Professional Resource

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Relationships Matter on EVERY Level: Reflecting on My Work With the Army New Parent Support Program (NPSP) Home Visitors

In all of the trainings I provide, I am very aware of parallel process. Before they can encourage these parents to connect with their children, the home visitors must first connect with the parents, showing parents what empathy is rather than dismissing their feelings and then reflecting with parents on this experience.

By Summer Jones, Training and Education Coordinator, Military Family Projects

There remains a stigma around asking for help and acknowledging mental health concerns, both for parents and for parents on behalf of their children. The worry about appearing weak by admitting that help is needed affects military parents, too.

The home visitors I support through professional development share how challenging this admission is. In spite of the wide and all-encompassing array of support, programs, resources, and services that are available to them right on their own installations, many parents are afraid to seek assistance for fear it will impact how they look to their command, or even more importantly, how they will look to their fellow service members. There seems to be a service available to them for every need, but many aren’t being used as much as needed because of stigma.

I wish the stigmas that “mental health equals weakness” and “seeking help for mental health isn’t something people do” didn’t exist. I wish all parents, particularly our nation’s service men and women and their spouses, felt free to talk about their well-being.

Because the fear of stigma is real, home visitors have a very special privilege in working with the families. Home visitors have shared with me while in training that they feel NPSP is one of the few “acceptable” programs parents may participate in stigma-free. They also share how challenging this stigma makes their work because there is a real fear that if they don’t help a family feel safe with their offered services, the families may never feel safe seeking professional assistance and will reject all future services and programs. That is a lot of pressure!

This leads me to think a lot about how I can best support the home visitors so they can make a positive impact in the short time they have with families. How do I dig deep and get innovatively in helping home visitors find a way to create a safe place for the families they serve? I wonder how home visitors address the various needs of the family when the needs may be so diverse? How do home visitors provide psychoeducational and developmental guidance for a parent if the home visitor is also pulled to focus on the parent’s basic emotional well-being every week? If a family refuses other services, such as needed individual treatment for trauma, how do home visitors move from the needs of the parent to address the needs of the child, bringing it back to baby? These home visitors are not allowed to treat parents or “do therapy,” yet everything they do is therapeutic.

In all of the trainings I provide, I am very aware of parallel process. Before they can encourage these parents to connect with their children, the home visitors must first connect with the parents, showing parents what empathy is rather than dismissing their feelings and then reflecting with parents on this experience. Doing so can then lead to supporting the parents in relating to their children and showing love and empathy during challenging moments.

There are many layers to supporting the children’s well-being, though we don’t often think about the time, energy, and skills needed to successfully meet the needs of each of those layers. What I have come to realize is that my relationship with the home visitors is the first step. I must create a safe place for home visitors, empathizing with them and reflecting back their emotions so that they can, in turn, help the parents they support experience an empathetic response, in order for parents to learn what it means to be empathetic so they can offer it to their child; you can’t do what you haven’t yet experienced.

I know NPSP home visitors are making a difference in the lives of children and families every day. But these professionals need more. These home visitors need the research we share with them, they need evidence-based strategies, they need time and support to individualize the strategies to families, and they need time to reflect on their work. I feel proud to be able to continue this work with them, giving the home visitors tools so they can continue to do this critical work with families who give so much for their country.

Note from Military Family Projects Director, Julia Yeary: April is Month of the Military Child (MOMC), an opportunity to shine the spotlight on children whose experiences as part of the military community make their lives unique, enriched, and challenging. Visit the U.S. Department of Defense MOMC website for more information and resources for supporting military children and families.

By the way, you may know a military-connected child and not even be aware of it! One in 12 people in the U.S. are connected in some way to a military service member. Nearly 2/3 of today’s military families live in communities rather than on military installations, and almost half of service members are parents to children under 5 years old. So, chances are good that there are military families with young children in your personal and professional worlds. We invite you to ask, then connect those families with the many resources available on ZERO TO THREE’s website for military and veteran families.

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