This week, we are going to put a spotlight on the value of helping families grow their social connections. Having social connections is an essential characteristic of strong families. Some families, on your caseload, might have a well-defined support network that includes family members, friends, neighbors, etc., while other families might have very limited or maybe even no support at all. Regardless of the support network that they have in place, it’s a topic you will want to explore with them. Today we’ll discuss several items in regard to supporting parents as they work to develop strong support systems. First, we’ll look at what the research tells us about the connections between strong social support systems and nurturing parenting behaviors. Next, we’ll review strategies and tips for helping families identify the different kinds of support they might need (significant people in their lives, community and neighborhood supports, church, etc.). And finally, we will discuss the Growing Great Families (GGF) tools and resources you can use to approach these conversations during home visits.
Research indicates that when parents have a sense of connection with people who care about them, it provides a sense of security and confidence. Having these kinds of connections allows them to share the joy, pain, and uncertainties that come with the parenting role. They have also found that parents who have stable and high-quality support networks tend to have positive parental mood and increased responsiveness to their children. Research even indicates that they claim greater parental satisfaction and sense of accomplishment, and lower levels of anger, anxiety, and depression (Center for the Study for Social Policy, 2016). We all need social connections with family members, friends, neighbors, co-workers, community members and service providers. These social connections represent relationships in which we exchange information, resources, hope, encouragement, and the joys of our parenting experiences.
Let’s also keep in mind that social connections are one of the Protective Factors. The US Administration for Children and Youth defines “Protective Factors” as the conditions in families and communities that, when present, increase the health and well-being of children and families. These attributes serve as buffers, helping parents to find resources, supports, or coping strategies that allow them to parent effectively, even under stress. Research has also shown that social connections and concrete supports for parents are linked to a lower incidence of child abuse and neglect (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2014).
So, how do we support families in creating or expanding their social connections? The first step is to learn about their backgrounds, family dynamics, interests, and needs through intentional conversations soon after program enrollment. This helps us individualize their visits to their strengths, interest and need. Exploring their lifelines and support systems should be part of those initial conversations. Thus from the very beginning in our relationship with families, we’re gathering information about what their support system looks like and what that means to them.
When families cannot identify lifelines or when they express concerns about their limited support systems, one place to start with them is the GGK Problem Talk Action Tool. Problem Talk is a strategy for finding out more about a situation or problem by asking a series of questions. These questions are aimed at: clarifying what the ‘problem’ or ‘challenge” is; what the parent has already done to resolve the situation or a similar situation in the past; supporting the development of critical and creative thinking skills; and exploring related parental competencies. When you use Problem Talk, you are giving parents the opportunity to take ownership of and find their own solutions for expanding their support network. Problem Talk is about asking open-ended questions that start with a “W” word. When exploring support networks, you would ask question such as:
- Who…? Who might be contacted for everyday things; who can be contacted for emergencies (babysitting, transportation, etc.); who contributes to their lives (who they feel comfortable reaching out to); who is safe to be around; who can they trust?
- What…? What kind of support do they need (emotional, financial, informational, housing, food religious); what resources do they already have in place; what have they tried and what other new things can they try? What would happen if you do nothing?
- When…? When have you been in situations like this in the past, how have you worked it out? When can you start working on this? How soon would you need to reach out for support?
- Where…? Where do you think you can get those community services/supports (places, events, organizations, churches, clinics, support groups, etc.) where could you go to get more information about those resources?
- How…? How will having those support systems in place impact your life? Your relationship with your baby, with your partner? How important is this for you?
The GGF Manual: Module 9…Growing Your Support Network…Strengthening Protective Buffers provides conversation guides designed to help families increase awareness of common family support networks and steps families can take to build their own support system. This module discusses research findings that indicate that parents and children are healthier and feel better about themselves when they know what resources are available and how to access those supports. As with all components of service delivery, it is best when we are proactive and allow for these conversations with families to take place before they are facing an emergency or need immediate support.
Remember that your role as a home visitor is to promote the growth of the parents’ self-sufficiency and family advocacy skills. It is important to support parents in getting what they need for themselves, as opposed to you getting these supports and services for them. Acquiring the skills to advocate for themselves and their children by developing a strong support network will serve them well throughout their life. What an excellent skill to help parents develop!
Center for the Study for Social Policy (2016). Strengthening Families: A Protective Factors Framework. Retrieved from http://www.cssp.org/reform/strengthening-families/2013/SF_Social-Connections.pdf
Child Welfare Information Gateway (2014). Brief on Protective Factors Approaches in Child Welfare. Children’s Bureau/ACYF/ACF/HHS Retrieved from https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubPDFs/protective_factors.pdf