Deidra K. Razzaque is a Training Coordinator with the UVM/DCF Child Welfare Training Partnership, as well as the mother of young children, a transformative travel coach, writer and artist. She was raised in kinship care. Deidra has worked with youth as the Assistant Director of the Monteverde Friends School, as a Youth Advocate with the US Peace Corps in Costa Rica, and through a wide range of programs involving intercultural education, the arts, violence prevention, life planning, and resiliency. Deidra is on the board of Vermont Kin as Parents.
A young child’s adult caregivers are the most important people in his or her life. In Vermont today, more than 6,000 children are living in kinship care, which means they are being raised by relatives or family friends. Throughout the United States, this is increasingly common, in many cases because the parents are struggling with substance abuse, mental illness, and/or domestic violence.
A kinship caregiver can fill the important role of helping a child who has experienced adversity feel safe and secure again—and serve as a buffer against additional stress in the child’s life. Because so many of the children living in kinship care have come from challenging situations, new caregivers often need support in navigating behavioral or social-emotional challenges the children may be experiencing. Vermont Kin as Parents is a program that supports kinship caregivers in effectively meeting the needs of the children they’re caring for. The Child Welfare Training Partnership also offers a variety of classes designed to help caregivers develop knowledge, awareness and skills.
Types of Kinship Care
Many kinship caregivers are informal caregivers, meaning there’s no legal arrangement that governs the caregiving for months or years. Some caregivers become guardians or foster parents. In some cases, kinship caregivers eventually adopt the child they care for, and in others the child returns home or is adopted by someone else.
Many kinship caregivers who have previous parenting experience find that they have to adjust their approach and expectations with the new child. Sometimes, the challenge for a new kinship caregiver is simply that the home the child grew up had a completely different structure, especially regarding expectations and rules, mealtimes and communication. These areas might need to be explored or negotiated as the new relationship is forming.
In more extreme circumstances, adjustment will be required if the child has experienced severe adversity. Trauma—the feeling that one’s well-being or the well-being of a loved one is threatened— affects how children’s brains work—and thus, how they perceive things and how they behave.
For example, a caregiver may ask a child to do something that seems simple, such as vacuuming the hallway. But the child may not understand the task, or something like the tone of voice used, body language, or the actual sound of the vacuum may trigger a strong emotional response and result in behavior that seems baffling to the caregiver.
Often, the caregiver can reach common ground with the child more quickly by focusing less on the behavior and more on understanding what need the child is trying to meet through the behavior. In this way, the caregiver is working on building a secure relationship with the child. Children exposed to trauma learn coping skills that they will need support and practice to modify as their experiences change.
Fostering Healthy Social-Emotional Development
When children feel unsafe, their first response will be to seek reassurance from their caregivers, who can play the role of reestablishing security and stability for them. These kinds of nurturing, secure relationships are essential to children’s healthy social-emotional development. Positive development in this area helps children communicate about their feelings, be confident, have empathy for others, more easily develop friendships and negotiate challenges later in life.
Approaches that nurture the formation of a secure relationship include:
- Encouraging children to learn to talk about their feelings
- Helping children build connections with extended family and friends
- Showing consistency in actions and intentions to promote trust and predictability
- Showing children they are cared for and loved to offer comfort and build self-esteem
- Being patient through challenges, again to promote trust
- Being available for children on a consistent basis as a present support
Support for Caregivers
Caregivers play the important role of serving as a buffer against damaging stress. Often, kinship caregivers put the needs of others ahead of their own. However, caregivers who feel supported themselves will be most effective at supporting the children who need them. Fortunately, there are several support groups for kinship caregivers around the state (see Resources below). Many caregivers say that seeing other caregivers regularly gives them ideas to use, as well as increased perspective and stamina.
The most important things for caregivers to know are:
- You are not alone. There are many people who understand the complexity of your experience, and who can offer support and assistance.
- Your love and hard work is helping the child in your care to thrive.
Vermont Kin as Parents (VKAP) supports caregivers and educates the public: http://vermontkinasparents.org/, 802-871-5104
Vermont Family Network helps families understand and advocate for their children with special needs: http://www.vermontfamilynetwork.org/, 1-800-800-4005
Voices at the Table blog, where Vermont’s kinship, foster, and adoptive families can share knowledge and concerns, and access information about educational opportunities, including Child Welfare Training Partnership classes and other classes relevant to kinship caregivers: https://voicesatthetable.wordpress.com/