If your child is in an out-of-home placement, chances are you’ve found yourself frustrated when trying to explain their needs to facility workers, therapists and teachers. Here are 5 important strategies for communicating with staff when your child is in residential treatment.
- Why Communication Breakdown Happens with Kids in 24/7 Treatment
- When Kids Go to Residential Treatment
- How to Speak So Staff Will Listen: 5 Tips for Parents
Why Communication Breakdown Happens with Kids in 24/7 Treatment
I have experience as a parent whose child lived in residential treatment, and I’ve also worked for an agency that owns several large residential treatment facilities. This gives me a unique perspective into both sides of the situation when a child is in residential care.
- I’ve been a frustrated parent who felt my concerns were being dismissed.
- I’ve been a staff member who was perplexed by what appeared to be a parents’ unrealistic demands or lack of concern.
How can we come together in these situations and do what is best for the child and work toward healing? Keep reading for helpful guidance.
When Kids Go to Residential Treatment
When a child goes into residential treatment, most of the time the situation at home has been challenging for quite some time. Kids were meant to grow up in families, and even the best out-of-home placement is an unnatural circumstance.
Only kids with the most severe behaviors or medical needs are placed residentially, so the whole team is working with extreme behaviors. Parents are exhausted and weary. The child was probably at the brink of being out of control.
While there are patterns that we come to expect with kids with attachment disorder, autism, or mental health issues, staff have the challenging job of figuring out his or her unique behaviors and quirks, all while keeping your child – plus the other children – safe. I don’t envy their job.
Despite these challenges, there are ways parents can formulate the conversation in order to keep everyone working together as a team.
How to Speak So Staff Will Listen: 5 Tips for Parents
Moms and dads, if you’ve found yourself frustrated or feeling like you aren’t being heard, here are five helpful strategies for how to have the most positive experience.
1. Remember, You Are a Vital Part of the Team.
Parents, you are the expert on your children. Never doubt your critical role in your child’s upbringing, even if he or she is not currently living in your home.
I’ll never forget a phone call I had with a staff member where my son had been in treatment for about six months. This staff person had the guts to say to me, “No one knows your son better than me.”
While he was trying to reassure me that he had developed a good working relationship with my child, I was so angry I saw red. I raised my son for the first years of his life and spent countless hours, days, and years with him. I sat by his hospital bed after surgery. I took him to his first day of Kindergarten. No one knows my son better than ME.
Don’t be intimidated by your lack of credentials. While doctors, teachers, and therapists all have their important work, few of them have actually parented a child with these behaviors, day in and day out. You have.
If you have a child with severe mental or behavioral health issues, and you are alive and standing, you deserve a medal. Don’t allow yourself to be dismissed.
2. Give Specific Suggestions for Managing Behavior.
Residential staff are busy, overworked and underpaid. They move in and out of shifts and, just like the rest of us, are balancing work with busy lives and commitments.
The more you can give specific advice, the more you will be heard. Don’t be bossy, but approach it as giving them helpful input about what you’ve learned the hard way.
Here are some examples.
- Don’t say, “Watch out. He lies a lot.” Say, “We’ve seen that he lies about how much he eats and if he’s taken a shower.”
- Don’t say, “She has food issues.” Instead say, “Expect her to beg you for extra servings of junk food. We only allow one serving because she will eat to the point of making herself throw up.”
- Don’t say, “He’s going to try to manipulate you.” Say, “He will be friendly and personable with you in an effort to get special favors. This is part of his attachment disorder. Please don’t give him extra treats or favoritism because this makes his behavior worse in the long run.”
3. Don’t Assume Staff Has Been Trained about Your Child’s Diagnosis.
In my experience, the world of mental health treatment has a long way to go in understanding attachment issues, autism, and other diagnosis. We’ve made some progress as a society, but we have a long way to go.
At the agency where I worked as a family advocate, we received extensive training about trauma-informed care, but we received almost little help for how to actually deal with difficult behaviors in real life.
My guess is that most staff members are just starting to understand the impact of early childhood trauma. They haven’t been taught what to do when children lie, manipulate, control, belittle, smear feces, act out sexually, or constantly challenge authority.
At times, staff feel sorry for kids who have experienced trauma and want to “be nice” to make up for it. No one has explained to them that strict boundaries help kids feel safe.
Once a staff member told me, “I am working on helping your son learn to trust me.” My response was, “Because of his early childhood trauma, my son doesn’t trust me and he’s been living with me for 14 years. Please don’t expect him to trust you.”
4. Watch for Triangulation.
Many children with mental health problems are experts at triangulation. Triangulation is when your child attempts to create friction within a relationship near him. He might do this by telling lies, half-truths, or spinning the story to play the victim.
Expect that your child will attempt to come between you and staff.
Here are some ways to stop triangulation before it starts:
- Keep lines of communication open on a regular and ongoing basis. Develop a communication system that works for everyone involved.
- Don’t assume what your child tells you is true.
- Ask to speak to the staff member directly.
- Remember that your child may be attempting to triangulate staff with other students and staff with other staff.
- Your child has probably told the staff things about you that aren’t true, and the staff probably believe some of them. You can’t fix this, but you can be aware of it.
5. Let Go of What You Cannot Control.
When you’ve communicated to the best of your ability, let go of control.
When my son was in residential treatment or inpatient hospitalization, one of the toughest things for me was seeing that he was manipulating and getting special favors. It was infuriating.
I had to let things go.
I focused on developing gratitude that our son was safe and our family was getting a break. Use this time to take care of yourself. Regroup in ways that weren’t possible when your child was at home.
Using these five effective strategies, you’ll find the best methods to communicate with staff when your child is in residential treatment. Have you had communication challenges with support staff? Share in the comments below.