Effective Parenting and Family Therapy
If you are struggling as a parent, it’s important to get effective help. I have worked with parents, adolescents, and families for over twenty years. I have also organized a conference for parents, teachers, educators, and clergy to creatively work on building communities that support effective parenting.
We live in an era of insecure parents who frantically try to provide their children with “the best of everything.” They are deeply troubled when more and more of their children are angry, depressed, out of control, or “unmotivated.” Mothers and fathers argue about limiting their children’s use of video games and social media. They wonder how to get their kids “off the screen,” to help around the house, or go outside and play. Schools and teachers feel besieged as they are repeatedly blamed for not dealing more effectively with students’ discipline, academic, and emotional problems. Increasing numbers of “successful” students admit to cheating at school and lying to their parents. Pediatricians and psychiatrists increasingly treat the symptoms of ADHD with stimulants, often without adequate parental coaching.
The Biggest Job We’ll Ever Have
Joel Crohn, Ph.D.
Excerpted from: The California Psychologist (January/February 2006)
Today’s children have been described as “the first generation in American history that is less prepared for life than their parents were at the same age.” In 2003, the Commission on Children at Risk warned of the “high and rising rates of depression, anxiety, attention deficit, and conduct disorders, as well as suicide.”[i] The social isolation of families, breakdown of marriages, and an overwhelmingly competitive and materialistic culture have created an environment that is toxic to children and confusing to parents. Recent surveys find fewer than 20% of respondents believe that today’s parents are good role models or are able to teach their children right from wrong.[ii]
In spite of the development of systems theory and family therapy, the majority of children’s emotional and behavioral problems are still diagnosed and treated from an individual perspective. The dramatic increase in the use of psychiatric medications has resulted in an ever greater emphasis on the biological determinants of behavior rather than on the power of social networks to heal or to harm. A systemic approach to working with children would attend far more to the importance of parents, siblings, extended family, school, and faith communities.
All of the stakeholders in children’s lives find themselves on the defensive. Parents, schools and teachers feel besieged as they are all blamed for not dealing more successfully with students’ discipline, academic, and emotional problems. Clergy and faith communities struggle with expectations that they should tend to the family crises of their congregants. And mental health professionals, operating primarily in the isolation of their offices, often find themselves less helpful than they would hope because they don’t have effective ways of utilizing community resources.
Bill Doherty, at the University of Minnesota, has argued for the importance of our being “citizen therapists.”[iii] He believes that mental health professionals have a unique opportunity to take greater leadership roles in countering the social trends that undermine the psychological and spiritual well-being of families. By seeing ourselves as educators and community organizers as well as clinicians, we can have a far greater impact on society. We can take on these roles in many ways.
A private high school where I consulted held a fathers’ forum to discuss the connections between the ethical and emotional development of their children. The school had responded vigorously and creatively to an incident involving cheating on SAT tests. Working together, we used this crisis as an opportunity to address the broader social context that affects students’ choices. Surveys of over 25,000 high school students by the Josephson Institute (www.josephsoninstitute.org) show that nearly two-thirds of students admit to cheating on a test in the past 12 months. Amazingly, 74% of these same students see their own ethical behavior as “higher than their peers.” What is going on?
Though the fathers expected “Ten easy tips to manage your ethically impaired teen,” the forum challenged them instead to assess their performance as important role models in their children’s lives. The fathers completed a “report card” based on how they would be graded by their children on the following subjects:
- Balances work and home life
- Takes care of his health
- Resolves differences with my mother/step-mother
- Deals with money issues
- Treats me with respect
- Is emotionally honest with family members
- Finds ways to have me contribute to family life (e.g. chores, attending family events, etc.)
- Has reasonable expectations about how much he expects me to achieve
- Contributes to the well-being of our community
One father broke the silence by saying, “I didn’t get any “As.” His honesty led to a fascinating talk about ways they could serve as better models for their children.
