This really happened to me: Before heading out the door, I received a call from a mother whom I’d be seeing in about an hour. She asked if I could stop by the grocery store to pick up milk Woman pushing grocery cartand diapers. She had no transportation and lived deep in the woods in a very rural area, miles away from the nearest store. She said she would pay me back when I arrived. I knew that the family was really struggling, had recently been homeless, and was living with relatives in a home that had no electricity most days.

What do you think I did? What would you do?

A Difficult Position

Yes, that’s what I was in… I was a young early interventionist and was very much in “helper mode.” She was a young, struggling mother with two small children who was literally stuck where she was. You can probably guess what happened next.

I got the milk and diapers, even though my gut feeling said that this was crossing a professional boundary. I wrestled with what to do all the way to the store, through the check-out line, and down the one-way dirt road to where the family was staying. When I arrived, the mother thanked me and gave me the money. It was extremely awkward for both of us. I told her it was no problem but was secretly afraid of the precedent I might be setting. We went on with the visit as usual but our relationship had changed, as if now I really knew how difficult things were for the family and was now a part of it.

Hind-Sight is 20-20

All these years later, this situation has stuck with me and honestly, I still don’t know if I made the right decision. It can be extremely challenging when a family asks you to help in a way that you know isn’t the right thing to do but you don’t know what else to do. Sure, I could have said “no” and probably should have. While I knew that going shopping for a parent wasn’t appropriate, my response was emotionally-laden, knowing as I did that this mother was in a difficult, often desperate situation. Going to the store for her was an immediate response to an uncomfortable request. It was also a very minor way to help the family, which I think I wanted too. Yes, then they had milk and diapers for the week, but the bigger issue was: What about next week? How will she get what she needs next time? Maybe the more important question was: How did she get milk and diapers last week?

What Do You Do?

I’ve been in other similar situations. Once I took a check and deposited it for a mother who had a medically fragile child, no car, and needed to pay her rent but had no money in the bank. Typically, a friend of hers would have helped but the friend wasn’t available. Same situation – awkward, immediate and uncomfortable…but I did it anyway. There could have been SO many problems with this scenario…a lost check, an accusation of stolen money, anything. There have been instances where I did decline the family’s request, such as when asked to give the parent and children a ride somewhere or to lend them money. I didn’t always say “yes” but when I found myself in these situations, what often made me waiver was the desperation of the circumstance. That’s when it’s really hard.

These situations can tangle us up inside. Here are a few suggestions for how to handle these immediate “helper” moments:

Pause and think before responding – Take a moment to think or ask your supervisor for advice. Stepping back before agreeing to help can make all the difference because you can help the family consider other options. Had I done that, Liam’s mother and I might have found an alternative that she could access in the future.

Ask about options – Find out who usually helps the family and what they would do if they hadn’t asked you. If you’ve done an ecomap or similar process to explore family resources and supports, revisit it. If you have to, stop the “regular” visit activities and help the parent problem-solve how to manage this immediate issue.

Let go of being the “problem-fixer” –  We love to help and feel compelled to fix problems, especially those of us who are service coordinators. Release the idea of fixing or solving the problem for the parent. Most of the time we really do that for ourselves, because it makes us feel good. Instead, become a partner, helping the parent discover how to solve the problem in a way that builds the parent’s capacity to manage without you.

Talk to the service coordinator – If you’re a service provider, the family’s service coordinator is your best resource when extra support is needed. Take these issues to the expert and let the service coordinator do what he/she does best – link the family to resources that can help.

Have you found yourself in a similar situation? What did you do?

What are your thoughts about what I did?


For more information about supporting Children and Families in Need, visit this topic page on the VA Early Intervention Professional Development Center site.

6 comments on “Liam’s Mom Asks You to Stop by the Grocery Store…What Do You Do?

  • Kim says:

    What a great post! While I was reading this blog, I asked myself what would I have done? Before I took the recent training on Coaching with M’lisa and Dathan, I probably would have also swooped in to save the day! But since I have the benefit of this recent training, I kept thinking that it would have been helpful to the both of you if you had tried to use some of the coaching interactive style that VA has been training EI providers on! Obviously this situation happened before this training, but asking those reflective questions like “how did you get milk and diapers last week?”(If I wasn’t coming to your house, what would you have done? Who else have you tried to contact? What other resources do you have? When do you usually shop for these items, deposit checks, etc.) Helping families work through their own difficulties increases their confidence that they can solve their problems next time. Great suggestions! Thank you for sharing your experiences!

    Reply
    • Thanks Kim! Yes, I sure do wish I had had coaching training way back then…there are so many things I would change!! I really like how you say that using these skills would have been helpful to BOTH of us. Had I had those tools in my “toolbox,” I think I could have helped the family much more, and been much better prepared for challenging situations like this!

      Reply
  • Shelah says:

    I probably would have done both – knowing that the child needed diapers and milk, and after checking to see if the kid was wearing the last one or had enough for a day or two. if he was wearing his last or next to last, I would have bought more. When I got to the house and during our therapy session I would have followed up with the -wow, what would have happened or what would you have done if I had needed to reschedule today’s visit? How do you usually get these things etc.
    I’d also suggest that they talk with their service coordinator to help figure out emergency type options for the future.

    Reply
    • I think your answer is a very honest one, Shelah, and I thank you for that. I think, in a pinch, many of us would do the same. I would encourage you to ask those questions of the parent BEFORE you jump in and help, whenever possible. If you can help the parent reflect first and maybe solve her own problem without your intervention, then as you know, she’ll be better prepared for next time. In the moment, though, it’s a tough call and we all do the best we can. As long as we are always thinking about how we can help build the parent’s capacity to meet her own/her child’s needs, we’ll be doing “the right thing” whenever we get in a pinch. Thanks for adding to the discussion!

      Reply
  • Nathan Travis says:

    EVERYONE should read this post. It should be a “mandatory read”! Seriously! Great job breaking down a really difficult topic Dana! I love the ideas here. You’re our EI genius….
    Awesome. Just saying….

    Nathan

    Reply
    • Wow…EI genius, huh? I’ll take that as a spectacular compliment from someone I really respect! THANKS Nathan! 🙂

      Yes, this is a really hard topic. Have you been there? What’d you do? I wonder if being in a more rural area where you are, do you find that these kinds of “favor” requests come up more often? It was my experience, when I was working in a very rural area, that I was asked about things like this a little more often because of the distance families needed to travel for supplies or errands. They couldn’t just walk down the street to a grocery store if the car died.

      Reply

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