Difficult families? A blog from two parent carers

Sometimes you see something that just makes you fume!  An employment agency has advertised a post working with SEND children and families that requires an ability to work with ‘difficult families.’

Blog by Liz Wilson (left) and Marianne Selby-Boothroyd (right)

We are both parents of disabled children and we both work with large providers who support people with learning disabilities and autism.

We don’t know any difficult families – personally or professionally. In our organisations the concept of “difficult families” simply has no currency.

Ask any parent of a school aged child ‘Who knows your child best?’ and in almost every circumstance they will say I/we do.  We know our children inside out.  We know what makes them happy, sad, giddy, scared. We know their strengths and struggles.  We know what’s good for them, even if, being human, we don’t deliver that 100%.

Parents work tirelessly for their children’s wellbeing.  The effort doesn’t stop at 16, 18 or 21 – it keeps going through life although for most parents they aren’t called upon for active parenting after their children leave home.  Families of disabled children have to work harder than most to make sure our children have the best chance in life.  Our determination can be misunderstood.

“Difficult families” is a lazy and disrespectful way of describing families who are:

  • desperate for their child and family to have a decent life
  • scared of what the future may hold, and racked with guilt about whether they are failing their children
  • frustrated by a lack of support for their child’s education, health or care
  • intimidated by professionals and bewildered by the system
  • infuriated by not being believed and taken seriously
  • exhausted by lack of sleep, physically broken by the 24/7 care they give and low on patience because things have gone wrong so many times
  • worried about how they will pay the bills
  • lonely and isolated because there is nothing left for friends and relationships
  • angered by abuse and experiencing daily hate crime from neighbours

No, we don’t know “difficult families” but difficult situations are something we see plenty of – mainly caused by shrinking resources that neither family nor services can control.  We know for sure that the most outstanding results come when families and practitioners identify mutual interests and work in genuine partnership.

We see examples of this every day, and we know that most practitioners are committed to partnership and person centred working.

So, here’s our alternative person specification for roles involving work with families:

  • the ability to listen well, to the concerns as well as the words
  • the ability to be open minded, creative and a problem solver, working in partnership with family and the wider community
  • to view each person as an individual with their own set of life experiences, strengths, support needs and ambitions
  • the ability to think about not just today but tomorrow as well – an understanding that actions now may potentially impact a child’s life for years to come.
  • courage – to be honest and transparent about what is happening and why
  • integrity  –  to do what you say you are going to do and if you can’t, to say so.
  • respect – to remember people’s names and not use the default “mum” or “dad” as a greeting.
  • ambition – a deep belief that everyone has something to contribute

We don’t know difficult families, we know families who simply want what other families want – for their children to be healthy, happy, fulfilling their potential and surrounded by love and laughter.  Let’s stop the stereotyping, cut out the labels, and be brave enough to meet the people and real lives behind the scare stories.


Marianne Selby-Boothroyd is Director of Development at Certitude and mum to 3 boys, two of whom have additional support needs.

Liz Wilson is Family Consultant at Dimensions and mum of 2 with a daughter, brother and cousins with learning disabilities.