It was on a night 20 years ago when I had an experience that transformed the way I work with parents today. Up to that point, I’d practiced the traditional approaches that most therapists use with parents—individual therapy, couples therapy, child-focused parent guidance, and family therapy. That night, after running a child-focused parent group, I was walking toward my car in the parking lot when I ran into three of the parents from the group who were still talking over what we’d been discussing in our meeting. “There’s an extra charge for parking-lot sessions,” I wisecracked as I walked past them. “This is our session, not yours,” shot back one of the parents, playfully, but also with a trace of seriousness. “And there’s no charge!”
It all seemed relaxed and fun at the time, but driving home, I found myself coming back to that comment and realizing that it spoke to what I was just beginning to admit to myself was missing in the parent group I was leading. With all the emphasis on techniques and parenting information, we seemed to be skirting the heart of the often frustrating and, at times, deeply painful experiences parents were struggling with. I found myself thinking, These parents have so much more understanding and wisdom to offer each other than this group is tapping into. They don’t need therapy as much as they need each other. What they needed was the opportunity, encouragement, and tools to co-create their own support community—one that, once it got going, could sustain itself without a therapist to run things.
Besides being able to form a “place of their own,” I realized that parents also needed a model of how to meet together in a way that would bring out the best in each of them, so they could talk honestly and nonjudgmentally about what it’s like to be a parent under stress, reveal their own “bad-parent” days, and share the truly awful moments when they feel that they and their children are on opposite sides of an unbridgeable chasm of anger and mutual distrust. It’s a paradox that at a time when children and adolescents have never been so plugged-in (literally and figuratively) to each other via a seemingly endless online and offline network of kid peers, parents have never been so alone and isolated. Already stressed by economic and time pressures and so often without the help of extended family or other “mentor” adults to lead the way, parents frequently are ill-prepared to respond appropriately and wisely to a kid who’s pushing all their buttons at once.
Often they don’t know what to say or do when a surly adolescent sasses them, a 13-year-old appears to utterly despise them, or a third-grader obstinately refuses to do what she’s asked. Believing they must prove they have the authority in the family (they’re the parents, after all!), but feeling powerless before this small, tyrannical stranger—their beloved child—parents can find themselves in a helpless rage. They lash out verbally, or even physically, and the situation and their relationship with the child predictably deteriorate, leaving them feeling a toxic combination of humiliation, resentment, shame, and grief. They’re sure other parents don’t have these problems because other parents are rarely helpless, incompetent, out of control, and mean. Other parents have what all parents want—warm, mutually nourishing relationships with their adored and adoring children.
But, of course, other parents—even good parents who love their kids—also experience all these things, react just as badly sometimes, and feel their own failings just as bitterly. I thought to myself, if there were some safe space where parents could come together and genuinely share their most intimate struggles as parents, work through the personal issues that get in their way using the group as a supportive and wise collaborator, they might not just become “better parents,” but discover how to forge better connections with their own children.
An Introduction to the ParentCircle
Those were some of the initial musings that led over time to the development of the ParentCircle: Pathways Model, which engenders small parenting communities offering an experience that traditional therapy cannot. So what do ParentCircles look like? To get a picture, imagine yourself sitting in an introductory informational meeting held at a local church. At these meetings, I introduce myself, talk a little about my own clinical experience, and then describe what it means to become an integral part of a group of parents who meet twice monthly to offer an experience of community to other parents going through the same, and different, challenges. My role, I explain, is to provide useful information about parenting and offer guidance and training in basic group processes that’ll enable the group itself to provide the support, insight, and accrued wisdom that only other parents can offer.
There’s usually a moment of silence after my initial presentation, and then the questions, often not friendly, begin. This evening, Dick, a short, portly, middle-aged man dressed in sweat pants and a T-shirt and slumped in a oversized chair, was the first to raise his hand.
“I’ve taken STEP and SCHLEP and SCHMET, or whatever all these things are called,” he said, a sarcastic edge in his voice. “And I’ve read books and more books. It hasn’t helped a bit. Just what’s so different about your thing?”
What I explained about creating a community in which parents can help other parents did very little to ease Dick’s doubts and skepticism.
But he was desperate. He’d been investigated by Child Protective Services (CPS) a year earlier, when he’d really lost it with his three kids—yelling at them, pounding the table when they wouldn’t do as they were told. Then one night he went too far. He was trying to get them to go to bed and they were resisting, as usual. This time, something snapped and in a flash, he grabbed 4-year-old Timmy by both arms, picked him up, and smashed him down onto the “timeout” chair. Two inches from Timmy’s face, he screamed at him for five minutes, while pushing his pleading wife, Kristina, out of the way when she tried to intervene.
When Dick finally became aware of what he was doing, he stopped, straightened up, and just stood there for a minute, breathing hard, while his wife huddled in frightened silence with the other two kids. Without a word, he turned and walked out of the house, afraid, he said later, of what he might do if he stayed.
His wife called her therapist, who involved Child Protective Services. While Dick was allowed to stay in his home, he was court-ordered into individual therapy and required to take a parenting class (he’d already taken one several years before).
A CPS worker came into the home for several months following the incident to interview the kids and make sure Dick was following through on the court order. Dick started with a psychodynamically oriented individual therapist within a week, saw a psychiatrist within a month, started on Zoloft and Wellbutrin, and enrolled in a 12-session Systematic Training for Effective Parenting (STEP) class. The family was seeing a therapist to work through what had happened, and Kristina continued in her individual therapy. Dick’s stress level continued to be dangerously high. He was at risk of losing his job as a graphic designer, still highly reactive with his kids, and increasingly depressed.
Despondent in the aftermath of his meltdown, full of shame and self-contempt, he experienced a severe depression that neither therapists, his minister, nor his friends could alleviate. Almost a year passed, and Dick was increasingly worried he was going to “lose it” again. A neighbor finally got through to him and suggested he attend a ParentCircle informational session. Dick had a lot of questions, but despite his skepticism, he decided to give the ParentCircle a try and joined a group that was forming the following week.