According to this story from The Roanoke Times, Virginia has just voted to become one of the more than twenty states to hire a children’s ombudsman as part of their child welfare department. What is an ombudsman, and why does it matter?
The National Conference of State Legislatures describes the role of a children’s ombudsman like this:
“an independent, impartial public official with authority and responsibility to receive, investigate or informally address complaints about government actions, and, when appropriate, make findings and recommendations, and publish reports[iii]”
An ombudman is a confidential mediator—a neutral go-between and advocate—who has the authority to influence systemic change. Within the system of child welfare, an ombudsman is someone (or an office of someones) parents, foster parents, case managers, social workers, teachers, principals, and even foster youth can go to for help resolving disputes or escalating concerns, with a strong emphasis on addressing systemic concerns.
It is not uncommon for foster families to have problems with their local social service offices, but have no place to go with those complaints. It is no secret that social services offices can be a bureaucratic nightmare, and while the system is filled with hard-working, well-intentioned individuals, the bottom line is that most of those individuals are working against incredible odds, with impossible case loads and constantly moving parts. Because of this, complaints can often be passed around or fall through the cracks without being addressed.
Moreover, while this has never been my experience, and I have worked with incredible case managers who took my concerns seriously and showed incredible support for the children in our care, I have spoken with other foster parents who have not had the same experiences I’ve had. These foster parents have feared retaliation if they complained about how their foster child’s case was being handled. The ombudsman office is meant to offer a place where foster parents can bring their complaints without fear of how it might affect their license or placements.
And if your state does not have a children’s ombudsman, write to your state legislators and encourage them to create an office as part of their department of child welfare. It is vital that the systems put in place to manage the well being of vulnerable children have the necessary checks and balances and accountability in place to ensure that no child’s well-being falls through the cracks.
Two years ago was a real turning point for me as a parent. As I have already shared, it is important for foster parents to deal with their baggage and figure out what makes them tick so they can be supportive and emotionally stable for their children. Two years ago was when I got serious about my self care plan, and it was when I started developing positive parenting tools that really work.
Two years ago was also when I started thinking in terms of being a Fully Present Parent. In fact, I have thought for some time now that, if I were to write a book for foster parents, it would be about being a Fully Present Parent. Being “fully present” to my kids has directed pretty much everything I’ve endeavored to do these past two years, because I realized that one of the things my kids need most is me—my attention, my compassion, my support, my example, and, well, my presence.
Well as it turns out, I probably will not be writing my book after all, because the Dynamic Duo of Daniel J. Siegel, MD and Tina Payne Bryson, PhD, have already written it (and it’s way better than anything I would have come up with). The book is called The Power of Showing Up, and it is now part of my (growing) list of Must-Reads.
According to Siegel and Bryson, “Showing up means bringing your whole being—your attention and awareness—when you’re with your child.” Phone down, computer closed, fully present. “When we show up, we are mentally and emotionally present for our child in that moment.” The authors describe what showing up looks like as helping kids feel safe, seen, soothed, and secure (they call these the Four S’s). When we accomplish these things for our kids consistently (if not perfectly), we help them develop “secure attachment,” which is the goal of parenting.
After a fantastic opening chapter, which serves as an introduction and will sound very familiar to fans of these authors’ existing body of work (including The Whole Brain Child), the remainder of the book explores in depth what each of the Four S’s look like and, perhaps more importantly, why some parents are less inclined to be fully present parents. The authors address the importance of understanding our own past and identifying how some might want/need to parent differently than how they were parented. “History is not destiny,” they write. “Our past can be understood so that it doesn’t dictate our present and our future.”
One of the things I found surprisingly helpful in this book was the series of drawings depicting interactions between parents and children. Like holding up a mirror to my own parenting style, I saw myself in those scenarios and recognized my own tendencies toward disconnection, judgment, and commanding/demanding postures when I’m frustrated with my kids. Just in the past week, I have reflected on several interactions with my children that I recognized in the pages of this book. It is with a heavy heart that I see how I missed opportunities to “show up” for my kids—to help them feel safe, seen, soothed, and secure.
I can do better.
And with the help of this book, I think I will do better.
Another thing I really appreciate about this book’s approach is that the parents are still the parents. Whether one is a natural parent, an adoptive parent, or a foster parent, we must create and enforce rules. Showing up as a parent is not passive or permissive parenting. For example, “soothing” should never be confused with “coddling.” The authors reiterate that they “are big believers in setting clear, firm boundaries for children and even having high expectations for them, particularly when it comes to being respectful of themselves and others.”
Appealing to a growing body of scientific research in the area of child psychology and brain development, the authors make a strong case for the benefits of a secure attachment. These include higher self-esteem, better emotional regulation, greater academic success, better coping skills in times of stress, better relationships, and other competencies. As I often say, when it comes to parenting, “More is caught than taught,” and that includes modeling respect, empathy, compassion, and what it looks like to be fully present. If we want our kids to exercise good screen habits, for example, we have to model good screen habits. If we want our kids to show kindness toward others, we have to show kindness to them. If we want our kids to have healthy emotional regulation, it starts with us modeling healthy emotional regulation.
