Fostering Parental Courage
Clearly, therapists willing to venture out of their offices have a lot to contribute to these partnerships. Gordon consulted me about his acting-out teen: the boy locked himself in his room, smoked pot daily, and essentially stopped being part of the family. Gordon felt alone and stymied. Because he’d seen a presentation I’d done on creating community, he invited me in to help get a partnership off the ground in his son’s school. My job was to help develop an event that would attract enough parents to begin to populate the town square with learners.
Together with teachers, we designed an evening program in which kids were asked to write scenarios of situations that parents would have difficulty addressing. The kids eagerly obliged, designing situations that would throw the most confident parent: “What would you do if you came into your kid’s room and found him or her naked in bed with a boyfriend or girlfriend?” “How would you handle it if your child came back one evening totally wasted from a night of ‘pregaming’ [smoking and drinking before the concert] after he or she had promised not to indulge during the concert?” “What if your kid was lifting material from the Internet for a report, but explained honestly that he’d have no time to finish it if he didn’t?”
Afterward, 200 parents broke into 10 discussion groups run by clinicians and parents. With written guidelines about respectful communication, the facilitators—who’d attended training sessions led by group therapists—helped parents address these scary scenarios. Seeing so many other parents struggling with the same issues, Gordon finally got up the nerve to demand that his son see a doctor for a thorough drug workup, something he should have done much earlier. As it turned out, the boy was using marijuana as self-medication for an undiagnosed, hyperthyroid condition; pot made him less agitated. Although he didn’t stop smoking altogether, medical attention calmed him down enough to do a bit of homework and rejoin the family, at least some of the time. Gordon was greatly relieved; however, after their scary-scenario evening, other parents in the school were less relieved—which only increased their desire to begin a continuing education partnership.
I recently gave a talk at a suburban school to underscore the importance of community dialogue. It was part of a multiyear initiative on social cruelty involving administrators, teachers, counselors, kids, parents, and clinicians. More than a dozen therapists led four groups of mothers and fathers with children at all grade levels, who were encouraged to express their worries. A number of parents with elementary-school children were particularly angered that school personnel weren’t preventing a cadre of bullies from relentlessly taunting and verbally abusing the younger children on the bus. One mom reported that her older son was sitting near his sibling, but was still too young and afraid to know how to defend his sister from taunts. What was wrong with the school, she asked sharply, that they left the protection of her 5-year-old daughter to her 7-year-old son? Others chimed in that this had been going on so long that the school should already have intervened.
After hearing new, nondefensive information from the professionals in attendance, a minicourse was suggested, to be run by school and local counselors, that would offer role-playing answers to questions—exactly what mothers and fathers could say to their kids about how to respond to bullying. Mutual impatience turned to “let’s see” respect. The partnership organizer said to me later, “These parents can’t feel courageous alone and, literally, don’t know what to say to their kids to help them out when they face this situation. They need the words.”
In another set of schools, several kid–parent–teacher forums identified the ways homework held families hostage. There’d been several teen and preteen suicides in the town’s schools that year, so concerns ran deep. After consultations with parents and therapists who were personally affected by the tragedies, a school principal took an unprecedented step: she decided to do the homework that students were asked to do. I suggested that online time be included, since no self-respecting 21st-century kid does work without engaging in several conversations at once. To her surprise, what was calculated to be three hours of homework actually turned into five hours’ worth. This lead to a “reassessment of assessments” as the evaluation of academic requirements is called across the country. Teachers are being asked to coordinate papers and tests so that no more than one happens on any single day, and none immediately after vacation time—a boon to families.
I work many treatment hours to lower 21st-century parental fear, but partnerships can create a safe base from which parents can step forward and take action. Fourteen-year-old DJ had just told her mother a secret: her best friend was cutting herself. But DJ made the usual kid threat, if either of her two mothers ever mentioned it to anyone, she’d never tell them anything again, ever—which put the moms in a classic bind. They knew the other parents well, felt responsible for holding this secret, and were tortured by the thought that the girl might be in real danger. I tried to move them past their fear of being ostracized by other families after they’d worked so hard to be accepted as a lesbian couple and, worse, of having their teenage daughter never speak honestly with them again about her life. But nothing changed.
In the meantime, the school and parent “alliance,” as this partnership was called, had instituted a program defining “up-standers” as courageous citizens who’d be supported by the school and could choose that their information be held confidential. This was repeatedly expressed in parent meetings, on flyers, and in classroom discussions. Relieved that the school had reframed stepping forward as something courageous, rather than as “ratting,” the moms decided to inform DJ that they were calling the school counselor. DJ immediately told a friend that the adolescent wall of silence had been breached, and a pitched battle broke out at home. But with the school so clearly behind DJ’s parents, they didn’t apologize or back down; they listened calmly without preaching and the fear-fueled deadlock eased. In countless chats and texts that night, DJ and her friends expressed their relief at not having to be caretakers any longer, and later pushed their self-cutter friend to see the school counselor—which happened within two days.
As we know, parents aren’t the only ones struggling to deal with the tough social and economic realities of our time. While some therapist–readers may immediately be inspired to become involved in creating parent–school partnerships, many others may be wondering whether, amidst all the challenges of their practices and busy lives, they can now find the time to become volunteer community organizers. Nevertheless, some may be inspired to begin to consider how to creatively adapt the perspective being advanced here as another dimension of their existing practices. (See David Flohr’s article “The Parent Circle”.) But whatever concrete actions follow from understanding the circumstances of 21st-century parenting, the first, most important, step is surely beginning to see the problem whole.
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. The time is long past when we can rely solely on traditional clinical models if we’re to bring out the best in parents and their children. The first step in making what we have to offer more relevant to the needs of families is to recognize that the number-one problem parents face—far more than any DSM category or clinical syndrome—is the alienation and isolation that dominates the experience of childrearing in today’s world.
It’s no small task to help mothers and fathers face the nearly impossible task of parenting 21-century kids. But after all, making a real difference in people’s lives—rather than making it into the circle of the charmed one percent—is what attracted most of us into the field in the first place.
Ron Taffel, Ph.D., is the chairman of the board of the Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy in New York. His books include Getting through to Difficult Kids and Parents: Uncommon Sense for Child Professionals and his latest, Childhood Unbound: Authoritative Parenting for the 21st Century. Website: rontaffel.com.
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