FEEL GOOD FACES… A REVIEW BY PETER BARKER, a Children and Family Reporter (with CAFCASS) based on work with 20 children.

I am a private law practitioner with CAFCASS and specialise in dealing with conflicts between parents who have separated and are in dispute about where the children should live and about contact arrangements. I advise Judges on what is in the best interests of the children. My enquiries usually involve observation of mums and dads with their children in their separate homes, or quite often in a children’s meeting room.

Observation of contact is inevitably a very artificial situation for the parent and the child(ren). Playing a game of some description can help overcome the barriers.

For the last nine months I have been using the game “Feel Good Faces” whenever the age range of the children has made this possible.

20 children between the ages of 5 and 15 have now experienced the game, as have their mums and dads, step-parents and sometimes grandparents.

Feedback from children has invariably been positive or very positive, this being indicated by enthusiastic participation or subsequent comment. Requests to play the game again are fairly usual. One 8 year old boy insisted that when I next visited him I had to bring the game or he would be very upset. A 9 year old girl living with her grandmother wanted the game for Christmas. A mother commented that she could see why I used the game and asked for details so that she could purchase it.

Like any game “Feel Good Faces” requires the family group to sit around a board and engage with each other. The game is non-competitive. The task is to ensure that the children’s sad faces on the board are revealed as being happy again at the end of the game. No one can lose, so no one can be cross at losing or triumphant at winning.

The game enables children to act out feelings and to share their thoughts about themselves and others in a positive way. Thus a ten year old boy separated from his older brothers, living with father, was able to articulate his feeling of being left out. A twelve year old beamed warmly at his step-father whilst taking up an invitation from one of the cards to say three pleasant things about the person next to him.
His younger brother distanced himself and the interaction within the group helped me to look at family dynamics. The Court decided that he should transfer residence to his father.

Another case involved a father who had committed domestic violence ( pushing and shoving, snatching a child etc.) Initial contact indicated real anxiety of the younger child age 6 about meeting with Dad. The game quickly led to very close rapport between Dad and daughters. There was laughter and cuddles and my concerns were greatly modified. The game experience was only one piece in a jigsaw which led to my conclusion that mother was actively undermining contact.

One very stilted recent experience indicated that whilst the children were happy to play the game, they firmly rejected contact with their mum, a non-resident parent applying for residence of two boys age 12 and 14. Their body language was negative towards her and they resisted eye contact at all costs. Their pleasure in the game was something that they did not share with her. I reached the conclusion that if “Feel Good Faces” could not promote positive interaction of any kind, there was little chance of the boys accepting a transfer of residence to mum. It is important to note that the game experience provides some important clues to be measured carefully against other evidence. So far I have found that FGF has never produced misleading clues which have not been consistent with other assessment work.

After initial experience, I have begun to use the game on only one occasion in each inquiry. This is to ensure that the game does not take on a life of its own which detracts from its purpose in being one part of the assessment process.

I feel that the game has been helpful in giving the children more confidence to express themselves, often very openly in front of mum or dad. It has helped them, I think, to accept my involvement in their lives. It has also built a bridge towards later work aimed at establishing their wishes and feelings, a key but not determining element in any CAFCASS inquiry.

It is perhaps worth noting that I have experimented with other games in this area of work, which I have found too poor to use unless I spent a lot of time editing the material in pick up cards. This has never been a problem with FGF which I feel lucky to have stumbled across as it was in its final development stages.

Peter Barker.