University of Sussex
North, Gemma.pdf (2.16 MB)

Assessing for bruises on the soul: an exploration of child protection social work with intra-familial emotional abuse

Download (2.16 MB)
posted on 2023-06-09, 04:59 authored by Gemma North
Previous research has revealed that social workers struggle with recognising, naming and intervening in cases of emotional abuse (Iwaniec et al. 2007). A possible reason for this is that the impact on children of emotional abuse is experienced and played out predominantly within the psychosocial rather than the physical domain. With the effects being less observable, they are more challenging to attribute directly to emotionally abusive behaviours by parents and caregivers (Glaser and Prior 1997). Not enough is yet understood about the challenges that working with emotional abuse in families present to child protection social workers in England. This Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) funded PhD project seeks to advance knowledge of this topic by exploring some of the emotional and cognitive processes social workers follow when working in situations with children and families where emotional abuse is a concern. A key focus of the research is social workers’ subjectivity and the ways in which this influences their practice. Aspects of practice including reflexivity, intuition and emotional self-efficacy are explored, alongside the use of law and policy and more formal assessment tools. The supportive measures social workers use to process and contain the complex feelings they experience in their daily work are investigated in relation to the decisions they make. The research is small-scale and qualitative in nature. The data have been gathered from a sample of child protection social workers from two local authorities in the South East of England. Two focus groups were conducted, designed to generate broad themes to be further explored in individual interviews. Eight social workers were interviewed individually twice, with their follow-up interview held approximately two months after the first to give the interviewee an opportunity to reflect on the subject matter. The semi-structured interview schedule included exploration of how factors such as previous practice experiences, educational training and cultural background contribute to participants’ decision-making processes during assessment and intervention with cases of emotional abuse. Underpinned by a psychosocial approach, the analysis looks ‘under the surface’ of participants’ responses to consider what may be subjective or unconscious in their narratives, and what might be hidden or denied. This enabled a deeper exploration of the nuances of practice with emotional abuse, allowing the individual social workers to emerge as three-dimensional human beings with vulnerabilities and strengths. The research findings indicate that individual social workers approach identifying, assessing and intervening with children and families where emotional abuse is a concern in different ways. The social workers interviewed had clear individual strengths as a consequence of their particular approach, but struggled with reconciling their weaknesses if the impact of their day-to-day experiences of the work was not managed effectively. Defended responses to their own emotional reactions resulted in anxiety, lack of self-efficacy and splitting. Supportive mechanisms identified in the data as important to improving work with emotional abuse are containing supervisory relationships, sustained peer support and a secure workplace environment that promotes a feeling of connectedness to the wider team. The aim of the research is to contribute guidance to support social workers in their work with children and families where emotional abuse is, or may be present.


File Version

  • Published version



Department affiliated with

  • Social Work and Social Care Theses

Qualification level

  • doctoral

Qualification name

  • phd


  • eng


University of Sussex

Full text available

  • Yes

Legacy Posted Date


Usage metrics

    University of Sussex (Theses)


    No categories selected


    Ref. manager