- Good relationships are critical. They determine the experience child and family partners have with your organisation, as well as project outcomes.
- It is the organisation’s responsibility to create an environment for child and family partners that is enjoyable, supportive, and provides them with the opportunity to make a valuable contribution.
- Participation may be emotionally exhausting or triggering. Support is therefore required before, during and after a period of involvement.
- It is important that partnerships are mutually beneficial. Organisations can offer partners opportunities to develop new knowledge and skills throughout their involvement.
Relationships are your key to success
It is important that child and family partnership work is relationship-based. This means that a positive and effective working relationship between staff and partners is a critical factor that underpins the collaborative work together.
Whether using consultation, collaboration, co-design or partner-led approaches, effective relationship processes are critical, and determine the experience child and family partners have with your organisation, as well as project outcomes.
Advice from some of Emerging Minds’ long-term partners is that the following behaviours help build trust and collaborative relationships: being genuine, authentic, reliable, supportive, and available; communicating clearly; recognising people’s discomfort or distress; and providing support throughout periods of participation.
A focus on relationships means that safe, careful and respectful processes are paramount. It means recognising that this work may take time and that outcomes are often long-term. Organisations need to be comfortable working at the pace necessary for the child and family partner’s safe and supported involvement. If this does not happen, child and family partners may feel dissatisfied, unsafe or exploited.
Child and family partnerships are no quick fix or easy solution. You need genuine buy-in from staff and an understanding of what is required.
“I think organisations can underestimate the value that people place on being welcomed, being authentically engaged with, being valued.
“And so, my willingness to continue to be engaged is really quite simple; it is about relationships. It is about trust. It is about knowing that the people that you work with are likely to be there in a year because they also are authentically engaged in the process.
“So, it is really something as simple as relationship and being valued.”
– Child and family partner
Tips for relationship building
The following tips will help you in your relationship-building journey. It may be useful to regularly check back with this list and use it as a process for continual improvement:
- Develop accountability measures so that staff don’t disregard child and family partner experience because it is inconvenient or doesn’t fit with their project assumptions. This may include a decision-making matrix which sorts all input into themes, which are all given consideration. This matrix should consider how child and family partner input will be given equal weight to input from practitioners and academics.
- Develop transparent decision-making frameworks. Ideally, child and family partners will be represented at every level of decision making.
- Make sure the organisation is clear about ‘non-negotiables’ in the decision-making process so that there are no surprises.
- Develop practice positions that view child and family partners as experts in their own lives. This should also reinforce equal and respectful partnerships. Practice positions should be strengths-based and support your organisation to be curious about the strength, resilience and commitments of child and family partners.
- Be genuine and authentic – staff must truly value and respect partnerships with children and families.
- Be reliable, organised and communicate clearly – this shows that you care, and that you value and prioritise the people you are working with.
- Make sure partners have a variety of easy ways to communicate with you (e.g. text message, phone, email).
- Be supportive – your goal is to create safe, secure and respectful relationships where people feel comfortable sharing their wisdom. Partnerships should be empowering experiences, but they can also be challenging. Talk with people about their responses to their involvement.
- Hold space for people’s emotions when they arise; stay present with them, don’t judge, listen deeply and authentically. This is not only respectful but will build stronger relationships and allow for open and honest engagement.
- Always make contact (usually by phone) after a meeting or significant period of work. It is important to check-in with how people are going and get any feedback or reflections they may have.
- You may like to adapt this self-care tip sheet for your own use and provide it to your partners.
- People have things they will and won’t share about their lives and that is okay – be open about this. Often this is a good discussion for participants to have with one another, providing mutual support and learning on their partnership journey.
- Be conscious of how much you are asking of people – is it too much, or not enough? Check-in with partners about this. Some people will feel overused and others underused.
- Be child and family centred – this is about outcomes for children and families (both your partners and the people your organisation are seeking to assist), not the organisation.
- Pay attention to ‘how’ you are doing things as well as ‘what’ you are doing.