This book belongs on the shelf (or bedside table) in every foster home. We often face the reality that we are caring for children who come with a complicated history. They usually lack secure attachment, and because of that, they struggle with self-esteem, emotional regulation, social interactions, and trust. Many times, we don’t know where to start. We see the challenges they face (and the challenging behaviors we face!) and feel at a loss for where to begin to address their issues.
What our kids need, we are assured by these authors, is not perfect parents who do everything right. Instead, what they need are caregivers who show up (and keep showing up). “To give your kids the best chance for healthy and optimal development, all you have to do is help them feel safe, seen, soothed, and secure.” This takes time, of course, but if we stay the course and continue to show up for them, we will give our foster and adopted children the best possible chance at developing a secure attachment and enjoying the benefits thereof.
Image: Used by permission via Creative Commons Zero
Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.” [Disclaimer Credit: Michael Hyatt]
If you have followed A Fostered Life’s blog or YouTube channel for any length of time, it’s likely you’ve heard me emphasize the importance of empowering children. Two things children need most—all children, but especially children who have a history of trauma—is to feel empowered (or a sense of personal agency) and to feel connected (or a sense of belonging). This is the big takeaway I got from Positive Parenting Solutions (along with a fantastic arsenal of empowering and connecting tools), and when we began to embrace this concept and look for ways to empower and connect with our children on a daily basis, we saw a real change in our children’s relationships with one another and interactions with us.
One area of home life that is bursting with potential for empowering and connecting with kids is dinner time! In the midst of our hectic lives, with family members coming and going, the dinner table can be such a sacred space for a family.
Here are a few ways to empower and connect with kids at the dinner table.
Put your child in charge of dinner. About once every week or so, a child in our home is in charge of dinner. (Yes, this includes our five-year-old.) I communicate that child is in charge of dinner that night and work with them ahead of time to plan their meal. Sometimes that means looking at simple recipes, and other times it just means showing them a visual guide (keep reading) and letting them get creative. I encourage whichever child is in charge to delegate roles to others in the house. Sometimes they do, but I have one child who wants to do it all himself (or only have me help).
Give them a visual guide, then take your hands off the wheel. We use this one from Eastern Virginia Medical School, which is for omnivores. We have also used this one from Pick Up Limes, which is especially for vegans. This tool is a fantastic way to teach children how to have a well-balanced diet without them realizing you’re trying teaching them something 🙂 Giving a child a picture like this and letting them pick each component, with minimal input, is so empowering. Children are very perceptive, and given the opportunity, they will rise to the challenge! Some of the child-prepared meals we have had include spaghetti with meatballs and tossed salad, waffles with turkey sausage and sliced bananas, and fried chicken with tossed salad and bread. They look at the chart and choose foods that they can plug in to each section. It makes them feel very important and very grown up.
DIY Dinner. Another really simple tip for empowering your kids at meal times is to set out a bunch of ingredients and let them fix their own meal. Two meals that are really conducive to this are Taco Bowls (“Taco Tuesday” anyone?!) and Sandwich Bar (“Can you say charcuterie?”).
For Taco Bowls, everyone gets a scoop of rice in a bowl and then they get to add their own toppings from the bowls on the table: taco meat (vegan meatless crumbles work too), beans (this is the recipe I use in the Instant Pot), shredded lettuce, chopped tomatoes, shredded cheese, chopped avocado, corn, salsa, and taco sauce are our go-to taco bowl fixins. Sometimes I also put a bowl of tortilla chips out to scoop the bowls with. The kids love having independence and deciding what goes into their bowls!
For the Sandwich Bar, I just put out a basket of bread, a plate of lunch meat and cheese, lettuce, sliced tomatoes, a jar of peanut butter, a jar of jam, and condiments like mayonnaise, mustard, and ketchup. I usually also put out some veggies for dipping, like carrot sticks, cucumber slices, and mini sweet peppers. Each kid loves making their own sandwich, and it gives them a sense of personal empowerment.
Engaging conversations around the dinner table. Interacting around the dinner table helps promote the development of communication skills, interpersonal skills, and emotional bonding. According to The Family Dinner Project,
“researchers found that for young children, dinnertime conversation boosts vocabulary even more than being read aloud to. The researchers counted the number of rare words – those not found on a list of 3,000 most common words – that the families used during dinner conversation. Young kids learned 1,000 rare words at the dinner table, compared to only 143 from parents reading storybooks aloud. Kids who have a large vocabulary read earlier and more easily.
Dining together as a family is hugely important, for so many reasons. For example, according to this article from The Scramble, “kids and teens who share family dinners three or more times per week…
Are less likely to be overweight
Are more likely to eat healthy food
Perform better academically
Are less likely to engage in risky behaviors (drugs, alcohol, sexual activity)
Have better relationships with their parents
This is important for all children, but it is especially helpful for children who may be experiencing developmental delays due to early childhood neglect and trauma. Dinner tends to be a favorite time of night for our kids in foster care. They love the predictability and togetherness of it.
There are other ways to empower kids at dinner time. Giving them each jobs to do, inviting their input on menu planning, respecting their choices about what and how much to eat, and avoiding power struggles around food all contribute to their sense of empowerment. We host a dinner party every Monday, which gives our kids opportunities to get to know other people in the context of hosting a meal. However you go about it, look for ways to connect with and empower your kids at dinnertime.