Family is the single most important influence in a child’s life, which is why it is the focus of a number of Singapore Children’s Society’s programmes. Through our family-based prevention and intervention programmes for high-risk children and youth, for instance, our therapists help families work through their challenges and emerge stronger. As 2021 draws to a close, Jeremy Heng reflects on how making a human connection is a critical starting point to delivering help in an impactful way.

Functional Family Therapist Jeremy Heng has spent close to four years working with families referred to Safe and Strong Families – Reunification (SSF-R) in hopes that, with professional help, they can work through the challenges they face, and become stronger as a unit. But it can be a job that is fulfilling and heartbreaking in equal portions, he says.

“I’ll never forget one particular case. We were reuniting a pair of adolescent brothers with their parents and older sibling under the SSF-R programme. They had spent five years in the child welfare system. Their mother could not care for them as she worked long hours to pay off debts, and their father, who lived here on a short-term visit pass, was out of the country. Upon their father’s return and stabilisation of the family’s financial situation, there seemed to be an opportunity to reunite the family in their rental flat. But there were more challenges. There were communication issues and frequent episodes of domestic violence between the parents, as well as harsh physical punishment of the boys. The boys also regularly missed school. These issues were exacerbated by the parents’ long working hours at their food stall and father’s chronic alcoholism.

Although the father was largely absent from the family sessions due to his personal challenges, the mother and the boys worked to learn skills that could help, including emotional regulation and communication skills. I also inevitably became an incessant ‘nagger’ so the mother would practice the skills that were taught. Yet, the real turning point seemed to come after the mother ended up in ICU due to underlying health issues. It inspired her to change her approach to the boys, given the uncertainty around the amount of time she had left. She wanted to make whatever time was left count.

She demonstrated incredible resilience and made sacrifices, working hard after her discharge at a convenience store to better provide for her children. Despite her chronic fatigue and poor health, she stood for hours. She would eat $2 canteen meals but bought them burgers and ‘atas’ chocolate eclairs. The boys were not academically-inclined and were more interested in playing games, but she spent hundreds of dollars a month on tuition. She repeatedly procrastinated an urgently needed heart bypass despite doctors telling her she was a ‘ticking bomb’; she was afraid she would die on the operating table, leaving her boys to fend for themselves.

The family made good progress – the harsh physical punishment and domestic violence ceased, and the family learnt to communicate in healthier ways, allowing SSF-R and FFT to successfully close the case. However, the mother passed away a few months later, days before a scheduled heart procedure. To save money, she had gone overseas for treatment. As her children could not get visas in time, they were not able to attend her funeral. I was shaken by the news, as well as the family’s tragic circumstances.

When I eventually checked in with the boys in person, both were still in shock at their mother’s sudden passing. However, the eldest daughter had stepped up to keep the family together as a unit, and both boys had made it into tertiary institutions. Their mother would have been so proud and happy. They had fulfilled her biggest desire – to have the boys back home and their lives back on track.

The work of an FFT therapist is complex. All too often, reports we receive about families before we meet them don’t capture the nuances within the family unit, forcing a change in planned approaches. It requires you to be nimble, to put yourself in the shoes of each family member and try to understand their psychological mindscapes. You have to be able to anticipate their responses while planning and implementing your session goals. An FFT therapist also has to constantly be aware of their own transference as a child, sibing, or parent/caregiver, because we all come from our own families and return home to them after work.

My takeaway from FFT – and especially this family – is that making a connection at the human-level is the single most critical part of the work we do in the social sector. Relationships are at the heart of our work, and the vessels for transformation. Because we encounter our beneficiaries at a human level in the intimate spaces of their homes, our work can be exhausting, but so very fulfilling.”

Click here to read the story in Chinese.