- Be trauma-informed – remember that trauma involves experiences that profoundly affect people’s lives, coping skills, service needs and partnership needs. A trauma-informed lens is more useful and relevant than an illness or disadvantage lens.
- Ensure your engagement of people is not tokenistic. Actively listen to your partners, act on their advice, and respect them as experts in their experience.
- Always provide feedback about projects people have worked on, and ensure they see the final product. This creates a sense of ownership and pride, personal accomplishment, and assurance that their ideas are taken seriously and acted upon.
Power imbalances and emotional labour
When working in this space, it can help to reflect that staff have their own diverse experiences of adversity too: it’s not ‘them’ and ‘us’. However, for child and family partners coming into this space it can feel that there is very much a power imbalance between the organisation and themselves. Working to create a respectful culture of collaboration sees us all as people of equal value with diverse experiences. It can also help to recognise children and families as experts in their own stories and experiences, with unique and valuable contributions to make, and to make a conscious effort not to privilege specific types of knowledge (e.g. research and practitioner). The goal is to be equals in partnership, or at the very least to minimise the power imbalance. Be honest with participants about how final decisions will be made (e.g. their level of influence within the organisation).
It is also important to recognise the, often invisible, emotional labour child and family partners will invest in their work. This emotional labour may be further enhanced for people from minority or marginalised groups. Staff can begin to address these issues by actively recognising them and following best practice child and family partnership strategies, including working to address power imbalances.
Continual awareness around these issues and checking in with the people you partner with will be important moving forward.
Stepping back or moving on
Remember that some child and family partners may need to step back from reflecting on their personal experiences. Good relationships can help you to find other ways to involve them (which may require skill development first); or for partners ready to move on, help identify other opportunities and projects they may be interested in.
“The staff were really good. They were very comforting and took their time which made it a lot easier for me because I was able to slowly come out of my shell and go into working with everyone that was involved.”
– Youth partner
“People may not have petrol to be able to get anywhere to engage. People may not have a laptop or the internet, [or] internal resources. They might just simply be overwhelmed and so it will mean that you need to intentionally and carefully think about how you engage with them.
“Maybe, just follow up that one extra time. Make them feel safe and welcomed and valued more than ever, and be really aware of the different barriers to participation that people experience in ongoing emotional overwhelm.
“Remember that the way that we operate in this world at the moment is that people experiencing crisis and adversity are often feeling shame, and are often shamed, and feel undervalued and may not, in fact, put themselves forward.
“And so, it is incumbent on organisations to be prepared, and that means resourcing an intentional engagement with people who are struggling. But also to be aware and be prepared to go that extra mile with them and to be alongside of them. To make them feel valued. To understand that they will probably be feeling extraordinarily unworthy of engagement, and that [the organisation will] need to really work hard to make sure that that voice is heard.”
– Child and family partner
Providing good support
It is the organisation’s responsibility to create an environment for child and family partners that is enjoyable, supportive, and provides the opportunity to make a valuable contribution. Partnerships should be healing and empowering experiences. However, the nature of this work is that participation may be emotionally exhausting or triggering. Support is therefore required before, during and after a period of involvement.
Providing support to partners helps build stronger, trusting relationships, allows for more open and honest engagement, and can assist people to feel safe to provide critical feedback, which is vital to quality improvement.
Remember that staff also are likely to have personal experiences which they may try to ‘put aside’ in their professional roles, but which may be ‘triggered’ through hearing the personal stories of others. Supporting the wellbeing of staff facilitating partnerships is also an important consideration.
You may find it helpful to reflect on these tips for supporting child and family partners:
- In building a trusting relationship with a child and family partner, the facilitating staff member should consider the following:
- Working with partners to identify their sensitive points; what they are comfortable to discuss and what they do not wish to discuss.
- How they and you will know if they are getting distressed.
- What they and you could do to help support them if this was to happen.
- What they may be wanting to get out of their involvement; any particular knowledge or skills they wish to develop, if possible.
