Support families are volunteers working in the field of child and social welfare, offering support to families who need it. Usually, such support refers to the practice where a child spends one weekend a month with the support family. This gives the child’s parents a break and time to themselves. This kind of support fits easily to children’s and parents’ daily life – from a parent’s point of view it is a sensible and concrete way of helping.
Support family weekends are agreed beforehand; they are provided regularly and help set a rhythm for the family’s daily life. Indeed, of the various child welfare support measures, support family is the one families often prefer and are even ready to queue for. This creates a permanent challenge of support family activities: new support families are in great demand and at times sought for with great efforts, but the question is how to inspire and get new families involved to provide such support.
An answer might be found in research knowledge – increasing our understanding of the meaning and effects of support family activities helps practitioners to verbalise what support families do.
In my recent doctoral dissertation, I studied support family activities from the perspective of different actors. For support families and those considering becoming one, the study explains what these support activities are all about. It verbalises both children’s and adults’ experiences of acting as a support family or of being in a support family, and how it feels as a parent to receive support from another adult. Acting as a support family involves being and doing things together – a weekend including meals, playing (games and otherwise), watching a movie, and hiking in the forest, for instance. For a parent, the support family is also often a conversation partner with whom one can discuss about the child and parenthood.
Perhaps an answer could be that we encourage families and adults to stop and think what helped them when their own resources were strained and what social relationships they find personally important. This might kindle an idea of the support one could offer to another family, child or parent. One benefit in support family activities is that, as a support family, you know what you are committed to in terms of time.
Moreover, even at the moment, there might be a family close to you in which a parent is struggling at the limit of his or her personal resources or where the parents are severely stressed because of financial problems. It is good to remember that the threshold for asking for help is often very high. As my study shows, parents try to manage somehow as far as possible. For you, could the role of support family mean that you invite your own child’s classmate to come over for tea with your family in the evening?
How high is our personal threshold offer support to other people?
Or perhaps the answer lies in updating the support family activities and bringing them into the 2020s. Support family activities aim at bringing safe and trustworthy personal relationships into the lives of children and their parents. In other words, the activities essentially evolve around a social relationship, which is at its best a reciprocal one. Such a relationship should be rewarding to both parties in some respect.
At present, however, support family activities are largely based on the child’s environmental alternation between one’s own home and the support family. While the support family is part of the child’s life, it is often somewhat distant and separate from the child’s daily life. For the same reason, the support family can remain distant to a parent in need of a discussion partner.
In the future, could support family activities also involve a practice where the support family and the child’s family meet and spend time together in some place other than either one’s home? Perhaps it could take place at a shared activity, such as geocaching or cycling trips, for instance. Or could a future support family operate partly online and so that between actual meetings, the parties could keep in touch by Skype, for example. We can also play with the idea that the support family would sometimes visit the child’s home and spend time there with the child and parents. This would offer the hosts a chance to present their own life and share something about it with the support family.
Nevertheless, the most important answer is straight forward: support family activities are about helping, which creates room for the lives of children as well as their parents life – room with potential for good things to happen.
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