By: Robin McWilliam
Readers will scoff at the idea that adult family members with whom we work have no faults. I agree that most humans—in fact, those I appreciate the most—are flawed. But this way of thinking about parents—that they don’t have failings—the failings are ours—is a helpful one in early intervention for children with disabilities birth to five.
This post continues the list of mental shifts required to move from a clinical approach to a family-centered, functional approach. It continues the theme of Mental Shift 4 on the dangers of passing judgment on parents.
What are some parent behaviors early interventionists might see that could lead some professionals to view them as failings?
- Ineffective behavior management.
- Unresponsiveness to the child.
- Inadequate care of the child.
- Unfriendly behavior towards the early interventionist.
- Substance abuse.
- Unhealthy personal habits.
- Constant conflict with others.
In the Routines-Based Model, we try to uncover why some of these things occur and what we can do to help. Some of them occur because parents don’t have another frame than the one they’re using for interacting with their child, caring for him or her, or their own eating and sleeping habits. In this case, one role of the early interventionist is to present options to families. When it comes to parenting behaviors, however, models close to the family’s demographic work better than models far from their demographic. And often the divide between parents and professionals is wide, in terms of race, ethnicity, educational level, income, and so on.
When parents really are “failing,” as in inadequate care of the child, we need to follow our state guidelines for reporting, of course. But if it hasn’t reached that point, we need to develop our relationship with the family so we can be honest with them about what needs to change. When families know you have their best interest in mind (e.g., keeping the family together, ensuring the child gets what he or she needs), they will take what you have to say. If, however, they sense you’re passing judgment and pitting children against parents, they won’t take what you have to say.
When parents have their own issues, such as substance abuse, crazy relationships with food, and unhealthy habits generally, the early interventionist is in a difficult position. First, he or she has to consider whether the parent’s behaviors are putting the child at risk. Second, the professional needs to embrace the challenge of seizing the moment if the parent expresses a need related to one of these issues. For example, if the parent says, “I probably shouldn’t drink as much as I do,” the early interventionists should follow up with questions about whether the parent wants help drinking less and whether the parent feels the child is in danger when the parent is drinking. It’s impossible to script out what to do, because relationships differ, but the closer a professional gets to a parent, the more likely it is the parent will talk about these issues.
When the issue is a so-called personality issue, such as the parent being constantly confrontational, again carpe diem. If the parent gives a bit of an opening, such as, “I don’t understand why everyone assumes I’m hostile,” the early interventionist could say, “Perhaps that’s because you end up yelling at people every time you talk to them.” If the professional has a good relationship with the parent, he or she might be able to say such a thing. If the relationship isn’t good, the statement would be considered hostile in itself.
In general, professionals need to take responsibility for helping the family when they appear to be “failing.”