This series of short articles is intended to be relevant to you if you are in some sort of non-family early child and family support capacity for families who have a new baby or infant with impairments that are predicted to impact on health, development and learning
Meeting a family for the first time – building relationships
We all know the first meeting with the family has very great importance, whether or not it follows conversations by letter, telephone, e-mail or other at-a-distance messaging. (I am assuming here the meeting is in the family home, but this is not essential or always possible.)
Why is it important for the family? You might be the first person they can have a serious conversation with who is not part of the family and who does not belong to the local hospital. For the parents you might be a first test of how the outside world will view their new child, this new addition to their family.
Why is it equally important for you? You have much to offer but you will not be able to if the family opt not to see you again after this first meeting. You need to know you are being judged from the first moment they open the door to you, just as you would carefully judge someone coming into your home to help you with a serious issue. But, in fact, this will never happen to most of us. Few of us will ever have to invite a non-family person into our home to help us deal with a life-changing challenge. You can see what an important meeting this is and, potentially, how important you can be for the family now and from this time on!
The many elements that make up this early judgement are subtle, will vary from family to family and might never be put into words. Here are some first questions: Do you show that you respect the space you have entered, sitting when and where invited, switching phone and laptop off (or, preferably, leaving them outside in the car)? In the first exchanges, in which parents might be cautious and apprehensive just as you might be, can you show humility, be sincere, be your genuine self? Can you let them see that you feel privileged to be invited into their home? Can you do all of this without acting? While being a bit nervous?
Some apprehension and nervousness is entirely valid, even necessary as an antidote to any over-assertiveness. You already know a little about the child and the family but not enough to be sure what is going to arise in this first conversation. You might have met many families seeking help with their new child so you know many of the issues they are likely to have in common. Perhaps though, you have already fallen into the trap with other families of acting on assumptions that were soon proved wrong. While anticipations can be helpful, assumptions never are and can cause an immediate loss of trust – and even damage.
Being genuine, being sincere, being respectful are not parts of your professionalism. They are part of your humanity. The first judgements a family makes of you might rely on them seeing your humanity more than on anything else. In this sort of work, a large part of the developing relationships and of the sensitive support offered are at the human-to-human level, one human being helping another at a time of need. It is good to remember that these are never fixed positions. A person being helped now might later become a helper. A person offering help now might one day need help from someone else. This is helping and caring at the basic human level and it might be what a family is subconsciously looking for when you first meet them.
But what about your expertise, the knowledge and skills you have to support a child’s development and learning? It is best not to jump in too quickly. It is probably more important to start building a warm relationship with family members with empathy, respect and honesty. These are the foundations for the trust they must have in you for your work with the child to succeed. In fact, you will probably not succeed if you have not first established an effective relationship with the parents.
But the parents will be anxious to see how you perceive and relate to the baby or infant ̶ who is very likely to be in the room, awake or asleep, for this first meeting. Your knowledge, experience and expertise will become apparent to the parents by the way you greet the child, the questions you ask and the observations you make. My golden rule has always been to acknowledge the positives. More of this in the next episode.