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Opinion & Essays - Apr, 2001 Issue #80 

By Lon Woodbury, C.E.P.

In recent years, emotional growth programs have considered it a high priority to involve the parents in the therapeutic work they do with adolescents who are making poor choices. This is a vast improvement from the attitude of mental health professionals that was prevalent in the seventies, which seemed to regard the parents as the root problem. At that time the goal was to separate the child from the parents in order to “fix” the child, and of course not let the parents interfere. 

This evolution in the philosophy of residential schools and programs is in part a result of a change in professional perspective. It is now recognized that the child with behavioral/emotional problems is part of a “Family System,” and that adequate healing cannot occur without addressing the whole family. Professionals now include parents as part of the team and acknowledge that parents also need to make changes in order for the hoped for attitudinal changes to occur within the child. In fact, a change in parenting attitudes and/or techniques is now considered a necessary factor for helping the child to learn more positive thinking patterns. 

The fact that Parent Workshops are becoming more common among Emotional Growth and Therapeutic Boarding Schools and programs is an obvious sign of this new emphasis on the family system. The goal of Parent Workshops is to draw each family closer. These workshops orchestrate positive and healing experiences that help the family members work through past troubles and issues and establish better communication patterns. 

The underlying basis for the success of a residential school or program is the sense of community that is created between the students and staff. A properly developed school community provides a sense of safety. The students and staff sometimes refer to their campus as a home away from home. Built into the community is a structure where the consequences for any behavior is immediate, appropriate and fair. This structure is radically different from simple punishment. For example, bullying is not tolerated in a true community, but it is controlled as a result of a general consensus, rather than in a punitive fashion through long lists of rules or top-down administrative policies of zero tolerance. 

Parent Workshops are a way to involve parents in the school or program community. Their inclusion allows for a wider variety of techniques to be utilized to help the child develop a change in attitude. Working on issues within the family system can help foster a change in the attitudes of the whole family. 

Expanding a residential school or program community to include parents has a number of logistical problems. Parents are scattered throughout the country and sometimes live in foreign countries. Even so, it is surprising how much of a community can still be developed. A basic requirement for creating a community that includes parents is to develop ways for all the parents to meet each other and their child’s co-students. Familiarity between the parents and students creates an opportunity to focus on specific student problem behaviors within the context of a community of family systems. This can serve to enhance individual counseling. A properly organized parent workshop can establish this sense of a community in a very short time. Modern communications can allow the sense of the expanded community to continue after the parents have returned home. 

Several things need to be accomplished and certain tools need to be used when a school begins the process of community building, whether the focus is solely on the students and staff, or whether the parents are also included. First of all, communication between all members of the community needs to be as open and honest as possible. Logistics dictate certain restrictions, but once the initial communication between the parents has been initiated, it can be continued by phone and Internet. 

For most students enrolled in emotional growth and therapeutic boarding schools and programs, the terms “open” and “honest” are a contradiction in terms, at least in the initial phases of the program. Any communication that is dishonest is destructive, so it is important that some kind of structure is in place that will consequence a student’s dishonest communication, and encourage honest communication. The goal is to develop open and honest communication as a part of the healing. 

Part of community building involves establishing regular ceremonies, rituals and meaningful symbols. Also helpful is involving the emerging community in fun, team-building experiences that are similar to what is used as ice breakers in social situations. Uplifting music is also extremely helpful in building a positive community culture. These are the same techniques that have been used throughout history in all cultures, because somehow they speak to the human condition and draw people together. 

I had the privilege in early March to participate in a Parent Workshop that did a good job accomplishing most of these things. It occurred at Positive Impact, a boys program in Bahia de Kino, Mexico, 877-236-1114, which is in the process of expanding their Parent Workshops. 

On this occasion, fifteen sets of parents traveled to the campus to participate for two days in what was essentially an attempt to expand the community. They joined their sons who were in the program, in a variety of activities. The first function was an informal dinner for parents, their children and staff. It was followed the next morning by a breakfast involving the same people at a restaurant overlooking the Sea of Cortez. Most of these parents were there for their second Parent Workshop, so they divided their time between renewing acquaintances with the parents and students they had met on the previous occasion, and spending time with their own son. Many of the parents had already exchanged e-mail addresses and phone numbers, and had spontaneously been developing a distance support group. I offered to help Positive Impact expand that kind of contact on a little more systematic basis through the Internet, which could help enhance and continue their community building once the parents are back home. 

After breakfast the first morning, everyone gathered at a location overlooking the sea in order to participate in a series of games and trust exercises. I could see the community draw closer as a result of the interactions between the parents and students. The various activities helped them relax into a growing sense of belonging and safety. Fun exercises were interspersed with a more serious sharing of issues. Breaks sometimes involved informal family time, other times they allowed for specific family counseling sessions that were conducted by some of the students’ therapist/mentors. 

A bonfire at sunset was the climax of the day, taking place at the other end of the beach from the morning session. This setting was magnificent; beauty can be an important part of community building. Shortly after the sun set behind the Sea, we were treated to the brilliance of the stars and moon overhead, the rhythmic waves washing the shore, and the dark shape of Pelican Island looming just offshore. While nature was putting on its glorious show, the parents and students gathered around the roaring bonfire. It was the gathering of the clan for important community business, a timeless event throughout the ages. 

The Elders of the clan (the parents) were asked to gather in a half circle facing the fire. The Young (the students) were asked to gather in a half circle facing the fire behind the parents. In our culture, which tends to worship youth and blame parents for their children’s transgressions, it must have been a reassuring experience for the parents to be treated with the respect their life’s experience had earned them. 

Then the ceremony began! Each Elder was asked, when ready, to stand facing the clan with their back to the bonfire, and make a statement to their child and the clan. Each Elder was to have brought with them something that symbolized a part of their youth’s past they hoped would be left behind forever that night, explain it’s significance, and then throw it in the fire to be consumed. The solemnity of the moment was almost measurable as the fire’s light flickered across the parents’ faces. Some Elder’s statements were an expression of the incredible pain they had gone through with their child, and others asked their child to participate and both together throw the symbol into the fire, an expression of hope for a better future. 

At the end of this very emotionally intense ceremony, all gathered in a silent circle, listening to the message expressed in music that matched the hope and relief they were feeling. Then quietly, the students returned to their dorms and the parents returned to their motel rooms. 

The next day was a continuation of the previous day. Breakfast was followed by trust exercises. At one point these evolved to where the entire community supported two parents who were confronting, in measured and heartfelt words, their own child who was desperately hanging onto his angry and negative attitude. The afternoon was devoted to individual family therapy sessions to focus on issues that had either come up during the Workshop or had become apparent during the student’s stay at the program. 

A Bar-B-Que in the early afternoon featuring Mexican food that was catered by one of the local restaurants provided a lighter moment. Then each family gathered separately to process what had happened to them during the two days. Finally, all the students and parents each summarized what they had received from the Workshop during the closing circle. 

Both from the final circle, and from individual comments made to me by several parents, the general feeling was of hope and relief that breakthroughs had been made in family relations, and that the future as a family looked brighter than it had for years. 

All in all, a masterful job was done in community building that weekend. The healing power that can be generated from building a community of students and parents was demonstrated very well. 

This article copyright © 1999-2001, Woodbury Reports, Inc. (This article may be reproduced without prior approval if the copyright notice and proper publication and author attribution accompanies the copy.)

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