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February 2019Vol. 20, No. 1Parent Well-Being and Parent-Child Relationships Are Key to Promoting Child Well-Being

Written by Jerry Milner

For far too long, the concept of well-being has been something of an afterthought in child welfare, falling a distant third to ensuring physical safety and pursuing permanency. While it is clear that a person cannot experience well-being in the absence of feeling and being safe, in child welfare we can and often do achieve physical safety without addressing overall well-being. The result is that we protect many children and youth from harm without arming them with the strength and skills needed to become healthy, resilient adults who can thrive in the world they live in. 

When we do consider and talk about well-being, we most often do so in terms of the child's well-being, often in isolation from the family's or parent's or community's well-being. Perhaps arising from the fact that many "well-being" services fall under the purview of organizations and entities other than the child protection agency, it becomes easy for the agency to focus on those aspects of well-being that are within its control. For example, we focus on making sure medical appointments are made and kept to comply with case plan and policy requirements, that educational records are available and individualized education plans are in place, or that mental health screenings are conducted. These are important for sure but not as often do we engage in assessments, develop case plans, and provide supports that address psychological and emotional well-being and what children and families need to feel connected, supported, secure, and, ultimately, to thrive. While we have begun to place more value on social and emotional health since the passage of Fostering Connections, this, too, has fallen short and most commonly manifests in policy and practice to promote school stability and to "normalize" foster care rather than approaching well-being in a holistic manner.

While we have a responsibility to address child well-being when we are called upon to intervene in their lives, I believe that we must also be concerned with the well-being of the parents and families that we want to be able to attend to their children's needs. Given the intergenerational cycles of trauma, family disruption, and unresolved difficulties experienced by so many of our families, failure to address their needs for well-being can only perpetuate such cycles. Our goal should be nothing less than helping them to thrive. I recently met with a group of parents in a community-based family support program and asked them what it meant to them to thrive. The responses were telling—a house without mold, educational opportunities, access to effective mental health services. No one mentioned wealth or extravagant material possessions.

Attending to the well-being of parents and families goes to the heart of the most obvious influence on the well-being of children: the strength of parent-child relationships. Removing children from struggling parents, even when necessary, can inflict and/or increase existing trauma for children, parents, and families. By attending to well-being through primary prevention efforts, we have an opportunity to avoid so much of that trauma. We also have tremendous opportunities to rethink how the foster care experience itself, when necessary, can support, rather than harm, the parent-child relationship and strengthen this essential component of well-being.

A commitment to addressing well-being signals an equal commitment to child protection agencies to work in an integrated manner with other entities that can and do affect well-being every day—the courts, the legal community, service providers, foster caretakers, and community groups and organizations. It cannot—and should not—be attempted in isolation of these key partners and others. I urge everyone to think of parent well-being and healthy, safe intact families as key strategies for achieving child well-being. Let's not forget that the most important thing a child needs is a safe and loving adult and that for the vast majority of children, that safe and loving adult, or adults, are his or her parents.