Adrienne Williams-Myers, program director of Project Safe at the Northside Center for Child Development, explains how therapy can support reunifying families:
Q: How can therapy help families reconnect?
A: When parents and kids are involved in the system, their world has been full of other people telling them what to do. Therapy is a time for them to focus on themselves and their goals. I help families identify their strengths, resilience and love for each other, and to really work on enhancing those strengths so they can stay together.
By learning how they overcame the troubles that led to their separation, families can use their strengths to get through the confusing emotions and tensions that come with reunification.
Q: What do parents and kids often feel when they’ve been separated?
A: The parent usually comes in feeling a tremendous amount of guilt because she didn’t do what she needed to do to prevent children from being removed. Mothers may also blame the system or the school system for making the call, or blame the other parent or relatives that didn’t support her.
Sometimes mothers still feel angry that the way they punished their children was considered abuse. Many times they will tell us, “My mom hit me, my teachers hit me. What’s the problem? I’m fine.”
For the children, there’s a lot of anger and anxiety about ending up back in care again. The little ones, especially, feel a lot of separation anxiety. They’re anxious and fearful that the system will take them away again, and they’ve lost trust in their parents’ ability to protect them.
Older children tend to be angry and to blame the parent. They need a period of time to get to know the parent again and to feel comfortable trusting the parent. If substance abuse issues led to the child going into foster care, they need to be sure that mom is not picking up again.
Q: What are some techniques that help parents and kids get to know each other?
A: In family therapy, I help them get to know and trust each other, mostly by allowing them simply to talk and hear each other. Sometimes I ask them to write feelings or experiences down in journals, or to talk into a tape recorder and then listen to themselves. I ask them to watch each other communicate, including all forms of communication: words, body language, hugging and kissing.
I’ll ask them things like, “How do you see yourself positively? How do you think mom or teacher sees you positively? Or how do you think your child sees you positively? Tell me six great things about yourself.” I’ll ask them to write it down and share it with each other. Sometimes they’re kind of shocked to find out that mom sees them in a positive light, or that the other people in their family notice the same positive things.
At some point, I’ll also ask the kids to say what they went through in foster care to help their parents understand that painful time. If it’s too upsetting, they can write it down and hold it for a while before sharing it, or even mail it.
Therapy can help make a safe place for everyone in the family to express themselves, especially to express the anger in a healthy way. It’s better if children and parents don’t hold that anger inside or express it in blowups.
Therapy can also help moms work on the behaviors that will help their children trust them again. A parent who was using drugs or drinking usually was in the habit of making false promises and not following through. Moms can learn how to be there for their kids by making only the promises they can follow through on. Becoming a trusting family again really happens one day at a time.