The Group Takes Charge
Over the following months, the parents in Dick’s group began coming early, staying late and talking, and connecting between sessions. I encourage groups to have as much contact as they want, but they would anyway. Sometimes, I notice that curious, bitter-sweet feeling I had in the parking lot all those years ago—that I’m not really a part of the fabric they’re weaving together. I often wish I’d had such a circle of real connection with other parents when my kids were young.
As the group continued, Dick started sharing stories about his therapy, which he said had become very useful. He really looked forward to the family counseling sessions and, generally, was feeling hopeful about his parenting and his relationships with his kids. His amazing and contagious sense of humor punctuated most sessions. In one session Dick shared the following in the informal conversational time:
“This ‘growth edge’ thing is really cool. I’m dealing with Timmy’s stubbornness, wonder where he gets that, and I start to notice myself winding up inside. But this time [group members are smiling at him], I call out to Kristina to come.”
Frank asks, “How did you think of that in that moment?”
“I don’t know,” Dick answers. “I think looking at our learnings from last week on my e-mail that morning really helped. Also, I’d talked with Kristina and we had a plan worked out. Plus it’s one of the ‘growth edges’ I have in my parenting plan.”
Dick continues the story: “I ask her to put her hand on my shoulder, but not say anything. The ‘active support’ idea we talked about in circle last month really worked. With her touch, I felt myself really calming down. Timmy seemed less, I don’t know, just less—not as powerful, just a kid.”
At this stage, Dick was utilizing his own resources and the power and support of the group to chart new territory and generate “new pictures for the photo album.” He’d developed more insight about what he needed to be less reactive with his kids, was experimenting with different responses and feeling more successful and confident. What’s different about what Dick was doing within the ParentCircle and what might have developed through traditional approaches was his active, self-directed, personal work with other parents in the sessions, with parents between sessions, with his wife at home, with colleagues at work, with friends, and with his kids. The ParentCircle model allowed him to try out new approaches and work through them in a highly transparent way because it helped him to feel that he wasn’t alone in trying to figure out ways to cope with the challenges of parenting.
The parents for whom this approach works best are those who are seeking support and guidance and are open to slow, steady self-development. Many parents aren’t at a point at which they can make use of such a model. They may be in such bad shape that they need more traditional forms of therapy and intervention before a ParentCircle is useful to them. Many of these parents, once assisted in other ways, are then ready to step into such a holding space. Of course, parents who are extremely self-absorbed, have little or no understanding of how they contribute to their own problems, aren’t “connectors” by nature, or have more severe mental illnesses may never find their way into such a community of parents. Paradoxically, however, they benefit the most, and I’m always on the lookout for parents who most clinicians see as not being capable to do this work.
After a number of months in the group, Dick abruptly lost his job. He became stressed out and began to notice himself feeling tight and reactive again. He was worried about the situation when he arrived to the next session 20 minutes early to grab coffee and journal, and had already let several parents know what had happened.
After the bell sounded, the group silently formed a circle, and all the parents spent a couple of minutes in mindfulness practice. I started by reading our weekly “list of learnings” from the previous week’s ParentCircle session.
Dick worked hard during that meeting. He allowed the group to join with him in chewing on the “what to do?” question. Being in the presence of all these others somehow engendered his ability to access feelings of loss from his own childhood. The lifeline provided by the group as it reached out to him during the tough week that had just passed seemed key to his being able to center himself.
Over the following weeks and months, he continued to be an active member of the group, both helping other parents with their work and doing his own. He reported feeling that he’d saved himself “from the slide” after losing his job and confident that he’d figure things out. His marriage was in good shape, and he reported feeling less shame and more joy with his kids. CPS had stopped checking on him, and the terror that had visited him and his family had clearly dissipated.
Over time, this ParentCircle became increasingly cohesive, and decided to continue meeting on their own when my involvement ended. As I watched these parents move out into the parking lot after my last session with them, I was filled with a deep respect and sense of accomplishment.
Six Years Later
Dick contacted me one day for help with his oldest son (not Timmy), who’d become involved with drugs at school. We greeted each other warmly and he filled me in on how family life had unfolded. Overall he was doing extremely well—his marriage was strong and he had a job he enjoyed. His kids were doing well, except for the drug problem.
I asked him about his ParentCircle. Was it still going? How had it evolved over the years?
“It’s really quite amazing,” he answered. “We still meet, though less frequently—maybe once every couple of months.” He said many of the kids had left home and were working or going to college, though a fairly large number were still living with their parents as young adults, trying to figure out what to do. “Our conversations have shifted from how to keep our cool and set limits for young kids and all that to, well, figuring out our relationships with our adult kids still living at home and talking about how to help them take the leap into the world.”
Dick said that 11 of the original 14 members still met and followed roughly the same structure they’d established with me, though the focus had changed. “We all brainstorm every six months or so about topics we’d like to learn more about, divide them up among us, and each parent reports on one at a subsequent meeting,” he explained.
“We spend much more time than we used to in a kind of contemplative practice with each other,” he added. “We don’t do much journaling anymore, except for Julie, of course, who’s a writer and loves journaling. Often we just spend time catching up on our lives. But we always have the circle time, and usually someone will do a piece of work.”
“What kind of work, Dick?” I couldn’t resist asking.
He looked at me and smiled. “David, sitting here with you now, I realize that you really don’t know how our circle—which you helped us create—has evolved. It’s truly become ours. By ‘doing a piece of work,’ I mean like what happened last month. John asked for a Group as a Witness process to help him in his struggle with his daughter. She won’t seriously look for work, drinks too much, and refuses to get any therapy or do much of anything else for herself. John feels bad and keeps giving her money whenever she asks, even though he knows it just keeps her stuck. He needed our active support to try to really make the shift—to learn to say ‘no’ to her. We did the process very much like we did when we were still working with you.”
Dick’s answer when I asked him what he thought were the most important parts of the ParentCircle experience was particularly rewarding to me. “Definitely feeling like my struggles—my life—mattered to the other parents in the circle,” he noted. “I can’t tell you how much I learned about myself and my kids! It seems amazing, somehow, that so much wisdom can come from ordinary people when they come together like that. I feel proud to have been able to be there and helpful to the other parents over the years.”
I now realize how profound those words spoken in that night in the parking lot were: “This is our session, not yours.” In a real sense the parents in the ParentCircle were going counterculture by claiming a community as their own and running with it. In claiming their personal work and their group, they had, knowingly or unknowingly, recaptured older ways of being with each other as parents—almost like finding an old quilt that you know was made by many hands and often shared.
Dick’s ParentCircle group had successfully created their own “culture” of parenting, starkly different from the one they’d been inducted into. They’d moved from a fragmented experience of being a parent in our modern age—isolated, forlorn, anxious, often frustrated—to an experience of ongoing, energetic, and valued connection with their “buddies” on the same path. They were now a part of each others’ stories in a way that engendered openness to new possibilities about their self-as-parent.
There’s a deep and urgent need for parents to have a “place of their own.” A space where they can learn about themselves and their children, get active support to take the high road, and—slowly, over time—be reminded of their basic goodness and natural connection with others. We must help parents learn how to create a safe, energetic holding environment for their self-as-parent as they move, at their own pace, toward genuine and essential wholeness. In this holding environment, each parent can reclaim his or her core energy—a felt sense of mattering—so that this essential “energy of mattering” can be organically passed on to the next generation.
David Flohr, Ph.D., is the developer of the Self-as-Parent: Pathways Model, a comprehensive group-based approach to the self-development of the parent, of which the ParentCircle is a central component. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; website: washingtonsq.org.
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