- Discuss with people what their local support systems are. Do they have family, friends, peer or professional support that they feel comfortable using? If not, discuss options with them.
- Hold space for people’s emotions when they arise. Stay present with them, don’t judge, listen deeply and authentically.
- Provide partners with this self-care tip sheet (which you can adapt for your own use) and let them know that they can seek support from staff.
- Pay attention to anyone who may be showing signs of distress and follow up with them privately. Check-in with other participants too; not everyone will show their distress outwardly.
- Always make contact (usually by phone) after a meeting or significant period of work. It is important to check-in with how people are going, remind them of their own self-care, and get any feedback or reflections they may have from their involvement.
- Stay connected with partners during periods of low engagement. There will be times when there are fewer engagement opportunities, due to less projects being undertaken or the need to share the work with other participants. Be transparent about this. Some people may internalise this as thinking they are not valued, when in fact they are.
- Consider that people may feel defined by their lived experience during their involvement with your organisation (while others will not). They may feel ‘wrung out’ being so focused on the role they are consulting about. It may be useful to have discussions with partners around this, and to encourage them to talk about it with their peers as well.
- Offering appropriate remuneration is important as it helps to acknowledge this personal, emotional work. Giving people opportunities to extend in other areas is another useful way of acknowledging what they bring to the organisation (see Developing Skills for more information).
- Recognise people as complete individuals whose experiences have informed their lives but are not the totality of ‘them’.
- Recognise that people sharing their experiences with organisations are particularly (and ironically) vulnerable to stigma (often subtle and unintended) from within these organisations and possibly from other participants. Using strengths-based language and honouring partners’ experiences and unique strengths is important. Ensure people feel recognised, understood, valued and brave in being prepared to share their stories.
- Allow people to provide support to one another if they wish.
- Consider matching people with lots of participation experience with those who are new to the process, as a kind of mentorship.
- Remember to be trauma-informed. Continue to reflect on this to ensure you are providing appropriate and useful support to your partners.
- Also consider support procedures for staff who might be hearing stories of trauma or harm.
“It’s important to ensure that people have really good supports. Those supports will be internal supports, so self-care strategies, and external supports as well. People need both.
“Sometimes our self-care strategies can be overwhelmed, and if we’re busy, or if we’re under pressure, or we’ve got other things going on, those self-care strategies can become insufficient to support us, and so we need to have those external supports, so that’s supportive friends and family.
“It might be a professional, it might be a GP, it might be a mental health worker or a drug and alcohol worker or whatever it might be that we can fall back on. I think organisations need to be able to have these kinds of conversations.”
– Child and family partner
Positive and rewarding experiences
As well as planning for challenging moments, it is important to plan for and review the positive effects that will be experienced by child and family partners. Both the organisation and the partner should be confident that the rewards derived from the partnership will exceed the challenges. Questions to consider for both the organisation and child and family partner are:
- What aspects of the child and family partner’s story do they want to share and how will the retelling of these stories benefit them, their family and the organisation?
- How will the child and family partner know that their input has benefited the organisation? How is the organisation accountable to them throughout the life of the project, and beyond?
- What are the personal or professional goals of the child and family partner and how will they be supported through their involvement with the organisation?
- How will the child and family partner and staff member know if the collaboration is positive? How will they review this? What questions will they ask each other?
“In terms of whether or not it was the right decision for my family for me to become involved, I think for me personally, it has been incredibly valuable for the children to see a parent that is actively engaged in the world, that is talking about their experiences openly without any kind of stigma attached to it.
“So, I think for me, thinking about the impact on my family in terms of my involvement, it was actually really quite a powerful and useful process to go through.”
– Child and family partner
“Personally, being involved in child and family partnerships has, for me, meant some of the impacts are good and some of the impacts are bad. This stuff is emotional work and it doesn’t always reflect well on yourself or your family or the situation that you find yourself in.
“And so, going back over old, sad information can be really difficult to hold, and maybe there are other opportunities for going out and doing other things with your life, and yet you find yourself continually coming back in to be engaged in this work, to try and make changes. That does take a toll on your emotional wellbeing.
