April 8

How to deal with difficult clients in social work


‘F$%@ you! You messed up my family! F$%@ off!’ How do you deal with difficult clients like these in social work?

I spoke to a father recently who had subjected his family to domestic violence. On one instance, he had pushed his daughter against the wall, strangled her, and tried to lift her off the floor. Why?

For losing her EZ Link card.

She was 8.

how to deal with difficult clients in social work

Somehow when you read things like that, you don’t exactly know how to react. On one hand, it’s hard to believe that these things can happen in a modern, progressive Singapore. Where everything looks so spick and span. But when you lift the carpet, you start finding the creepy crawlies.

On the other hand, it makes you feel helpless because you don’t know how to help. How do you deal with difficult clients in social work?

We all know those difficult clients. They shout at us for being useless. They insult us for not giving them what they want. They complain about us to our bosses. Was this why I had joined social work?

When the father scolded me, I tried every single thing I had been taught to diffuse the situation. Repeat what has been said to you.

‘I can hear that you are saying we haven’t been good at helping your family…’

Empathise with the emotion.

‘I can hear your anger…’

But when all these fail, and the line is cut off, you are left with a bundle of your own emotions.

Emotions of guilt. Yes, maybe it’s true that I’ve messed up their family.

Emotions of shame. Maybe it’s true that I have been useless at helping this family.

What can we do to address those lingering emotions?

Henry Cloud on Boundaries at Work

1. Know what is you and what’s not you.

What happened that night after that call? I realised the importance of drawing boundaries. Essentially, drawing boundaries is about stating what’s okay and not okay. More importantly, it’s about knowing what’s me and what’s not me.

Going home that night, it was easy for me to be trapped in the vortex of shame and guilt. That I was useless as a social worker, that whatever I did only made things worse.

2. Meditate to acknowledge difficult clients in your head.

Tuning into the gentle voice of Andy Puddicombe over Headspace, I tried desperately to ground myself by being mindful of my current surroundings. That I was safe at home. That I was surrounded by loving family and friends.

Very often, when we face insults like that, it’s easy to have those insults on constant replay hour after hour. You start scrutinising every single detail to determine where you went wrong.

But instead of running away, we need to face them, note them, and gently let them go.

Sitting down that night, I confronted those tapes of shame that had been stuck on repeat by the father. I started writing down a letter of love to myself, celebrating the qualities that I had. I started writing down how I had shown those qualities.

3. Write a love letter to yourself.

‘Dear John, I love you because you are so compassionate. Do you still remember how you would so lovingly clean up after others as a volunteer?’

This ‘love-letter’ technique was one that was introduced to me by my therapist. But it has also been written about in books such as Emotional First-Aid, by Guy Winch.

Setting boundaries in social work is often about telling clients what’s okay and not okay for you. But I think we also forget that it’s also about realising what’s you and what’s not you. When we empathise with others, it’s easy to get sucked into the chair they are seated on. It’s easy to start identifying yourself with their experiences. Sometimes, we start thinking that maybe, just maybe, we’re not so different after all. Who am I to help them?

The boundaries between them and us becomes blurred.

Today, building a healthy sense of self starts with knowing yourself. Stay in your own chair by grounding yourself through mindfulness. Celebrate your qualities by writing a love letter to yourself. Most importantly, don’t run away.


Winch, G. (2013) ‘Emotional first aid: practical strategies for treating failure, rejection, guilt and other everyday psychological injuries’. New York: Penguin Group


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