Privileged glimpses 18: Behaviours that harm the individual

This series of blog posts first appeared a few years ago on a now defunct blog called ‘Care Training’. It was inspired by the training maxim of ‘making the unconscious conscious’. It is intended to take what really ought to be the most basic principles of health and social care and put them down on paper. The series isn’t only an exercise in stating the obvious though whatever the title might suggest. It’s actually intended as a philosophical foundation manual for workers and informal carers to help them get their care ‘on track’ and then to keep it that way.

Behaviours that harm the individual

For those of us who work in health and social care it can be very distressing and frustrating to see our service-users undermine their health, their social situation or their state of mind. At times like these there is a temptation to intervene and simply try to prevent the behaviour. Of course sometimes this is appropriate and necessary, for example if the service-user appears to be actively suicidal, but not always. Often there is a judgement to be made between potential damage or harm and the benefit of experience that will help the service-user to learn from their mistake. Everyone learns best from consequence and it’s not necessarily helpful to shield people from the consequences of their actions. The more we intervene and prevent people from making mistakes the less they grow and develop in our care.

This might seem like a simple point to make but it’s also a fundamental principle that goers to the very heart of health and social care work.

If we accept that our job is to help people to be all that they can be and in most cases to grow beyond the need for our help then we must also help them to learn how to cope without us. They need the skills and understanding necessary to survive in the ‘real world’. It’s our job to help them to develop these skills before they leave us. After all, there’s no point expecting them to survive outside our care if we haven’t helped them to prepare, to take a few (managed) risks, and to learn how to deal with disappointment too.

Part of that preparation, that development is to learn how to take responsibility, understanding that actions have consequences and that in the ‘real world’ we all have to face them. We do our service-users no favours by teaching them that they don’t need to face the consequences of their actions.

This is why, for example, a service-user who damages property should be given a bill. This is why the young person who sulks and refuses to come down for dinner should go hungry (provided that there’s no physical or psychiatric reason behind the refusal). People learn from the consequences of their actions and it is not the job of social care staff to prevent that learning process from happening.

So when the challenging behaviour is detrimental to the service-user themselves the first decision to be made is whether to intervene at all. If you do intervene it should be because the risk of harm to the individual is greater than the benefit of them learning from their experience. Often a debrief after a mistake is much more productive than intervening to avoid the mistake in the first place.

I’m assuming that, before we even begin to consider behaviours as challenging the normal process of discussion and ‘advice’ (always something to be cautious about) has been followed and the service-user has not responded to that.

This is why most of the time we focus very little of our attention on the challenging behaviour itself. Much more time and effort should go into the debrief and the process of encouraging behaviours we want to maintain rather than trying to discourage behaviours that we want to reduce. Generally speaking the more that we focus upon a behaviour the more it recurs anyway so only intervene if you have to.

Remember that our duty of care doesn’t ask us to prevent the development of coping skills and independence – only to assess and manage the risks associated with that growth so far as is reasonable and lawful.

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