Change can be hard. On the other hand, if we don’t change, we don’t grow. What I observe growing here in Massachusetts, sometimes slowly and other times in leaps and bounds, is an understanding that partnering with parents is pivotal to the success of children and youth with mental health needs.
Seems like a no-brainer, right? Children live in families and their families know them better than anyone else. They invest in them emotionally, financially and give them truckloads of time and energy. They worry about them, cheer their successes and feel their failures. In the words of Jane D. Hull, “At the end of the day, the most overwhelming key to a child’s success is the positive involvement of parents.”
While involvement is a start, it anchors the beginning of a continuum. At one end is family involvement which builds to family engagement which in turn leads to a full partnership with families. The kind of relationship where you share information, communicate regularly, hold each other accountable and respect each other’s expertise. If all we aspire to is involvement, then a school, a program or a clinician can ask a parent in for a meeting and check off the box labeled “involvement.” After all, that parent showed up, listened and maybe signed off on some forms. The criteria for involvement has been met.
Family involvement is often unilateral. A program might develop family-program activities without parent input in order to help the program achieve its own goals. A school summons parents to hear their information, not to contribute their own information. A clinical team has recommendations for parents on how to improve family involvement. In each of these instances, the program assumes they are the experts about the child and the parents are the learners. There is a single approach for all families.
Family engagement, on the other hand, is a two-way street. A program works together with families to develop activities that promote goals that they share. They always seek family input when developing plans to increase family involvement. A school listens to and includes the input of families. A clinical team believes that each person, including the parent and youth, has expertise and information to share. All of them assume that parents care about their child’s progress and well being when planning interventions and treatments. They respect the differences of each family and understand that one strategy is unlikely to work for everyone.
Family engagement and its impact on the success of children and youth with mental health needs is also being studied and reported on. In Occupational Therapy in Mental Health, Claudia Fette and Rebecca Estes define family engagement this way: “Family engagement is an active and ongoing process that facilitates opportunities for all family members to meaningfully participate and contribute in all decision making for their children, and in meaningful involvement with specific programs and with each other.” Note that the definition uses the term “ongoing process” and includes the involvement of families not only with their child’s program, but with other families as well.
The bar is set higher to get to family engagement. It means more work than giving parents information and having them sign forms. But the odds for successful outcomes for children and youth go way up too. Change is hard, but it is rewarding. As we are moving in that direction, always remember that the future comes one day at a time.