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16 hours as a social worker: Supporting teenage mums

We spent some time with a 22 year old social worker after a sleepover shift.

Before we get started, can you tell us a bit about your job?

I am a support worker for teenage parents (under the age of 18).

These parents live in the organisation’s residential house, which provides supervision and support for them around the clock. We assist in supporting our clients to develop parenting skills, life skills (including organisational, education, child development, etc) and provide case management in all areas of their life (e.g. family/partner violence, mental health, trauma, etc.)

When parents transition out of the program, we assist them in finding stable accommodation for them and their children.

What time do you start your shift?

I start my sleepover shift around 4pm.

What’s the first thing you do when you arrive at work?

I will come in and do handover. Essentially that is a time to catch up on what has been happening since I’ve last been on shift, updates on our clients, that kind of thing. It’s also a chance for the staff that have been working a particularly difficult shift to debrief.

What do the next few hours look like for you?

I start by reading and responding to emails. Then I read all the case notes and client records to ensure I am up-to-date for my shift.

Then I assist the mothers and their children with their evening routines. So, this includes things like supporting them to prepare dinner, assisting with the bathing and settling of their children. 

What happens after their dinnertime?

The other staff usually leave at 5pm and from then I work alone until the morning. First off, I make sure all of the mothers are in bed by curfew. And then I am available throughout the rest of the evening for any extra support required.

We have an on-call policy though, so there is always the option to call a senior staff member after business hours if necessary.

Once they’re in bed, what do you do?

I complete extensive case notes on what I observed throughout my shift and any interactions with the mothers and their children. For example, did I see any specific risks or behaviours that should be noted?

Then I lock up the building, set the alarms and head upstairs to bed. 

You’ve had a pretty long night by this point. Does it quiet down or are you needed throughout the night?

Sleepovers are either really quiet or very busy. It depends on the amount of mothers that we have at any one point in time and what has been happening for them.

I need to be available throughout the night if they need anything. They can knock on my door or contact me via phone. If they do need me, it’s usually for support with settling their children. As new parents some of them may need help to learn how to read their child’s cues.

Does anything out of the ordinary ever happen on your shift?

Yeah, I have been on shifts when emergencies have happened. Unfortunately I was the only worker on.

Part of the job is crisis management skills; so it’s about dealing with a situation by balancing both the heightened emotions and feelings as well as ensuring the safety of the mothers and children.

You go to sleep and wake up in the morning. How are you feeling at this point?

Weirdly, I usually wake up feeling rather energised. I get excited to be finishing work at the beginning of the day! Unless it’s been a long night and I have been up supporting the mothers – in that case I’m exhausted for the rest of the day and go to bed at 5pm.

It sounds like a lot of responsibility. Does this ever overwhelm you?

It definitely can. I was very nervous when I first started out – it can be daunting being responsible for young mothers and their children during the night. It becomes easier though. Especially when you get comfortable with the job and get to know the mothers well.

What’s a misunderstanding about social workers that frustrates you?

I think we’re not always regarded as a proper and important profession. We have specific skill sets, theories and practices that inform our work, and we work alongside other health professionals, like nurses and occupational therapists.

Do social workers need support? It seems like it could be an emotionally straining job, how do you deal with it?

It is emotionally straining, but not in the way most think it would be. Working with clients is a privilege. We are invited into the most personal and private facets of people’s lives. We learn from them and grow from them and we see and experience their strength and resilience.

The emotionally straining part is the systemic and structural issues that oppress our clients.

But it’s important to remain hopeful and to challenge these disadvantages.

All social workers participate in supervision. It’s a very important aspect of our practice. This is where we meet with a more experienced social worker, and spend time critically reflecting on our practice.

This is where professional development really happens – we review knowledge and theories to help inform how we will continue to better our work. We also spend this time critiquing and deconstructing things we deem unethical, thinking about ways to minimise inequality.

Most workplaces will also provide free counselling sessions by a psychologist, for when you’re feeling overwhelmed or when something distressing has happened. I’ve learnt that it’s important to keep your own physical and mental health in check in order to provide the best service to your clients.

You might also like to read a course review on social work at USYD and hear about a clinical psychologist’s career journey.

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