11 Developing and Maintaining Relationships with Parents

"One of the unique strengths of the Head Start program is the array of opportunities for parent engagement and decision-making. In fact, the partnerships you build with families are the foundation of Head Start success. Successful relationships with families are characterized by mutual respect, trust, acceptance, objectivity, flexibility, personalized attention, and cultural awareness."

— U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (1995).
Family partnerships: A continuous process
Washington, DC: Head Start Bureau

Just as every family is unique, the relationship the home visitor develops with the family will be unique. Although the program has parameters for the frequency and duration of visits, and some of the content of the visits and socializations, each relationship and set of services will evolve to match the individual interests, culture, strengths, and needs of each family. The home visitor’s initial work is to “engage in a mutually respectful goal-oriented partnership with families to promote parent–child relationships and family well-being” (Head Start and Early Head Start Relationship-Based Competencies)

Every early interaction the family has with the home visitor and the program staff contributes to their impression of whether they will be welcomed, whether your program may be helpful to them, and whether they will be safe with you. Developing and maintaining relationships with families is an ongoing process. To be successful, the home visitor needs to bring a strengths-based approach, understanding that every family has its own strengths, goals, and aspirations. Every family wants their children to be healthy and have a good life. Your role as a home visitor is to engage in a process of relationship with that family, using that relationship as the foundation from which the family may begin to make changes. One of the ways your relationship with the family can bring about change is through what is called the parallel process. That means when you bring respect, kindness, and thoughtfulness to your relationship with the family, they in turn will be able to bring these to their child.

You begin to engage families by having open and honest communication, noticing and appreciating the family’s strengths, learning about and respecting their culture, and being sensitive to their emotions. Clearly explain what the program has to offer and the ways in which you hope to partner. Establish clear boundaries and make certain that families understand that boundaries ensure everyone is protected.

You explain what information will be kept confidential, how you keep records, and what information is shared within your program staff. You explain that the law requires that you report child abuse or neglect immediately.

As you establish a relationship, you and the family begin to know each other as people. You are warm and interested in them but always thinking about the balance of honoring your relationship with the adults and focusing on the structured child-focused home visiting that promotes parents’ ability to support the child’s cognitive, social, emotional, and physical development. You use every opportunity to strengthen the parent–child relationship. You use your skills to balance the needs of the family members and the child.

Reflective practice is the capacity to reflect on action so as to engage in a process of continuous learning (Schon[7], 1983). As a home visitor, you should be reflecting on the many aspects of your work in order to gain deeper understanding and to improve your practice. You may also bring reflective practice into your work with the family; promoting their thinking about their child and other decisions. Instead of telling the family what to do, say “How did you know?” “I wonder,” and “Tell me more.”

Over time, relationships deepen. You will learn many things about the family and help them figure out the best ways to support their child’s development and school readiness. You may help them make connections with other families and community resources. You may celebrate together and work hard together. However, dilemmas may arise about the nature of your relationship. Boundary issues may arise.

You and the family may experience other challenges. For example, parents may be distracted by events in their lives. They may not pay attention to you or the child. You may witness the use or sale of illegal substances, domestic violence, or health and safety issues. Families may not keep their appointments or may not let you into their homes. The family may become homeless. They may become uncomfortable with having a long-lasting relationship and test your commitment. Agency policies, reflective supervision, and training will help you determine how to manage these difficulties.

As in most intimate relationships, there may be times where you may disappoint the family. You may miss a visit, say the wrong thing, or direct them back to the child and leave them feeling unheard. Simply doing your job can be disappointing if your message is one of concern over the child’s development. We are all human, and sometimes there will be a misstep. However, having an opportunity to repair the relationship may make it stronger. Your supervisor may be able to think through with you effective ways to resolve difficulties in the relationship. Relationship repairs will come into play at times. On occasion, you will need skills for reestablishing a strong working relationship.