Home visitors: Support children by supporting their parents

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When parents’ emotional tanks are refueled, they have more energy to respond to their child’s needs

Baby feeds his mother cereal at breakfast

Parents who trust and feel supported by the home visitor are more likely to become engaged and continue the work needed to make changes for their children

Parenting is hard work. Home visitors know that the ability to respond to a baby in supportive ways does not come naturally to everyone. For many reasons, even the best parents sometimes struggle to give their babies the emotional support they need. It is important to recognize that, just as young children learn best when supported by positive relationships, parents need supportive relationships themselves to be their best with their babies.

Professionals will be most effective in their work when they develop a positive relationship with the parents as well as the child. Home visitors who act in ways that are empathetic, warm, understanding, and responsive toward the parent facilitate positive changes in both parent and child.

What actions help parents feel supported?

To understand what actions build good relationships with parents, it is helpful to think about the parent behaviors that help a baby feel safe and supported:

  • showing interest and attention
  • accurately reading signals about needs
  • responding to needs in a timely and sensitive way

Then, consider how these kinds of behaviors can be applied to provider–parent relationships. Paralleling the parents’ actions toward babies, home visitors build relationships with parents when they

  • demonstrate an active interest in the parent and the parent’s needs
  • accurately understand what parents are saying and showing with regards to their needs
  • make efforts to respond in consistent and reliable ways to meet those needs

Here’s an example:

Lulu is upset because her toddler is active and aggressive in public situations. Lulu tells the home visitor Sandra, “I’m embarrassed all the time. She just runs and grab things when we go to the store. I really don’t know what to do.” Sandra says with sympathy, “Wow, that’s tough! I’m sorry that things are so hard for you.” Lulu visibly relaxes after the expression of concern. When Isobel comes close, Lulu reaches out to her daughter and rubs her back. She says, “I know it’s hard for her when I’m yelling all the time.” Once Lulu’s own feelings are acknowledged, she is able to think about how the situation is for her daughter.

“Is this part of my job?”

Home visitors may question the emphasis on building a positive relationship with the parent. After all, aren’t we infant and toddler specialists? Doesn’t that mean we need to keep our focus on the babies?

The concept of parallel process explains why acknowledging the parent’s experience is such an important part of the work. By supporting the parents with our words and actions, they in turn better support their children.

Parallel process describes the same type of dynamic as when someone gives you a hard time at work and you go home and lose your patience with your family. Or, conversely, when you and your friend have a good laugh over dinner, and you’re inspired to leave the server a big tip.

Here are some examples of the types of things you can do and say to help the parent feel supported.

Filling up the family's emotional tank

AT THE BEGINNING OF THE VISIT

Geneel begins the session by saying, “Emma, I was thinking about you this week. I remembered how excited you were last time with Evelyn’s progress and her interest in looking at pictures, pretending to eat the food in the pictures. You were going to practice ‘reading’ to her again this week. Tell me how it went.”

DURING THE VISIT

Bryan works with William on interacting more with his baby. During a diaper change, William begins to play a game with Evan to keep him distracted. He flips him over from side to side in between caring for Evan. Evan squeals in delight. Bryan notes afterward, “Evan really likes to play with you and you found a way to help him learn how to roll over at the same time you did a diaper change. That makes changing a diaper a pretty fun activity. Great idea!”

SUMMARIZING THE VISIT

At the end of the home visit, Susan summarizes what was discussed with Carol by saying, “You asked about finding a different place to live today. We talked about the different options and you decided to talk with your current landlord about changing apartments. We practiced what you might say, and you sounded pretty confident about how to ask for what you need. You really know what’s best for your family and how to get that in a respectful way.”

IN BETWEEN VISITS

Rebecca runs into Samantha who has a WIC appointment in the same building as the home visiting office. Samantha tells Rebecca she realized she could check board books out from the library after Anthony had enjoyed them so much during their last visit. She shows Rebecca the books they’d just checked out, and Rebecca responds, “What a great idea you had to get more books from the library so you and Anthony can read together!”

Obstacles to forming positive relationships

Despite your best efforts, you may find it difficult to establish a positive and productive relationship with families. A block to forming a good relationship can come from the parent, the home visitor, or a combination of both. Some parents may never have experienced the kind of support home visitors offer and cannot understand or even recognize what is being offered.

If establishing trust is an issue, create opportunities for the parent to learn you can be counted on. For example, you can make plans to bring information or activities to the next session so the parent can see you follow through on what you say you’re going to do. Also, you can make a point of bringing up something that happened during previous sessions to demonstrate you’ve been paying attention or mention something to indicate you’ve been thinking about the family.

Carolyn brings a recipe for playdough to her visit with Deidre and Gage. She says, “I found this recipe for you. I remembered that you and Gage had a lot of fun with the playdough I brought last week, so I thought you might like to make some yourself.” Deidre smiles and says, “Thanks! I bet my mom will like this. We used to make playdough when I was little.” She puts the recipe in a folder on the table and sits with Carolyn to start the session.

How can supervisors support the home visitor?

By the same parallel process, supervisors who support practitioners also support families. Being responsive to home visitors and respecting that they are the experts on the families—just as parents are the experts on their child—goes a long way to helping home visitors be successful.

Here are recommendations from home visitors for ways supervisors can support them in their work:

  • Truly listen to practitioners regardless of agreement or disagreement. Sometimes supervisors will need to allow disagreements and then wait to see how the process develops and collect information about outcomes.
  • Never make assumptions about a practitioner’s underlying reasons for what he or she is doing. Ask questions to get at the practitioner’s belief about the practice.
  • Establish an atmosphere of experimentation. Allow practitioners to make mistakes and to learn from mistakes.
  • Ask about what worked, what did not work, and what the differences between these strategies were. This can be one of the most powerful communication techniques that supervisors use.
  • Don’t solve problems. Solving problems establishes the supervisor as the expert; this is not an effective supervisory role. Consider the advice of one supervisor, “I really like asking questions so that the change for strategies or behavior comes from them instead of me.”

When supervisors use these techniques regularly, practitioners in turn use them with families.

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In the end, the most effective home visitors (and supervisors) are those who build positive relationships. If you’re not already consciously being responsive in your interactions, try making a point of it the next chance you get and see what happens. You may be surprised to find improved outcomes all around!

Originally published: April 2016