etc.), it’s imperative that you educate your client on the many kinds of abuse that exist (physical, emotional, financial etc.). If your client is able to identify an abusive relationship, hopefully it will aid your ability to support her as well as improving her ability to address her issues.
In situations where the partner’s behaviour is the primary source of your client’s problems and concerns, try and educate both parties together on healthy relationships; that is, cover subjects such as how to function best as a couple, how to manage disputes, how to communicate constructively, how to demonstrate respect for one another etc.
Remember that many clients have grown up around unhealthy relationships and therefore never learned what constitutes a healthy relationship or how to build and maintain one.
It’s also important to educate your client on what to do if the relationship breaks down again. Forming a safety plan [add link] is recommended so that in crisis situations the client has a clear understanding of where she should go, who she should speak to and where she can seek support.
Safety planning: Domestic (Family) Violence services
In crisis situations where a client and/or her children’s safety is at risk, the safety plan might involve the client leaving her home and engaging domestic violence services that will remove the mother and children from immediate danger. However, in many cases this action can create additional stress and complication for the client due to the crisis nature of the situation and limitations of support that services are able to provide.
In collaboration with other services and supports involved it’s important to make sure a comprehensive safety plan is in place providing a safe and structured response for the short term.