Impact in Qualitative Research: Emma Maynard on the Family Stories project

Emma Maynard
Emma Maynard reflects on how the Family Stories project is helping to find sustainable approaches to trauma-informed, responsive parenting.

Emma Maynard is a Lecturer in Child & Family Health, specialising in complex family experience and safeguarding. She is a qualitative psychologist, researching with parents, children, schools, and support services. Emma welcomes contact from those who share similar research and professional interests.

All families have their stories. They are recalled with rollicking humour and gut-wrenching despair, and passed down through generations in shared folklore. Our measures of success are by comparison to what we lived as children; our quiet observations form realities. If we are lucky, these stories tell of nurture, love, and security. In other circumstances, they are about survival. My research has focused on hearing family stories which are not easily shared in a norm-dominated, moralised and stigmatising world. Over the last few years, around 30 parents have shared their stories with me; all of them were parents who had received social care support due to concerns about their children. Essentially I asked them “what was this like, for you?”, referring to the crises leading to referral, the support itself, and family life after support was withdrawn.

Back in the early 2000’s I was an Integrated Services Manager in Children’s Services; I managed a co-ordinated approach to supporting children and families at “early help” stage. This was still during the time of New Labour, when local services were focused on improving on failings found following the death of Victoria Climbie, an eight year old child from the Ivory Coast who was killed by her aunt and her partner in Hackney. Despite further changes in policy in recent times, deaths like Victoria’s have continued to occur, as they have done throughout human history. The tragic losses of Peter Connelly, Daniel Pelka, Khyra Ishaq, Hamzah Khan, Star Hobson and Arthur Lavinjo-Hughes rocked the public consciousness. Yet still, they are but a few of the 58 children who are killed in the UK every year through abuse and neglect (NSPCC, 2021). Public fury is quick to ignite at such times – battle lines are drawn against those public servants who should have done more, and it is indeed a desperate indictment that in spite of “lessons learned” such failings occur again and again. But the media never reports the lives saved. As Marion Brandon reported recently (Brandon et al, 2020) failings occur because the work is hard. Abusive parents disguise their compliance until the very end, such as in the murders of Star, aged 16 months, Arthur, aged 6, and Peter, aged 2 (MacAlister, 2022; DfE, 2010).

But despite the screaming headlines, most children are not harmed because parents and carers set out to wreak havoc on their small bodies. Mostly, low parental capacity is a root cause of abuse; poverty, alcoholism, domestic violence, substance misuse, poor housing, children’s behaviour and past traumas overwhelm and ensnare families in a downward spiral towards breakdown and dysfunction as social judgement piles on. One of the greatest challenges is the sheer volume of families who receive support, but, are unable to sustain improved parenting. About 50% of families are re-referred, often repeatedly (Troncoso, 2017). We know it as the revolving door. If only we could solve that issue, and help families sustain safer, responsive parenting, we might save a great number of children.

Those of us who hear stories know the value of qualitative research, and this shows itself particularly well in when experiences are less prominent in society. These are stories which cannot be conveyed numerically. Through dialogic methods we can listen in a unique way, away from the professional gaze where we can be immersed in the story without judgement. Our small sample sizes offer the space to dwell on nuance, and therein see the moments which pivot lives. Recently I asked what enabled parents to sustain responsive parenting – the ‘other’ 50% who do not relapse. I found evidence of dramatic changes in their lives. Sofia* explains how her parenting course taught her to withstand her son’s aggression. She says:

Well it gives me goosebumps to even think... I was getting so overwhelmed…It was a battle every day. And with the [parenting] it was like ‘Okay, he’s bad, he’s swearing about you, he’s kicking you in the middle of the road. Stand still, look at him, and tell him that you love him” (Maynard et al, 2023).

Sofia’s story gave me goosebumps too, not only in this memory (above), but in her pride. She spoke of the past criticism from her mother, and how her new parenting had now come to note; it was the highest form of praise for Sofia’s mother to say “your sister should try this!”. The difference for Sofia was in the way she was talked about. She had gone from being overwhelmed with criticism to being upheld as a shining example of success.

Sofia was not alone. Many of the parents talked about overwhelming criticism from their child’s school, to the point that they avoided the school gates. This was layered on top of other critics at home – their own parents, friends, and disapproving onlookers swamped these mums to the point of despair.

But for many, change did come. And with transformed parenting came a transformed self. Not only were they able to describe changes in the here and now, but they evidenced their belief in a changed future. Cathy* said;

I’m quite a different person now you know… because I think if I was in that place again…now, I can fix this, I can do it.

And Rosie* explains;

I actually nicknamed her the devil in a sundress because... she [child] was horrible, she was really horrible ..and I was scared to look at her …so yeah, it was really, really, really tough, really tough.

But our home life now is we laugh, we laugh so much, and she will cuddle me and she confides in me and she’s like my mini best mate, and if someone had said to me four years ago things are going to turn around and you two are going to be so close, I would’ve gone ‘you’re lying’.

The Family Stories project identified four enablers evident in this data set, which indicates how parents have been able to change and sustain parenting in calmer and responsive ways. Those enablers speak to environmental factors offering support; Community and Allyship, and process factors equipping parents with skills and confidence; Strategy and Mastery. Work with this participant group has now moved into a PPI phase, as we move toward upscaling the research and helping to find sustainable approaches to trauma-informed, responsive parenting. Our next steps will be to scrutinise differences in family stressors, for example mental illness and domestic abuse, in combination with parenting identities.


Department for Education (2010) Serious Case Review, Child A 

MacAlister, J. (2022) The independent review of children’s social care: Final Report 

Maynard, E., Sims-Schouten, W., Fairchild, N., & Warhurst, A. (2023) Family Stories: investigating trauma-informed narratives, change behaviours and environments for complex family experiences. Families, Relationships & Societies, 1-18. 

NSPCC, (2021) Child deaths due to abuse or neglect: Statistics briefing 

Brandon, M., Sidebotham, P., Belderson, P., Cleaver, H., Dickens, J., Garstang, J., Harris, J., Sorensen, P., & Wate., R. (2020) Complexity and challenge: a triennial analysis of SCRs 2014-2017 

Troncoso, P. (2017) Analysing repeat referrals to children’s social care in England