The family is a country’s single greatest asset for the protection, nurturing and wellbeing of children and its members. It is important that we find ways to support and strengthen it. Before I get into some specific strategies, let us look at some general considerations. Families do not exist in isolation. They exist in a context that can best be described as major domains or spheres of influence. Each domain represents an important sphere of influence on the family, but more importantly on the lives of children who are at the centre of the family. The relationship of these domains is often represented as a series of concentric circles. At the centre is the child.
The immediate circle surrounding the child is the family (in different forms and shapes). The next sphere represents the school. After that is the sphere of peers. This is followed by community/neighbourhood. Outside is the broader society. What this means is that, when working with families, to support and strengthen them, we should always be mindful of the external influences that impact on that family and ultimately its members, including children.
Where is this leading? When supporting families, we should bear in mind that there are what are called risk and resiliency factors. Risk factors are those factors that expose members and the family as a whole to negative influences, making it difficult for them to cope with the demands of daily life. Each and every sphere comes with its risk factors. As a result of such exposure, families engage in behaviours and practices that are often described as “challenging” or even “problematic”. Risk factors can be divided into two broad categories. Firstly, there are contextual factors, which are broad societal and cultural factors that provide legal and normative expectations for behaviour. The second category includes factors that lie within individuals and their interpersonal environments. There are, of course, exceptions to this. There are some families who thrive despite these risk factors. Their members become productive members of society and cannot be labelled “challenged children” or “challenged families”. These families and children have what are called resiliency or protective factors: factors that appear to buffer or support children and families against the negative effects of multiple risk factors.
Why engage families? Engaging families is an important strategy in Family Preservation. It is a means to an end, the end being supporting families in developing protective factors to mitigate the negative influences of risk factors in a sustainable way. Engagement is, therefore, a critical process that should be handled with care and respect, as it can break or build families. We engage families in order to:
Enhance the strengths of families and individual members;
Empower them by helping them gain mastery over situations confronting them;
Support families in developing mutually agreed upon goals.
Within the family, there are a number of resiliency factors that are important for strengthening family life.
Think of resiliency as a CONTAINER, holding goodies such as:
Parental knowledge and beliefs related to child rearing;
Effective management of family affairs – resulting, for example, in reduced family conflict;
Interactions among family members: between parents and children, between adults and children, between adults and between children;
Parental modelling of positive behaviours, attitudes and practices;
Families' involvement in seeking help in the community and its systems;
Effective and consistent communication – with clear and realistic expectations of behaviour, monitoring of behaviour and conduct.
We can fill up this container called resiliency with characteristics, including development of a sense of responsibility, generosity, a sense of well-being and connectedness to one another, an ability to control emotions and to thrive in the company of others, to mention a few. These are some of the qualities we seek to enhance in families, in individual members of those families. When families possess these qualities, their outlook towards the world becomes different. When they are faced with challenges, they have the strength and courage to face them and do not feel overwhelmed by them. They pull together under the most strenuous conditions. This does not mean that they never experience conflict; that is normal in daily life. What it means is that when they have resiliency they are able to communicate effectively about the conflict; they can find strength in one another and in systems around them, to deal with it and move on.
Practical steps in engaging families
For Family Preservation Workers (or people working with and supporting families), the following are some useful tips to take into consideration for the family engagement process:
Step 1: Prepare yourself as a support system or team. I call this a “reality check” process. You have some information about the family but you should always know that, when you engage intimately, there is more to families than what is in the records. When you engage with them, you want to move beyond paper reports to human beings; this is a complicated aspect of supporting families. Be prepared to face and deal with fears and rejections. You will face pain and suffering. Ask yourself, “Am I ready? Do I have the necessary skills, competencies and support to handle all that?” If you do not have, then start by getting those skills and supports. It will make the engagement process successful.
Step 2: Develop a family engagement and entry plan. Simply put: plan. This planning entails preparing the family about the process and checking the availability of family members, because it is important to engage all family members so that they grow together. In reality, some members may be more ready than others to start engaging in addressing family issues. It is not wise to move on with those that are ready if it means excluding other members. That can break families. Seek out reluctant members; inform them of the purpose and benefits to them and their families. This is a foundation for solid “intervention” and ongoing support.
Step 3: When engaging with families, adhere to what I call a “Code of Conduct for Successful Engagement”. This entails the following:
Be sensitive and caring
Do not be defensive
Be open to negotiations
Convey sincere commitment
Do not make promises that you will not be able to fulfil
Let the family drive the process
Be sensitive to cultural practices and beliefs, respect them and do not judge
Inform and educate where appropriate – but do not preach!
Respond sincerely to concerns of the family
In conclusion, the engagement process should be empowering for families. It should not leave the family drained and dejected. This can be achieved through ensuring that, while you engage them, you help build relationships, you project a respectful attitude (this by the way is modelling for families how they should relate to one another).
This feature: Mbambo, B. (2004). Family Preservation: Building buffers against risk factors. ChildrenFIRST, July/August 2004