Discover how going beyond traditional therapy is the key to helping modern-day parents

Helping Today’s Parents: How to Build a Parent Community
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Dear Colleague,

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.

Then, one evening, the parents of a young teen I was seeing in therapy invited me to a grade-wide parent community discussion group. As I listened to the conversations unfold—what to do about bullying in schools, how to handle kids who are avoiding school, and how (or whether) to set limits on children who knew no bounds—it was hard to ignore the coordinated kid-assault against adult authority and traditional parenting techniques. Now I really knew what these parents were 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, just as much as psychotherapy, what most overwhelmed parents of out-of-control kids need is a strong, vibrant parent community.

Parents need help and encouragement in authority building, and we therapists have the skills to help them. Unfortunately, however, because it removes us from where the real action is, it’s an occupational hazard of our profession that we mostly sit in an office or agency or hospital expecting people to come to us.

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. 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. The more at ease parents become talking with other parents, the more self-confident they become, and the more personal authority they’ll be able to muster with their own kids.

Parent community groups can serve as “park bench” communities that are antidotes to the fragmentation of modern neighborhood life. At one large, suburban public school where I consulted, a guidance counselor initiated a parent community group that became so popular that it quickly spun off five other groups—one for almost every grade. Listening to the parents’ stories, the counselor not only heard about their homespun parenting strategies, 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 modern-day 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 their children, the adults begin to focus on changing themselves. At that point, these parent community groups become what I call a “community of learners,” whose members decide to explore themes that touch all of their lives and to learn from one another.

The Therapist-Community Connection

As therapists, we have an important contribution to make in teacher-parents partnerships. In one town, several therapists understood early on how Facebook encouraged students to gossip and threaten one another nightly. Some therapists asked the partnership to bring in experts about living safely in an internet world. This request led to one of the biggest school workshops I’ve ever heard about and featured prominent documentarians with unparalleled expertise in the digital realm. Afterward, parents broadened their focus on online adult predators to include the many ways kids victimize one another.

Because therapists are the keepers of a town’s secrets, we can provide timely, critical topics for a community without breaking confidentiality. Also because therapists know 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.

As we know, parents aren’t the only ones struggling to deal with the tough social and economic realities of our time. Whatever concrete actions follow from understanding the circumstances of 21st-century parenting, the first, most important step is surely beginning to see the problem as a whole.

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 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 is the alienation and isolation that dominates the experience of childrearing in today’s world.

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