Even though parents say (and usually believe) that they want their children to be honest and good people, what they most often communicate to their children are their concerns about achievement. The higher the SAT scores, the more athletic games won, the better the college admissions, the happier the parents. Rather than focusing on children’s best efforts academically or good sportsmanship, too many parents are concerned with the outcome relative to others. Not surprisingly, students feel great pressure to bend the rules when their achievement may not be as high as they think it should be.
The children who ultimately tend to have the most problems are those with parents who get poor grades in “resolving differences about parenting.” One of the most common and destructive family patterns occurs when parents polarize around how to deal with a child struggling with emotional or behavioral problems. One parent focuses on the child’s “disorder” and the need for understanding, compassion, and treatment—the “good cop.” The other parent is critical of a potentially problematic parent/child coalition that excuses bad behavior. The “bad cop” either becomes over-focused on “discipline” or withdraws from the parenting crucible. Children need support and structure, and this kind of polarized family dynamic is highly effective in transforming challenging children into troubled adolescents.
Most educational or therapeutic approaches to helping parents stress the importance of parents “getting on the same page.” While the advice is excellent, most therapists who work with children and adolescents will admit how often they are frustrated with their failure to get parents to really change their own behavior. Even therapists who are family trained often abandon their efforts to change parental (or school) behavior and end up working primarily with the child—a more satisfying if ultimately less effective approach. Children often end up being the focus of what are often, at their core, social, educational, and parenting problems.
Raising children is, as the title of an important book by Laura and Malcolm Gauld on parenting describes, “The Biggest Job We’ll Ever Have.”[iv] The Biggest Job (www.biggestjob.org) is an organization that emphasizes creating principle-centered parenting communities. Recently, they teamed up with the Wright Institute in Berkeley to bring together mental health professionals, educators, parents, and clergy for a two-day meeting to explore methods of implementing this process in schools and faith communities.
The Biggest Job process was developed over the last 40 years at the Hyde Schools (www.hyde.edu). These schools uniquely focus on the entire family, not just students. They demand intense participation by parents in the educational process—particularly in relation to the ethical and emotional development of children. Their methodology is being used in two New England boarding schools as well as in an inner city public magnet school in New Haven, CT, a K-12 public charter school in Washington, DC, and in a new public charter school in Oakland, CA. The schools’ success in engaging parents across class and racial lines has itself been inspiring and demonstrates the hunger many parents have for more meaningful involvement in the lives of their children and communities.
The underlying principles of these parenting communities are, in many ways, radically countercultural to the individualistic ethos of today. The parents relinquish some privacy and self sufficiency in exchange for the support and challenge that only a group can offer. Too often, mothers end up alone in parenting programs, and this one has succeeded in getting a level of involvement from fathers that is highly unusual.
The process is highly structured and is centered on a set of principles, the most difficult of which holds group members responsible for valuing “truth over harmony” in their dealings with one another. Every member of the community has an obligation to give honest feedback to others in the community. Without the benefit of a well-developed and highly structured program, this obviously could be dangerous, but the 40 years that have gone into its development have led to some remarkable results. I have seen it help adversarial divorced parents to stop blaming each other and work together for the first time in the interest of their children.
The power of a principle-centered, facilitated process of parental peers seems to have the power to change adult behavior far more than most “child guidance” approaches. A modern version of a traditional family network is created where other caring adults have a proprietary stake in all of the families in the community.
The Biggest Job is one model that demonstrates how psychologists can respond to the call to be “citizen therapists.” Our unique training and experience qualify us to work effectively with a wide range of psychological problems. If we develop new ways to access the potential power of the natural systems that deeply affect our patients’ lives, we can make even more of a difference.
 Commission on Children at Risk. Hardwired to Connect: The New Scientific Case of Authoritative Care for Authoritative Communities: New York: Institute for American Values, 2003
 Evans, Robert. Family Matters: How Schools Can Cope with the Crisis in Childrearing. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 2004
 Doherty, William. “Creating Community Solutions.” Psychotherapy Networker, Washington, DC, Sept./Oct. 2003.
 Gauld, Laura & Malcolm. The Biggest Job We’ll Ever Have. Scribner, NY, NY, 2003.