Strong social connections key to supporting families


San Carlos (June, 2020) – As Arizona’s early childhood agency, First Things First (FTF) recognizes that babies, toddlers and preschoolers need positive interactions with adults for healthy development. It’s equally important that their parents and caregivers have positive connections in their community to help them face the challenges of parenting.

During these times of social distancing, FTF, along with community partners remind families that there are ways to reach out and find places to make these social connections - for example, within local communities of faith, online support groups and local health providers.

Social connections that provide emotional support to parents is one of five protective factors that families are encouraged to develop as a way to mitigate or eliminate stress more effectively. The other four are parenting skills, concrete support through meeting basic economic needs like food and shelter, resilience (ability to manage and bounce back from challenges) and social and emotional competence in children.

“Having someone to reach out to is important when you’re stressed and searching for support,” said Sandy LaCava, community development manager at Southwest Human Development, which runs the Birth to Five Helpline, a statewide helpline that is partially funded by FTF.

The helpline is a free service for all Arizona parents or caregivers to call, text or email with questions about their young child’s development. The helpline can also offer families connections to local resources and supports.

The Birth to Five Helpline is available at 1-877-705-KIDS (5437) from Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. You can also leave a voicemail, submit your question online, or text the Helpline 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Or download the Birth to Five app for your phone through the Apple App Store or Google Play.

Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, the helpline had started meeting with parents to answer questions over online video chat.

“The specialists are able see mom or dad face-to-face,” LaCava said. “It’s an opportunity to enhance that support.”

Aside from help from early childhood experts, families can seek out social connections in a variety of ways. Immediate family can provide the support in home, or reaching out to non-immediate family, friends and neighbors through the use of video chat programs such as FaceTime, Zoom and Skype.

Community organizations have also been using video chat to provide support to families. In March, Youth Services of the San Carlos Apache Tribe Wellness Center began providing tele-behavioral health services to youth and families using phone and Google Duo, a video chat service that is easy and accessible to most families, said Dr. Laura Jane Murphy, a psychologist at the wellness center.

Behavioral health technicians also distributed activity bags with therapeutic games, stories and art supplies to more than 50 families, Murphy said. For families without internet, electricity or cell phones, these activity bags, along with home visits that followed, were an important measure against the loneliness and scariness of the changes happening in their lives and community, she said.

“Through the generosity of the Arizona Community Foundation COVID-19 Community Response Fund we will soon launch the ‘Warriors and Eagles-Connection through Storytelling’ project,” Murphy said. “This is an outreach to the community to combat the adverse isolative effects of COVID-19. A radio show called ‘Story Time,’ will air twice a week through the end of August. This project will include activities for the children related to each story that include lessons about survival and becoming leaders of their families.”

The San Carlos Apache Tribal Council’s stay-at-home order to prevent COVID-19 spread, has also sparked renewed interest in the Apache Family Gardening Project, which provides families with seeds, fencing, garden beds, posts and fertilizer, and allows families to work together as they build their gardens.

“Our initial goal was to help 30 families, but with help through a wonderful private donor we have reached 165 families in the San Carlos and Bylas communities,” said Louie Lorenzo, the prevention coordinator at the wellness center. “Speaking to several families with young children, the children are excited being outdoors together, working as a unit, watering the garden and waiting for the plants to bring forth melons and vegetables. In the coming weeks we plan on doing home visits to see progress and get more positive feedback on the whole family gardening experience.”

Social connections can be a powerful antidote against the isolation and loneliness that parents of young children may feel even more now during social distancing. Helping to provide community connections to families can help buffer parents from stressors and help support nurturing parenting that will then benefit their young children. For more information and resources for families, visit the First Things First page of resources for parenting during coronavirus.

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