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Fostering Social Connections Among Kinship Caregivers

As part of our series on the Strengthening Families Protective Factors framework, Face It is spending the month of May highlighting the importance of social connections for parents, caregivers, and families.

 Social connections are the positive relationships that caregivers have that provide emotional, informational, instrumental, or spiritual support. When parents have a sense of connectedness to others, they feel that there are people in their lives that care for them as individuals and as parents. This connectedness allows them to share the joys, challenges, and uncertainties that come with parenthood and inspires them to reach out for help and support when those things are needed. Constructive and supportive social connections help buffer parents from stressors and support nurturing parenting behaviors that promote secure attachments in young children. Therefore, parents’ high quality social connections are beneficial to both the adults and the children.

Research shows that for both mothers and fathers, high levels of support is associated with positive parental mood, positive perceptions of and responsiveness to one’s children, parental satisfaction, well-being and sense of competence, and lower levels of anger, anxiety and depression. 

As an individual and a collective community, we all have a role to play in ensuring caregivers feel supported in a multitude of ways. One Face It partner organization, Jewish Family and Career Services (JFCS), actively seeks to provide opportunities for kinship caregivers to connect with one another in a structured and consistent way. 

We interviewed Jo Ann Kalb, the JFCS lead of the support groups:

What types of support does JFCS provide for kin and fictive kin caregivers?

JFCS has been providing supports to grandparents and relative/fictive caregivers since 2008.  We receive grant funding from KIPDA (Kentuckiana Regional Planning and Developing Agency) to provide caregiver supports for grandparents over the age of 55 who are raising grandchildren.  Over the years, we have facilitated monthly support groups throughout Louisville and have offered training opportunities for caregivers throughout Jefferson, Spencer, and Bullitt Counties. Currently we facilitate 2 monthly Grandparents Raising Grandchildren (GRG) support groups.  The JFCS GRG Support Group meets on the third Monday of the month at 12:30 pm. The Kenwood GRG Support Group meets at 10 am on the third Wednesday of the month at Epworth United Methodist Church (919 Palatka Road). Besides offering information and assistance to families who are seeking resources, JFCS offers grant covered individual counseling for grandparent caregivers. Other relative/fictive caregivers are welcome to attend our support groups.

Why/how are kinship support groups beneficial to the families involved?

Kinship support groups are beneficial for families in many ways.  Foremost they offer a safe, non-judgmental place for caregivers to process the challenges of being a surrogate parent to children who have been traumatized. Trauma exposures are diverse but are often related to childhood abuse and neglect; domestic violence; parental substance usage and mental health issues; and losses (death of birth parent, incarcerated parent, loss of connection with siblings, etc.). 

Groups offer mutual support from those who are walking the walk. Members provide sounding boards for each other as they navigate developmental milestones; children’s mental health issues; learn to navigate technology; and/or deal with challenging behaviors from both the kids and their birth parents. Kinship caregivers truly understand the hidden grief of losing the role as the grandparent (relative). Support groups also offer educational opportunities to learn about the impact of secondary trauma and brain development and new ways to cope with the demands of childrearing. Support groups are a wonderful self-care tool. 

How have you seen these groups increase social connections between caregivers?

The support groups have increased social connections between caregivers in two ways.  Relating to others who are on the same path as you has many inter & intra-psychological and pro-social benefits.  Caregivers feel heard, understood, and affirmed and can offer this same empathic understanding to others. Caregivers report that because they can freely voice their feelings and experiences, they feel more connected to themselves and to group members. Caregivers do not have to guard against unsolicited advice and negative judgments. Friendships are formed through group participation and continue beyond the meetings. Knowing you are not alone is both connecting and a comfort.

How has the pandemic increased the need for caregivers to connect with others in a formal setting, such as support groups?

Navigating the pandemic has been especially hard for kinship caregivers. The pandemic has had a deleterious impact on their grandkid’s social engagement and academic performance, as well as the caregivers’ mental well-being. Early on, caregivers were thrust into the role of homeschool teacher — adding an additional job to already overflowing lives.  As the shutdown continued, caregivers reported increased anxiety, depression, and disruptive behaviors from their kids. Connecting in the early days was challenging and very limited.  Caregivers reported that they had neither the time nor energy to attend virtual meetings.  Some had never been on a virtual platform prior to the pandemic. Because the children were in the home, they could not share freely.  

Meeting in person has been a welcome return to accessing support. Attendance is slowly regaining. The need for kinship care support continues to increase as out-of-home placements continue unabated. JFCS is committed to finding ways for kinship caregivers to access needed support. 

 

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