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.
There can be no rules about when this should happen. It is more a matter of you, as the support worker, being sensitive to changes in the relationship with parents and being willing to let the changes happen naturally.
I am using the word turmoil for the confusion, anxiety and grief a parent might experience on learning the baby has, or will probably have, significant challenges to development and learning. You might come along as a ‘life-saver’ being with the parent at a very dark time. The relationship might be characterised by dependence with you being a shoulder to cry on, a listening ear, a refuge during the worst times. Dependence at this time is very natural.
Emerging from the turmoil, the parent is becoming less emotionally dependent. By now, she or he is forming bonds of attachment with the baby and more confident in the tasks of caring for their special needs, whatever they are. Natural parenting skills, which might have been masked by all the negativities in the turmoil, will emerge and take their place in bringing up the child. Dark times can recur from time to time when your shoulder will be needed but you will surely allow the parent to become less dependent, more in control, more self-assured. This is likely to be a gradual process.
It is essential for support workers to be self-aware as this change is happening to avoid the common danger of a support worker wanting to continue the dependent relationship. It is probably a human trait to give life meaning by catering for another person’s needs but doing it when it is no longer necessary should not be part of our professionalism. We must be prepared to change gear at the appropriate time.
Part of this process can be a parent becoming more powerful in the way the whole package of support is being provided. New parents usually want to accept all help that is offered without discriminating between services or between practitioners. As the turmoil recedes, as dependence reduces, parents have growing clarity about what is helping, what is not helping, which practitioners they get on with and trust, and which practitioners they are happy to manage without.
Many parents will value help from you in creating the sort of whole package they want and in approaching all the people involved. Parents who are becoming more powerful will still need help from someone like you who knows more than they do about how all the local systems work.
This re-shaping of support by an empowered parent (or by a parent becoming empowered) can be their reaction to overload and a struggle to regain some sort of quality of life for the child and the family ̶ an urge to get family life back into some new sort of normal. So it is a time to look at how many appointments there are in how many different places, how many people are coming to the home, which practitioners are offering separate programmes that would be better integrated, which practitioners are truly respecting and valuing the child.
There can be a combined effort at this time with you and the parents working together to counter exclusion, to start breaking down the isolation that the family might have fallen into during the turmoil. Without your help, this isolation might continue for years, keeping the child away from their peers, keeping parents away from the social life of the community and keeping siblings more or less entrapped within the confines of a restricted family life.
Even when the parent has become less dependent, there is still much for you to do as a family support worker, but in a different gear.