Raising Healthy Children Through Parent Communities

Strategies for Raising and Disciplining Children in the 21st Century

Ron Taffel

On a day long before the Occupy Wall Street Movement began, I met with a large group of 21st-century child professionals who were on a tear about the multiple inadequacies of today’s mothers and fathers. Sparks of indignation about parents’ inability or refusal to take charge of their kids---to create any kind of appropriate hierarchy in the family---lit up the auditorium. “They’re scared of their own children!” one proclaimed to nods of agreement all around. The general consensus was that today’s parents had become a “doormat generation” to their own kids, and that they were resisting all efforts by well-meaning professionals to help them grow parental backbones. It was enough to make one’s head spin.

Well, until later. That evening, I met with hundreds of parents from the same community. In a weirdly antiphonal response to what I’d heard earlier in the day, they rocked the school auditorium with their complaints of how hard---no, impossible---it was to be a parent today. School was a bureaucratic, relentlessly demanding, social and academic rat race that wasn’t even preparing their kids for the future. A vast and frightening Internet culture was hijacking their kids, and they were helpless to do much about it.

Parental Uncertainty

On top of losing faith in a secure future, mothers and fathers deal with everyday dilemmas that make a joke of traditional rules and childrearing practices. Unfortunately, many therapists still seem to believe that reliable solutions to the problems families face can be readily found in our psychodynamic, family, or standard evidence-based protocols. The rampant “medicalization of childhood”---our attempt to assist kids in getting the help they need to grow up in today’s tumultuous world by assigning more and more DSM diagnoses---doesn’t instill parental confidence either.

By the time kids are 18, at least half of them have already received a psychological diagnosis. While many mothers and fathers have become psychological sleuths, searching their child’s behavior for any sign of disorder, others continue to believe that the only thing wrong with kids is a lack of discipline. All the while, it becomes harder and harder to distinguish between psychological aberrations and the peculiar 21st-century context in which kids are growing up.

Fifteen-year-old Serena can’t settle down at night. Her mind hurtles between anxiety, excitement, and unbridled enthusiasm---you might say she’s rapid-cycling. Along with an inability to tear herself away from her online world, she’s fallen dramatically behind in school. In a reversal of the usual sleep–wake patterns, she’s awake all night, sleeps until early afternoon, and misses entire days. She’s had so many diagnoses it seems inevitable that she’d eventually receive a bipolar II label and several trials of medication. She can’t stop reacting physically or emotionally to her phone, which she says, “might as well be glued to the inside of my head, it’s so much a part of me.” Is this a true bipolar disorder, an acquired difficulty in affect-regulation triggered by the warp-speed electronic world she inhabits, or both?

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.

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.

Fostering Parental Courage

Whether or not the current ferment in schools and communities around the country leads to a new kind of parenting movement like Occupy Wall Street, the lesson for therapists is clear. To help parents raise healthy children in our family-unfriendly world, we need to make sure we truly get the Big Picture of the challenges confronting today’s parents. To do that, we need to go beyond our knowledge of the clinical theories and skills that have long been the domain of our special professional authority and expand our capacities as observers of what’s going on in our communities and in today’s youth culture.

This blog is excerpted from “The Decline and Fall of Parental Authority". Read the full article here. >>

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Topic: Children/Adolescents | Anxiety/Depression | Parenting

Tags: bipolar | bipolar disorder | childrearing | childrearing practices | conversation | counselor | DSM | eating disorders | families | kids | parents | psychotherapy | Ron Taffel | therapy | advice | discipline

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