Earlier this week I gave some generalized topics to use for administering advice to birth parents. I also happened to throw in some ideas on how to approach giving said advice. The one thing I did not actually do was give lots of examples of questions asked or words of wisdom shared. The advice we have been asked to share is more physical guidance, or information sharing, than it is about words.
Keep in mind birth parents, like any of us, tend to parent the way they were raised. To change this behavior, if change is something we are seeking, one must relearn. Not only is this easier said than done, the best way to learn for most people is hands on.
In terms of foster care and the system, most foster parents refer to this as a “baptism by fire” type of feeling. With each new placement foster parents learn what works and what doesn’t. Foster parents also learn that what works with one placement won’t always work with another.
How does this apply in terms of offering birth parents guidance?
The point here is that each placement, and their family, needs to be treated as a new experience or clean slate. Experiences from prior cases may apply to new placements but be careful that those experiences don’t negatively affect new ones. Also, don’t start a new case by giving advice. Just because you were able to do so with a prior birth family doesn’t mean this birth family will be as open.
Let the positive experiences you have from prior placements shape you for the better. By our second placement we had a better idea of how to interact with birth families from advice to offering guidance. Experiences from our first placement also meant we could be more prepared to help with the reunification process. The second placement also lasted longer than our first one. This gave us additional time to build a stronger relationship with the birth family. Tread lightly with verbal advice even when it was asked for as it is often misinterpreted.
The best way to provide advice to birth parents is through guidance and leading by example. The parents in our first two placements were not new to parenting but admitted they had more to learn. Even when we, as humans, admit there is more to learn we don’t want to be force-fed advice.
When the advice asked for was more technical we provided information from the internet, doctors and specialists. This type of guidance comes off as less threatening. Printed copies of information proves to be better than verbal advice as it is something they can look over at their leisure. If questions do arise the birth parents can ask for clarification later. If asked, providing our thoughts on the subject, pros and cons was much different then straight out advice. Using this method has shown the birth parents that we are human just like them. Yes, it can be truly frustrating if they toss the pamphlet away and ignore what the doctor said. However that is something they are allowed to do as the birth parents.
Another way to provide guidance, not just verbal advice, is through teachable moments. This is just another fancy way of saying leading by example. Using this terminology (the subject matter of a DCS training class) provides a link between foster children and their parents.
Life is filled with moments where we have no idea that we are learning something, like toddlers observing chores. When toddlers are old enough they start helping with the chores they have watched adults do. Completing these chores gives them a sense of accomplishment. Much is the same with birth parents who haven’t had positive role models. They need to watch how other real life (no TV here) adults handle situations. Then when they complete a similar task it gives them the same sense of accomplishment. That is just one reason why DCS advocates interaction between birth parents and foster parents.
There are many ways you can provide teachable moments. The best way is to interact at visits. In past cases Rent-a-dad and I have not been available for the court mandated weekly visits but have enjoyed being involved in the optional additional visits. We have helped arrange family oriented get-togethers from attending the county fair to getting a photo taken with Santa. At these times we let the parents interact as much, or as little, as they want. Watching the family interactions can provide clues to knowing the type of relationship you might have with the birth family.
These interactions provide insight into the family dynamics. This helps ascertain whether a parent is secure in how they handle their children or if they could use a guiding hand. When it involves the later, ask the parents if you could give them a break. When the child in question is an infant offer to help feeding, burp or change the diaper. If an older child, ask the parents if they mind you taking the child to buy a cola or snack. Showing the parents that you value them through their permission, or opinion, is a good way to build a relationship. It will also provide a teachable moment in positive adult interaction.
As your relationship with the birth parents grows you will find other ways to provide the same care. Birth parents attending doctor appointments often see me asking questions for the case worker and taking notes. At the CFTM (child and family team meeting) and review panels, I am always taking notes and adding dates to my calendar. If the foster child sees other specialists I always provide the birth parents with copies of reports and information received. At weekly visits, the birth parents often receive notes from us with what has transpired that week in addition to any artwork their child made. While all of this is relationship building it is also showing the birth parents positive interaction with another adult and provides ideas on responsible “adulting”.
When physical guidance is given over verbal advice often times the birth parents don’t even realize they are receiving it, much like the aforementioned teachable moments. This interaction is seen as less threatening as verbal advice can sometimes be misconstrued as telling someone they are bad at something. Foster parents never want to make a birth parent seeking reunification seem like they are a bad parent. Most likely they already feel this way because they did lose custody of their child and have to earn that privilege back. Even if you feel the parenting skills are lacking, verbalizing this can hurt your relationship with the birth family and the foster children.
End Note: From Advice to Guidance
If you are looking for some advice yourself on things not to say to birth parents you will have to check-out our next installment in this series:
If for some reason you missed the first article in our series, here the opportunity to get caught up: Fostering: Giving Advice to Birth Parents.