“It is something you have to be really aware of. It is not good to always think about the past and to think about the pain, and to relive the pain, which is what happens when you think about these things. You have to be aware of how that might impact on people around you.
“So, sometimes the impact is not a good impact, and I think we need to be incredibly aware of that, but equally not afraid of it. I am still standing. I am still here. I am still enjoying the work. I think that, yes, it can be negative. Yes, it can be painful, but it doesn’t mean it is the end of the world or that we shouldn’t do this work.
“In terms of some of the more positive elements of this kind of work, I think it is easy to underestimate, again, that when one undertakes some kind of work, if it is fulfilling and if you feel as though you are making a difference and if you feel as though you are being heard and you are making a contribution, then that is probably the most wonderful thing in the world that you can do with your time, is to be surrounded by people who are working on a mission that you feel is important and that you feel that they share.”
– Child and family partner
The best partnerships are reciprocal
“I’ve done things that I would never have done anywhere else in my life before, so that has really been quite awesome.”
– Youth partner
It is important that partnerships are just as beneficial for partners as they are for the organisation, and that children and families are not exploited. One way to ensure this is by providing partners with opportunities to develop new knowledge and skills throughout their involvement (also known as capacity building).
When done well, a partner’s involvement can strengthen their recovery from difficult and traumatic experiences. It may also pave the way for further education and employment. Providing a certificate or reference regarding a person’s contribution as a partner, including the knowledge and skills gained, and framed in general terms which are appealing to future employers may be beneficial to the partner going forward.
The following examples show how your organisation could make such opportunities available to child and family partners:
- Discuss with partners what they want to get out of their involvement and identify knowledge or skills they wish to develop.
- Offer monetary grants to develop skills (e.g. to attend a workshop or conference, develop writing skills, develop employment skills, attend a governance course).
- Offer monetary grants and practical support to help partners write an article or narrative for publication (e.g. co-authoring, supporting the partner to independently author and seek publication).
- Offer monetary grants and practical support to prepare and present at relevant conferences (e.g. co-presenting, supporting the partner to present independently or as part of a symposium).
- Organise workshops, such as media training or public speaking.
- If your staff are receiving training in a particular area, invite child and family partners along too, as appropriate. This can not only facilitate skill development but also help to equalise relationships between staff and participants.
- Offer partners support to document their own personal narrative – a coherent, authentic text of their own lived experience that they could share with their colleagues and beyond (Speaking our Minds is a useful tool). Alternatively, you can help people to set up their own groups to achieve goals that may not fit within your organisation (Our Consumer Place is a useful resource).
- Remember to include children and young people in your capacity-building approaches. This includes asking them what kind of capacity-building opportunities they would like to be made available.
- Regularly review your progress.
“Through our engagement with the organisation, we have a very clear understanding of a framework that should exist when you engage with services. We have an understanding of the different levels of participation. We know tokenism when we see it, and it does give us the confidence to go back to organisations and try and work with them to build their capacity, in a respectful way of course.
“Having the confidence to engage meaningfully with organisations has also given many of us, including me, the confidence to go forward into spaces where there needs to be change and to participate meaningfully and confidently.”
– Child and family partner
“There has been a ladder of involvement and a variety of opportunities for ongoing participation. And so, when I first started, I just worked on a few projects. I then became part of a national reference group that was populated with a large number of diverse people, all working on the same kind of mission, if you like.
“I have developed friendships that have evolved and deepened, and enriched me over the years. I have worked on a textbook for mental health nurses. I have co-developed and co-facilitated training [sessions]. I have been involved in filming, given conference presentations and, more recently, joined the board, and so work to really set the lived experience direction within the organisation and a sense of being able to contribute something towards the change.”
– Child and family partner
“I think the organisation has in many ways provided me and so many other families with lived experience, a tremendous foundation that has been a springboard for enabling us to take part in other forms of child and family partnerships in all kinds of service environments.”
– Child and family partner