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Opinion & Essays - September, 2001 Issue #85 

Parent/Child Communication in a Special Needs Program
By Kristie Vollar
Referral Assistant/Links Manager
Woodbury Reports, Inc.

Parents have expressed concern about how to actively participate in their child’s life and treatment plans once they have placed their child in an emotional growth residential program or therapeutic boarding school.

Upon enrolling their child, the parents must learn to follow the rules of a school or program, just as the students do. Although it was the child who had the inappropriate behaviors, in order for a program to be effective, the parents must also be active participants in the strategies that the program is using to help their child. Programs recognize the importance of involving the entire family system, when possible, in order to improve the communications between the parent and child. As a result, parents see that they probably have issues that they need to work on while the child is working on his or hers.

How do parents interact with their child in order to better understand each others’ needs once the child has been placed out of the home and the parents are no longer in direct control? All of the schools and programs that we work with have certain expectations from the parents when a child is considered for placement. For example, some schools require parents to spend a certain amount of time on campus, visiting with their child to work on issues. Some schools require the parents to seek individual therapy while their child is in the program. Many require home visits after some time has passed, as a tool to determine progress and issues that still need work. All of the schools/programs expect letter writing and conference calls or weekly/bi-weekly calls for the parents to stay connected with their child, as well as to be kept “in the loop.” The rules that parents should follow vary with each different school or program, and I will describe my opinion on a couple of them.

Parent Letters
Parent’s letters to the student should follow the guidelines of the school or program. Generally, the program will give the parents an assignment to write a letter dealing with issues that are appropriate to be addressed at that stage of the child’s treatment plan. The staff members see the child almost every day and can identify when the child is ready to work on new issues that arise. They will mediate and at the appropriate time, will present the child with letters that discuss the issues and feelings that the child is ready to work on. This mediation is to protect the child from emotions they aren’t ready to deal with. But at the same time, parents are able to get their feelings and issues on paper and out of their heads (to help keep them from going insane!). Friendly letters are good in the beginning; the child probably won’t want to hear why they are there or that they need to be there, even though they may ask. They must first discover on their own, why they are there. They don’t need to hear updates about what their friends are doing or how much the parent misses them; sometimes this can communicate vulnerability on behalf of the parents, which the child can use to their own advantage in order to manipulate their way back home.

Phone calls
During a call, the parent should remind the child how much they still love them, but should also be firm, especially in the beginning when the child tries to get out of the program by playing on the parents’ guilt or by promising to change. Calls are similar to letters to the student in that there are usually guidelines when there is a conference call between the student, parent, and staff members. The staff will mediate the call to keep it from getting out of hand.

Student Letters
In the beginning, the student will probably write to tell the parents how miserable they are and how much they hate their program, or how much they’ve changed (instantly). One thing to remember is the number of years that it took to learn the behaviors that caused the placement in a program. It won’t be “fixed” over night. It takes time to heal and develop new behaviors and new ways to deal with difficult problems; children especially need time to mature and learn new tools. The parent is justified in voicing concerns based on what their child says about the program and to research it thoroughly, but it is also important to remember how much the child lied and/or cheated before the program, or how manipulative the child had been.

The parent doesn’t need to feel guilty that the child’s life has been uprooted by the placement. I don’t know any child in any of the programs I attended who was “happy to be there” upon first arrival. In fact, the first thing I said to Penny Riddell of Explorations when I met her was “I am not happy to be here!” Her response, “I didn’t ask you if you were happy to be here, I asked you how you were.”

Parent visits
 I read on the discussion board on www.Strugglingteens.com, that one set of parents had been visiting their child, taking him out to dinner, movies, shopping… rescuing him from looking at why he was there. When they stopped taking him out and around, he rebelled, not wanting to talk to them, not wanting to do things with them because he wasn’t getting his way anymore. What is my advice for this? Don’t do it in the beginning. Sure the parent may feel that they don’t see their child very much anymore, but why is the child there? To work on some issues and behaviors, and the important thing when parents visit is to work on these with the child and the staff in the program, rather than going off campus where the child can avoid the issues or become manipulative. Once the child has been in the program for a while, and has worked through some of the problem behaviors and issues, it may be appropriate to practice going out with the parents.

The important thing that parents need to remember is that once their child is enrolled, their child will be making changes; therefore, their home environment must change also. The parents are responsible for this in that they are the adults and control what happens at home. The child will also be working on issues that arise while in the program that may or may not directly involve the parents. I’m not saying that the parents are to “blame” for the family problems, but the parents are a contributing factor. The parents, being the adults in the family, need to take responsibility that somewhere along the line, the child missed some important life lessons, and parents need to work to improve the home life while their child is in the program. Parents need to remember to be receptive to new ideas and strategies as well as being open to experiencing the feelings that arise.

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