The Parent Circle

Tapping the Wisdom of True Experts

Magazine Issue
January/February 2012
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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.

The First Meeting

Fifteen parents were present at the first formal session of the group Dick joined, including a gay male couple, three married heterosexual men and three married heterosexual women without their respective spouses, two heterosexual couples, and two single women. They were sitting around the room on couches and chairs, while to one side of the room was a large circle of 15 chairs. There were bagels and beverages on a table at the back of the room. While some of the people were chatting together, there was some tension in the room—after all, they were all strangers to each other, preparing to do some intimate and revealing work together. I run first sessions like most typical sessions, and save the all-important process of getting to know one another’s “stories” for the weeks that follow.

After welcoming everyone and guiding them through a brief breathing exercise and a few minutes of silence, I sounded a soft bell and asked them to move to the circle of chairs. They then did private journaling for 10 minutes, after which the agenda go-round began. During the go-round, each parent briefly shared his or her “high and/or low point” that week as a parent.

When it was Dick’s turn to share, he said: “I’m here . . . and I really want to see if I can get what I need out of this program. I’m just backed up with stuff. Everything is frustrating. I’m running on empty . . . I need to figure out what to do when Timmy ignores me on purpose. I’m getting really pissed—really quick—with him. I don’t want what happened last year to happen again.”

Next the group decided who’d be the focus of the ParentCircle work during the second half of the session. At this first meeting, Dick, the skeptic, asked to be the focus. Several other parents expressed interest in working in the circle, but Dick was chosen.

Following the parent education hour, the group took a break. When we resumed, all 15 parents were sitting in the circle waiting. With my prompting, Dick nervously stood and inched to the middle of the circle.

I started our work together with one of the most important features: helping a parent articulate specifically what he or she wants from the work that day. I asked him, “What would you like to have happen today in the circle?”

Dick answered, “I want to figure out why I am so miserable and cranky. Nothing is really helping,” he added, starting to tear up.

I then asked, “For today, does it fit better for you to do a piece of work designed to help you get it all out and off your chest, or do you want to work at understanding why all this is going on?”

“I think I just want to get stuff off my chest,” he said. “I haven’t really talked to anybody about all this for weeks. I don’t want to explode.”

Once we had a clear focus for the work—“getting it off his chest”—we could begin a process to accomplish that. I asked him to express the frustrations and burdens he was holding, one at a time. Then, anyone from the group was invited to respond by “mirroring” back to him what they’d heard—“You’re saying . . .” —and then inquiring, “Is this right?” If the person doing the mirroring got it right, Dick was just to say, “Thank you,” and move on to the next person.

This basic mirroring technique would allow Dick to experience “being seen” by various group members. By having different members take turns mirroring, a container would begin to form. At the same time, Dick would receive “attunement,” as group members began practicing listening while containing their own responses.

“OK, Dick,” I said. “Stand here and notice your breathing. Look around the group and, whenever you’re ready, just share one of your current frustrations.”

After hesitating a few moments, he said, “I just don’t seem to be able to handle everything. It’s all too much. I feel overwhelmed.”

I gestured for Dick to stop. “Let’s see if we got that,” I said, and waited for someone to mirror him. Maybe a minute—which felt like an eternity—passed without anybody saying a word. I waited in the void.

The ability to withstand the pull of the void is crucial to this group process. Therapists by nature seem to be allergic to staying quiet and getting out of the way of whatever unfolds, because the desire to manage and direct is powerful. However, these “moments of waiting” lead to the group’s claiming itself, right from the beginning.

Finally, Julie said, “You just don’t seem to be able to handle everything. It’s too much. You feel overwhelmed. Is that right?”

Dick nodded. “Yes, Julie, thank you.”

Over the next 25 minutes, Dick brought up other frustrations—he felt that nobody listened to him; that his wife undercut him; that he was a bad father, just like his father; that he had zero time for himself and still wasn’t appreciated; that his kids still seemed scared of him; that he felt like he got nothing from his therapist, who just sat there listening; that work sucked and he felt unproductive and unable to be creative. Each time, a member of the group mirrored what he’d said and received confirmation that he or she had gotten it right.

As I witnessed this simple, seemingly artificial, technique unfold, I found myself thinking: This is powerful for these parents because they’re all working together. They’re joining in an act of giving. It’s energetic and already powerful. They can already sense the potential that exists in the circle, for themselves and the other parents. Dick is feeling ‘seen.’ . . . He doesn’t have to worry about others’ reactions. . . . He’s getting ‘things off his chest’ . . . but is also being filled up by that mysterious elixir of others’ interest and concern for him.

Most poignant for me in this exchange was when Dick shifted from expressing frustrations to feeling the loss and sadness of never having felt loved and valued by his father.

“My dad was always critical or sarcastic,” Dick said. “He just seemed disgusted a lot of the time. I think he hated being a parent. I was a burden,” he added, tearfully, “and he really didn’t want me. . . . He’d actually say that to me.”

At that moment, Frank, a retired police officer, attempted to mirror Dick’s expression of loss: “Dick, what you’re saying is that you’re now aware of feeling a deep sadness . . . about your dad (Frank then started to get choked up) and how he never seemed to love you . . . value you as a son (Frank was having difficulty containing his own feelings). I’m sorry . . . ,” Frank continued, “This is stirring up a lot. Give me a minute, OK? So you’re saying. . . .”

Frank evidently was touched, but equally important, he was able to catch himself and be there for Dick. I noticed that almost everyone had mirrored a part of what Dick had shared. There was a relaxed alertness already forming in the circle. At the very end, Dick was visibly moved and full. A scribe had recorded everything. Dick was given this written account of his work, and then rejoined the circle.

In the debriefing (10 minutes following all group work), which is recorded in a “group journal,” we took a look at what had happened in the circle, how it ended up, and any learning that emerged. A number of total strangers were already finding a simple and natural way to become a group and provide support and encouragement to one another. They’d started a process that would continue for years; a process they all came to value highly, to which they’d all contribute in distinctive ways.

Following the ParentCircle segment, the group moved to more comfortable chairs, for private journaling and to complete a short form that begins with the phrase, “In this moment, at the end of today’s session, what I notice inside myself that seems most important is. . . .”

These forms were left in a basket as parents left. I compiled them all together and sent them to everyone during the next week, using mail and e-mail. Over the months and years, these “learnings” truly become part of the thickening connective tissue that creates the reality of belonging to the emerging community.

As Dick left, he tossed his “learnings” form into the basket, paused, and looked me in the eye. “I get it. Thanks,” he said as he walked out.

That night, Dick found a way into the circle, and then claimed it. He got traction early and went with it for years. This is typical of most parents who settle in and stay long term: they have initial successes, can see the richness of the potential community, and invest early and deeply. They’re empowered and mentored to be highly “active learners” right from the beginning, and if they “buy in,” the payoff is often life-changing.

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.


Photo © JLP / Jose L. Pelaez / Corbis

David Flohr

David Flohr, PhD, is a clinical psychologist specializing in the self-development of the parent. His focus is the Parent Circle model, which establishes small parent groups that become self-sustaining and outlive the need for the therapist.