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Three approaches to strategic communication in support groups

Adults talking around a table.
Adults talking around a table.

Words are powerful. They not only convey meaning but imply values, carry emotional content, and set the stage for future communication. When it comes to laying the foundation for improving relationships with the children in foster or kinship care or adoptive families, it is vital to pay attention to the language we use. 

Being thoughtful and intentional about the use of language is promoting shared respect, humanity, and dignity. And in many cases it can help us remember the why behind our children’s behavior.

As a parent group leader, you have the opportunity to ensure that respectful language is both “caught and taught” through your support group meetings and between-meeting communications such as newsletters, social media posts, and emails. There are three language-based strategies that you can use to model and promote respectful communication for families and within the community:

  • Offering consistent, positive messaging
  • Using people-first language
  • Reframing blaming language

Families who learn and practice these three strategies in the context of the support group will be better equipped to use these skills when communicating with extended family and friends; schools; medical and mental health providers; extra-curricular organizations; faith communities; and the media, when opportunities arise. 

1. Offer consistent, positive messaging

Develop a list of 8 to 10 key phrases that convey the core values of your group and ensure that these messages are seen and heard regularly. Such messages are likely to include:

  • Children grow best in families. Families thrive best in supportive communities.
  • All children have roots and need wings; honor families of origin.
  • Trauma is real, and it affects children for life.
  • Behavior is a child’s language. Learn to listen, but don’t take it personally.
  • Hope is real. Children and families can heal.
  • Connect before you correct.
  • Everyone deserves to be seen for who they are. Race, culture, sexual orientation, and gender identity all matter.
  • All children and all families have strengths.
  • Adoption–like all forms of parenting–is a lifelong journey.

While simple messages like these may seem like clichés, there is a strong foundation within mental health and addiction communities to support the idea that repeated use of positive, strength-based affirmation has many benefits. These include decreased stress, relief of anxiety, and improved self-esteem and sense of identity. While many people are familiar with these benefits for individuals, group-affirmation theory has demonstrated that this approach to positive and consistent messaging within a group can have many important benefits for the group as a whole, as well as for individual members. 

2. Use people-first language

This term was first coined by self-advocates within the disability community who often experienced language used as labels creating barriers for their opportunities and success. People-first language recognizes that no person is defined by one characteristic, i.e., the child is not the diagnosis. In practice it means that the identity of the person is named first before the label that describes a particular characteristic of the person such as their disability, legal, or family status. 

Examples of people-first language:

  • Say: “Man who uses a wheelchair” rather than “wheelchair bound man.”
  • Say: “Girl with Down syndrome” rather than “Downs girl.”
  • Say: “Child in foster care” rather than “foster kid.”

3. Reframe blaming language 

One of the most important things a group leader can do is carefully guide parents to use language that reflects their child’s history and avoids blame. Loaded language suggests that something is wrong with the child—or birth family—rather than recognizing the possibility of a trauma-related backstory, cultural differences, or language literacy and life experiences.  

Helping parents reframe how they talk can change the tone of conversations and even change their mindset over time. It also sets the stage for them to communicate with others effectively about some of the reasons behind what is happening with their child.

Parent group leaders need to be listening closely for the use of loaded or blaming language and gently but firmly help both the person speaking and those listening to reframe without shaming. Here is an example:

Participant says, “My child knows how to push my buttons to get what he wants, but it has to stop!” Leader replies, “I hear you describing a child who has learned some survival skills that may not be needed anymore in your home. But sometimes those old habits are hard to break. Let’s talk about how we can respond to children with these trauma-influenced patterns.”

In the above example, the leader does three things:

  1. Empathizes with the feeling the participant is expressing
  2. Reframes the loaded language into language that is trauma-informed, curious, and non-shaming
  3. Asks a question that invites the participant and other members of the group to participate in a strength-based problem-solving approach to the issue raised

Below are four examples of loaded words or phrases, and constructive ways to reframe these ideas. As with the use of people-first language, parent group leaders can plan creative and engaging ways to help participants practice and become fluent in reframing loaded language. 

  • If a group member expresses, “Drug-addicted parents don’t care about their kids,” you could say: It can be difficult to empathize with someone who is using drugs in an unhealthy way. Sometimes when people are suffering from addiction, they aren’t able to meet their own needs, let alone the needs of their children.
  • “Children act out to get attention” is better expressed as: When children have experienced trauma, they often develop behaviors that help them survive tough situations. It can be really hard for them to let go of these survival strategies even when we think they should feel safe in our homes.
  •  If you hear a comment like, “My kid is really a jerk,” you might say: It can be so hard to parent a child who has been hurt. It can help us to remember that children do the best they can with tools they have. It’s one of our jobs to help them learn strategies. 
  • When someone says, “My son doesn’t remember what I tell him from one day to the next,” a helpful response could be: That’s so frustrating. I hate repeating myself. It helps me to remember that trauma (or prenatal exposure to alcohol) is really a brain injury. We don’t expect a child who has a broken leg to suddenly walk because they are in our home. I wish we could help everyone understand that the same is true for children with trauma histories or FASD. It takes time, patience, and relationships to heal.

Final thoughts

Language matters. It also evolves as ideas change and we learn more about the impact of early life adversity. For this reason it’s very important to engage in frequent and open dialogue about the use of language, listening with open minds and hearts to diverse points of view and being open to trying new approaches to communication. How you have these conversations with your group members will help them educate others—teachers, doctors, neighbors—about their children more effectively and empathetically.