Remember with me. You are a young child—in your elementary years—and you find yourself in an ice-cream shop. Let’s call it Baskin Robbins for the sake of nostalgia. You can barely see over the freezers but as you gaze up and down the line at all the different flavors to choose from, your excitement and childlike wonder is interrupted by… stress. You feel that flicker of overwhelm becoming increasingly more intrusive because you know you have to narrow it down and that you have to order and that people are waiting on you and that you want it ALL but that you can’t possibly have all 31 flavors and…
Phew. Still with me? Now, imagine that there were only ever just 3 flavors. How does this change the way you would feel peering over the freezers? How might your decision-making process feel different? Many parents in early intervention may empathize with this young child’s anxiety around making decisions from a multitude of possibilities.
So Many Important Decisions
While we, as service coordinators and providers, place parent engagement and empowerment at the forefront of our practices, it may be prudent to consider how this can be felt from the parent’s perspective. For example, the development of the IFSP (especially right after assessment for service planning) might evoke a sense of uncertainty from parents. How? Hearing the assessment report and being asked to participate in the child outcome summary process using may elicit a range of emotions on the grief spectrum. Denial, sadness, anger, rejection, guilt, shame, and hopelessness are a few of the emotions that parents may feel, especially when hearing their child be described by strangers in an unexpected way. By the same token, parents who received the news they were expecting (i.e. that their child qualifies for the program) may be trying to reconcile feelings of being validated and heard with guilt for being “right” about something they did not want to be “right” about. Nonetheless, grief counseling suggests that important decisions should be avoided while someone is experiencing grief.
Similarly, discussing a joint plan with a provider at the beginning or end of a session might do the same. Parents may question themselves: Who’s to say I’m the expert? Am I picking the right thing to work on? What if I tell her what I really want and it’s the wrong answer? What if I’m wasting the time I have with the provider by picking the “wrong” thing to work on? Surely, we all can empathize with this hesitancy when it comes to wanting to make the best decisions on behalf of those we love. Our task is to help parents feel confident in their own ability to make those decisions, eventually without our help.
Where Do We Start?
Use active listening at all times to capture the essence of the parent’s message. What things have they kept mentioning? What are they saying would make life easier for them? What stresses do they mention over and over? What are things that bring them joy? Think about some other ways to engage in and practice active listening with those in your personal circle.
Use cues from the parent during your interactions with them to guide conversations about what things would be helpful to address. Maybe you notice that the dad has repeatedly mentioned that he cuts his 33-month-old son’s food up into very small pieces when asked about meal-time. Perhaps the mom has intentionally turned the TV on and situated the baby in front of it before giving him the bottle. You may notice a parent look nervously towards the back of the house where her other children are during your meetings. Maybe the dad prefers to stand at the kitchen counter during sessions rather than in the same area as you or the child. What questions could you ask after noticing some of these cues from parents? How can you tailor your questions to get more clarity about these behaviors’ driving forces?
Make sure you understood them correctly. Use reflective and judgement-free language to flesh out concepts they’re sharing with which you may be unfamiliar. Use phrases such as “I’m hearing…; you mentioned…; I thought I heard something about…; it seems like ___ is very important to you…; can you tell me more about what _____means and/or looks like in your daily life…; would you like to share more about ____…, etc.” Active listening may involve jotting down notes, which can be referenced before the next meeting with the family.
Got It. Now what?
It is the responsibility of the service coordinators and providers to scaffold decision-making as warranting situations arise to help the family feel confident and at ease, not only with the decisions they are tasked to make in those moments, but also with the process of how to critically and confidently think them through.
Share your thoughts below in chat!
Be sure to check out the first post this series: