Safe, loved, and—most of all—connected
The power of presence for parents who are overwhelmed
Conversation with Julie Paine, vice president of domestic services, and Carol Lee, senior editor
Most of us can list several common, known factors that lead to child abuse and neglect—substance use, mental illness, and parents’ unresolved trauma to name a few. But we’re also hearing more about broader issues, everyday challenges, that contribute to a sense of loneliness and isolation for parents living on the margins, struggling to keep their lives and families together.
At Bethany, we believe strengthening and supporting parents is key to preventing child abuse and neglect. So we asked Julie Paine, vice president of domestic services, to help connect those dots and say more about how the two are connected.
Julie, our program leaders often use the word “overwhelmed” to describe what they’re seeing among parents referred to Bethany for services. When parents are overwhelmed, how does that contribute to child maltreatment?
Yes, parents are overwhelmed with a variety of stressors—concerns about economic instability, employment, housing, childcare, medical needs, and more. And when they don’t have support or healthy ways to cope, those feelings and emotions can impact the way they respond to their children in highly stressful situations. Maybe they lash out at their kids, or they numb what they’re feeling and emotionally check out. When parents are not OK, the way they manage their stress (or don’t) can put their children in harm’s way. Most parents, including myself, know this to be true.
Can you describe what that overwhelmed head space feels like for parents?
It feels like being emotionally on the edge. It feels like I’m very frustrated. I can’t figure something out. I don’t have what I need to take care of my kids. I feel like I’m failing. I feel sad, really sad, that I’m feeling this way, and I don’t know how to change it.
All the emotions are right there, and it wouldn’t take much to send you straight into tears or send you screaming. It’s palpable how sensitive your emotions are when you feel overwhelmed.
It can feel very difficult to make the next decision because everything is pressing and hard to sort out. So you almost get stuck and don’t know what to do next—especially single parents working several jobs and trying to take care of their kids and their kids’ needs and their household needs. With so many plates spinning, you’re just waiting for something to crash.
And so many people are carrying that alone. At Bethany, we say families deserve to be safe, loved, and connected. How does connection help keep families safe when they’re in this stressful, overwhelming space?
Connection can make or break families in times of heightened stress. Social connection is one of the five protective factors researchers have identified as markers of healthy, resilient families. When we look at preventing child maltreatment for families all over the world, connection—both to people and to concrete resources—is a distinguishing characteristic of families who successfully endure hard times.
Presence with other people helps parents feel like they’re not alone, and that feeling of being together, with, gives people courage and hope that they’ll be OK. But connection doesn’t take away the stressors. All those things are still happening—you still don’t have enough money to pay the bills, and your kids are still having a hard time in school.
It’s like you’ve fallen overboard and you’re drowning. The water is swirling all around you. All alone, that’s a terrifying place to be. But now a boat is there, and someone throws you a life preserver ring. You’re not necessarily out of the water yet, but you’ve got something or someone to hold onto in that scary place.
That’s why relationship and presence are so important for families facing crisis. It’s a completely different experience to be flailing alone in an ocean versus having someone jump in the water with you, hopefully someone who has a life preserver ring and a boat, who can help bring you to shore.
Scripture speaks to us about bearing one another’s burdens. That kind of presence is a lifeline. I can think of many times, raising my kids, where if it hadn’t been for the physical presence of friends or family saying, We’re going to get through this, I’m here with you, we’re going to figure this out together... I can’t imagine where I’d be. It’s just so key.
In our work, strengthening and supporting families at Bethany, I want our listeners, our investors, and our volunteers to see the significant role they play in a social services agency. The work they’re doing, being intentionally present with people who feel alone, matters at least as much as the services themselves.
So you’re saying judging parents isn’t helpful?
Someone may be thinking, But don’t bad parents deserve bad consequences when they put their child in danger? Are they wrong?
Judging, blaming, and shaming don’t do anything helpful. We know from our own experience how we respond to that. What helps us when we’re struggling? It’s not shame. When it’s us, we know that for sure.
Like you’re drowning and then someone hands you shame. Here’s a shame brick. I’ll throw you that, but not a lifeline. Because you’re not worth saving.
I attended a training with Amelia Frank Meyer at Alia a few weeks ago. She talked about this concept—who is worthy of help? People can get stuck in that, and we need to challenge our beliefs around that. As Christians, we know from Scripture that truly none of us is worthy (Romans 3:10-12), yet God extends his grace to us all through Jesus (Ephesians 2:8-9). It’s his sacrifice for us that makes us worthy.
But it is a tough line because we still need to keep kids safe.
Sometimes it's necessary to intervene when parents are struggling, and of course there are levels of intervention. I’m reinforcing that the main thing we’re talking about here is keeping children safe, and I’ve heard you say a big part of ensuring a child is OK is asking, Is the parent OK?
Children need their moms and dads to be OK. So if we care about children, we have to support their parents. We have to work toward strengthening and supporting parents so kids can be safe with their families, not from their families.
That means we must work with families to provide every child with what they need most—parents who can safely parent them. And we can’t accomplish that by separating, blaming, shaming, and punishing parents who themselves likely had unmet childhood needs and trauma. That’s part of the picture people don’t know or forget. So we just perpetuate the whole loss and trauma cycle.
We have to stop that cycle and pay attention to healing and belonging—for kids and their parents—to really change that trajectory.
I notice you use empowering words like strengthen and support when you speak about keeping families together. I know language is important to you and you're being intentional with these words. Why does it matter to notice and call out a parent’s strength—especially when they might not see it or feel like they’re failing at everything?
When we focus on people’s strengths over their areas of need or critiquing them, first, it helps us engage with families. It helps us to lay important foundations for developing a relationship where the parent doesn’t feel defensive. Because that’s how we all feel when someone criticizes us.
There’s been a lot of research around this. I think of Tom Rath’s book, Strengths Based Leadership (there’s also a kids’ version I love called How Full is Your Bucket). It takes five compliments to offset the sting of one criticism. So if we’re not paying attention to parents’ strengths, it’s going to be very difficult to engage them in a positive relationship. That’s basic interpersonal relationship building, which is important when you’re trying to develop a partnership and work toward a parent’s goals. That parent needs to feel safe enough to talk with you, and strengths language helps quite a bit.
There’s a visual we use to train staff on strengthening families. It’s a picture of people inside an apartment, and there are several things “going wrong” in that apartment. The training exercise asks staff to spend 10 minutes looking at that picture, looking for anything they can see that’s positive. It’s powerful because your mind goes immediately to seeing the negative. The cat litter on the floor where the baby is crawling. The dirty dishes in the sink. But you can train yourself to set aside the potentially negative things you immediately see and look for the potentially positive things that are also there. Dad’s coming through the door carrying a lunchbox, so that means the family has food they’re preparing at home. There’s a basket of fruit and vegetables on the counter. There’s a little boy excited to see Dad come through the door, so they must have some kind of relationship.
Building on a parent’s strengths that promote well-being are just as important to keeping kids safe as changing a weakness that is unhealthy or dangerous.
Earlier you said we need to work with families. That’s another language choice I hear at Bethany—to design client services with, not for. And that’s another way to empower families. Can you share an example of what “with” looks like at the front-line level? I’m thinking back to that person at the beginning who jumps in the water with the person who is struggling.
Our Homebuilders program serves families at risk of separation into foster care. They already know things are not going well at home and everything feels like it’s crashing. We train our staff that the most important thing they can do is listen. The first time they go into a home, along with explaining how Homebuilders works, they’ll say something like this:
I’m here with you, to help you. Obviously, you want to keep your kids safe at home. I’ve heard a little bit about what’s going on. Would you like to tell me what you think is happening?
And we’re trained to listen—really listen—instead of asking a zillion questions. In that first interaction, we’re just listening to what the parent is saying and reflecting it back to them. We’re seeing how emotionally stressful things are, and we’re just literally present with them. That presence helps us engage with families. It helps families feel safe enough to share what’s happening.
So many times after that first meeting, parents will say, “Nobody has listened to me like you’ve just listened.” They’ll unload sometimes for two or three hours. And that’s the difference. That Homebuilders specialist is not just another service provider who’s looking at their watch, saying, “I have 15 more minutes.” They’re not asking 300 million required questions to complete their assessment. They’re just saying, “Tell me whatcha got. I’m here to listen. And I’ll do whatever I can to help you.”
The goal of that first meeting is to listen so well that parents want to invite us back to follow up. Sometimes we have to do some structuring for safety, so that doesn’t mean we ignore safety issues. We begin creating a plan with the parent, something like:
This is what Child Welfare has said. This is what you’re concerned about. This is what I’m seeing and hearing. Can we develop a plan to keep your child safe? Even if it’s a plan that just gets us through until tomorrow, I’ll be back tomorrow. And if things escalate after I leave, can you agree as part of this plan that you’ll call me? And I’ll be right here with you.
Presence with a family matters. You can’t underestimate how powerful that is in someone’s life to show up as a family member, friend, or neighbor.
I want Bethany to stand out for that reason. And I think Bethany does stand out for that reason. When I was a branch director and people would call the office, even if we didn’t offer the resource or service they might need, we always had someone saying, “Let me see if I can find it for you” and being a warm handoff. They’d offer, “I will call this person” or “I’ll try to connect you with someone who can help. And would you like me to pray for you?”
Listening like that matters so much to people. And that’s what keeps parents feeling strong and supported, so they can confidently care for their kids.