Mothering the Mother – How foster parents and staff can strengthen mother-child bonds.

The Ackerman Institute’s Center for the Developing Child and Family in New York has partnered with New York City Children’s Services to train foster parents and staff at mother-child residences, and is beginning trainings in Washington D.C. Here, Martha Edwards, the Center’s director, explains how staff and foster parents can support the mother-child bond:

After a baby is born, staff and foster parents sometimes look at moms struggling and find it easier to just take over. That’s understandable because these adults may be more experienced as parents. But when that happens, mothers can wind up feeling less confident and less connected to their babies.

In our trainings, we encourage staff and foster parents to provide moms just enough help but not more. We also encourage them to think of their jobs as connecting with the mother, not with the baby.

We introduce the concept of “parallel process,” which means that staff and foster parents provide the same kind of support to young mothers that they’d like to see mothers give their babies. Staff and foster parents often say moms should be more responsive to their babies, or try harder to understand their feelings. We ask them: “What are you doing to read that mom’s cues and respond to her? What are you doing to learn what that mom is feeling?”

One foster mother told us, “The teen mom in my home is up all night on the phone. Then she has a hard time getting up for her child.” We helped her become curious about that, and start a conversation. In the conversation, the mom was able to explain that the middle of the night was a scary time when she used to wait for the person who sexually abused her. Going to sleep was the last thing she wanted to do. That understanding helped the foster mother be a lot more supportive and a lot less judgmental. Once mothers in foster care have support, they’re better able to focus on the relationship with their babies.

When staff and foster parents have safety concerns, that’s another opportunity to collaborate. We coach them to say very directly to the mom: “Here’s what I’m worried about. What can we do?”

If they decide they have to make a report, we advocate that they let the mom know exactly what they are going to report, have her sit with them while they make the report, and let the person receiving the report know they have discussed it with the mom. That can help preserve the relationship even through a very difficult process.

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