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 and 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.