This past fall, our Independent Living Services team hosted another round of Parents Interacting With Infants (PIWI) sessions. For those of you who have been following us since PIWI’s inception, this was our third class in the series. The sequential experience of facilitating the six-segment series has contributed to our expertise, and this most recent session was our most gratifying and impactful.
The group of six parents, including two fathers, was consistent in attending each session. A great starting point! Our game plan was to first, find out what our young parents wanted to learn more about. Their children, spanning the ages from infant to 5, present a wide berth of challenges to this group of young adults, who are new to the job of being a parent and have had little if any role-modeling of positive parenting.
It was amazing to discover our young parents’ perspectives of “good parenting,” which included: “I’m a good mom because I don’t take drugs,” “My child is loved because I buy her nice clothes,” “I’m a better father than my dad was because I don’t stay away for days and days,” and “I don’t whoop my baby.” A sobering reality to consider, then to plan our sessions.
After our parents shared their ideas for upcoming classes, our next job was to teach them how to listen to and assist each other during discussion, then during activity time. We purposefully built in 30 minutes at the beginning of each session for parent-only discussion. Their children, under the watchful eye of available staff, were in another room, so parents could relax and listen to each other, share feelings and ideas. And they did! In our minds we wondered, were our parents – former foster children who lack stable support systems — ready for this next step of maturation and mutual support, considering they have a number of struggles on their own? But we found that building community was the magic formula.
As young parents, how common is it for them to hear criticism, judgment and skepticism from others? However, we were mindful to create a safe space, a quiet sanctuary of comfy couches, in which they could be honest with themselves and their peers about their shame, their disappointments, their fears and any other barriers that come along with their status as a former foster child trying to break the cycle of abuse and neglect.
While in discussion, participants were comforted by shared sentiments and words of acknowledgment from group members. The facilitators, particularly Pat Preston (a long-time treatment foster parent) generously shared her feelings as an experienced parent, and then modeled skills she has picked up along the way. Skills such as, learning how to facilitate a time out for the child, how to comfort a child who seems inconsolable, how to use touch and affection in a manner that provides safety, as well as the reality that structure and scheduling provide stability for children, so that they do not feel the need to be in charge.
When the parents returned to their children for play time, they were calm and centered, eager to try new skills. Again, the facilitators encouraged the parents to reconsider former ways of communication and to learn more about attunement, such as speaking gently to the child, establishing eye contact, redirecting with a nurturing touch, comforting when there are tears, and not panicking during a temper tantrum.
During the last session, our hearts were warmed when the parents used their discussion time to acknowledge the positive progress they had observed in each other. Their words for each other were much more impactful than anything that we, the staff, would have said. To see/hear the young parents give and receive sincere affirmations from each other was a gift for all of us. We set out to build community, and we were enroute to success.
Our goal to raise the level of good parenting expectations? We are getting there. Another goal, to teach nurturing, an enhanced version of good parenting? Again, we are seeing it. Most importantly, our program, and agency’s ultimate goal/mission, to prevent the possibility of further abuse and neglect of children? We are contributing.
I am proud of our staff, KD Kinter, Christine Woods and Brigette Rahming, in addition to Pat, for their dedication to our mission, despite the challenges, the frustration and extensive work that is required to make a difference, not only in the lives of our young parents, but also to our community’s next generation.
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