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The Choreography of Community Change

I spent my early years as a therapist in community-based clinics, where my entire workday took place within the confines of an office. The orthodoxies of the day dictated that only our preferred therapeutic methods could possibly be of use to the people who came to us for help. Anything else would simply be “Band-Aids,” not “real” treatment—not deep or rigorous enough. Then, one evening, the mother and father of a young teen I was seeing in therapy invited me to a grade-wide parent discussion group. As I listened to the conversation unfold—whether to allow a 14-year-old to go to a drug saturated all-night rave, how to handle younger kids’ exposure to screen sex, and, of course, how (and whether) to set limits on children who knew no bounds—the coordinated kid-assault against adult authority was hard to ignore. At the next session, someone said, “Now you know what we’re up against.”

Since then, I’ve done well over a thousand talks and consultations outside the treatment room. The experience has transformed my perspective on the difficulties parents face every day and what I, as a therapist, can realistically expect of them. It’s convinced me that what most overwhelmed parents of out-of-control kids need—just as much as psychotherapy—is a strong, vibrant community that includes other parents. Parents need help and encouragement in authority building, and we have the skills to help them, but, unfortunately, it’s an occupational hazard of our profession to sit in an office or agency or hospital, expecting people to come to us, because it removes us from where the real action is. As therapists, I believe we’re uniquely suited to stretch our therapeutic frame into the wider world and help parents construct viable, supportive, 21st-century communities among themselves. After all, we know and work with the key figures and main stakeholders—kids, parents, and school personnel—and we have the skills to build sturdy bridges between these parts of the system, too often isolated and antagonistic toward each other. The question is: how do we begin?

A Community of Learners

I’ve found that the first step in the choreography of change is recognizing the importance of what Harvard Medical School professor Alvin Poussaint calls natural “chit-chat.” According to Poussaint, mental health workers underestimate the importance of having people discuss ordinary concerns on their own turf—in churches, synagogues, and community centers. However, the more at ease parents become talking with other parents, as well as school personnel, the more self-confident they become, and the more personal authority they’ll be able to muster with their own kids. There’s nothing like understanding that you’re not alone to raise the spirits and strengthen the spine.

I’d been consulting with Deirdre, the single mother of two preteen girls whose sibling rivalry had taken a major turn for the worse, exploding with brutal nastiness. She was afraid she’d physically lose it during their relentless put-downs and battles. We were stymied until Deirdre invited me to be part of a dinnertime gathering in her elementary school with parents from several classes. Both of us were stunned as mothers and fathers in her older daughter’s grade complained about a sudden upsurge in the exact same aggressive behavior. No one could figure out why this was happening until further discussion uncovered a vicious social jockeying that was taking place, encouraged by several new kids in school and a crass, popular video game that had heightened the nastiness within the school’s pecking order. Hearing this information immediately lessened Deirdre’s harsh self-blame, which I’d been unsuccessfully trying to ease. Having heard “normalizing” stories from other parents, Deirdre began to regain her own calmer, more authoritative voice, rather than flailing wildly at every transgression. Treatment ended within weeks, but she remained connected to her parents peer group, which continued to hold monthly meetings for the rest of the year.

Parent peer groups can serve as “park bench” communities that are antidotes to the fragmentation of modern neighborhood life. At one large suburban public school in the Northeast where I consulted, a guidance counselor initiated a parent group that became so popular that in almost no time it spun off five other groups—one for almost every grade. Listening to their stories, the counselor not only heard parents’ homespun strategies—have her turn off an alarm when she gets home at night, because if she doesn’t, you’ll know she’s late; spend two minutes of quiet time with the child who can’t leave in the morning; kick the 3-year-old out of your bed at night and let him cry—but also was able to uncover hidden eating disorders and undiagnosed learning issues.

Simple, easy conversation is essential, but it’s just a start in dealing with 21st-century uncertainty, fear, and cynicism. At some point, park-bench dialogue is insufficient: the adults in the neighborhood must collaborate to build a new town square if kids are going to feel held by them. So, increasingly, parents are approaching school administrators to initiate parent–school partnerships. The key moment of transformation in such partnerships is often when, instead of focusing on children, the adults begin to focus on changing themselves. At that point, these groups become what I call a “community of learners,” as members decide to explore themes that touch all of their lives—diversity awareness, bully programs, or easing the viselike pressures of 21st-century life—and learn from each other.

Eddie, a 14-year-old client, was being taunted by his high school classmates for seeming “gay.” His parents took it lightly, criticizing him for making the situation worse by reliably getting upset every time someone taunted him. “Just ignore it,” his mother said blandly. Eddie did have a pretty thin skin, so the taunts grew worse; one time, some boys even refused to change clothes near him in the locker room. As Eddie’s mood slipped, his grades began to fall. However, during this time, the parent–school partnership I’d helped organize began a diversity initiative. Posters from the student gay–straight alliance appeared throughout the school announcing meetings, flyers on the subject were sent home, and teachers felt greater ease about bringing up topics relevant to persecution, both personal and historical.

Throughout Eddie’s struggle at school, his dad had clung to his lifelong mantra, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” which hid his own childhood hurt at being told so often to “sink or swim.” But with a changed attitude toward tolerance generated by the partnership, Eddie’s dad first requested—then demanded—that the school take action to stop the taunting of his son. Weeks later (it still took this long to move the school from a “boys will be boys” mindset), the administration finally threatened Eddie’s tormenters with suspension. Before this could happen, a remarkable thing occurred: Eddie, having absorbed these new voices himself and seeing his once-critical father advocate so fiercely, suddenly confronted one of the boys, screaming in the lunch room: “You say I’m gay. So what if I am? This school is supposed to be for everyone. If you can’t deal with that, you don’t belong here, not me!”

Silence followed. As everyone stood frozen, stunned with the force of Eddie’s outburst, something changed. The boys never grew to like Eddie, but he didn’t care; they left him alone, and he went his own way. The bond between Eddie and his dad grew, as did his parents’ participation in the school’s partnership. This family was now involved with a community of learners, feeling both more knowledgeable and more realistic about what they expected from their son. Their new savvy yielded further dividends once his social life took a leap after he joined the swim team and he became a full-fledged participant in the world of 21st-century weekend partying.

As therapists, we have an important contribution to make in partnerships with teachers and parents. In one town, several therapists early on understood how Facebook encouraged students to gossip and threaten each other nightly. Some asked the partnership to bring in experts about living safely in an Internet world, shifting parents’ attention away from their sole focus on adult predators toward greater attention to the many ways kids victimize each other. This led to one of the biggest school workshops I’ve ever heard about, featuring prominent documentarians with unparalleled expertise in the digital realm. Because therapists are the keepers of a town’s secrets, we can provide timely, critical topics for a community without breaking confidentiality. Because therapists know so well what’s really going on in the 21st-century kid world, we’re a natural asset to emerging communities of learners, whether as members of the partnership’s steering committee, as paid and unpaid consultants, or as experts invited to school-based meetings by our own clients.

Events created on the basis of mutually shared information can dramatically promote community learning on specific issues. For example, Mona, the head of a Midwestern partnership, described how students had gotten together with school administrators, teachers, and parents to discuss what bothered them the most. Academic stress was far and away the most heated issue. The level of anxiety was so high among students that Mona’s son, Harry, decided to do a survey among kids. He discovered what stressed them out most: the amount of homework and the collision of assignments due on the same day—along with overbearing and frightened parents, who rarely stopped reminding them to get cracking or comparing them with their presumably more zealous siblings. A group of now-expert teens then arranged panel discussions for parents, prepared poster boards that allowed them to respectfully speak their minds about sensitive issues, and put together concrete tips aimed mostly at adults.

These included such advice as, “Mom, please find something else to focus on than me—get a hobby.” “When you come back from work, don’t immediately ask us a million questions about our day—we need downtime.” “Try to understand I’m a different person than my brother.” “I don’t tell you things, not because I hate you, but because you’ll ask about my friends.” These student-run town-hall meetings were so successful that parents and school personnel followed up with regularly scheduled discussion groups, inviting experts to focus on the topics that were landing so many parents and their kids in therapy.

A community of learners is comprised of everyone dealing with children’s daily lives—teachers, parents, and professionals—and now kids are getting in on the act, too. Poignantly, the leader of one partnership said to me, “When parents and teachers can sit side by side and learn together, they begin to use the same language. They finally begin to understand each other.”
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