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Posted March 7, 2003 

“Focusing on Families”
Notes from the NATSAP Winter 2003 Conference
Santa Barbara, California

By Loi Eberle, M.A.,
Educational Consultant & Editor-in-Chief,
Woodbury Reports, Inc.,
Bonners Ferry, Idaho

The National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs (NATSAP) held their Winter 2003 Conference, entitled, “Focusing on Families” this January in Santa Barbara, California. In addition to many important informal conversations, and let’s admit it, the beautiful beach and sunshine, there were some thoughts shared in the presentations that also would be of benefit to programs and parents.

Many of the general sessions and breakout sessions at the conference dealt with the importance of working with the entire family, as well as the adolescent who is in a program. It was also acknowledged that there are some patterns of interaction within families that can pose particular challenges for programs. While the various speakers acknowledged the frequency of dysfunction in the families of “program kids”, of course the argument could easily be made that all families have some degree of dysfunctional behavior. In any case, confronting it is instrumental in improving communication between the family and the child in the program. Certainly the adolescent who is attending a program will benefit by their family’s efforts to learn to function more successfully as a family unit.

A keynote speaker, Michael Jenike, M.D., Director of the Psychiatric Neuroscience Program and Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, and one of the world’s foremost experts on Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, provided a powerful analogy of the airplane oxygen mask: you first need to put on the mask yourself, before trying to help others. In order to function successfully, it is important for family members to take care of their own needs so that they have the wherewithal to provide real assistance to their struggling adolescent. This is especially significant because the attitudes that parents have about themselves affect their expectations for their children, which in turn influence their children’s sense of value.

Another speaker, Dr. Claudia Black, internationally recognized for her work with family systems and addictive disorders, and the primary Clinical Consultant for the Meadows Institute and Treatment Center in Wickenburg, A.Z., described the prevalence of addictive behaviors in families whose children were in programs. Since many adolescents are in programs due to substance abuse and addictive behavior, it was interesting that Dr. Black attributed the origin of these behaviors as being due to feelings of emotional abandonment, which a child can experience when parents are emotionally and/or physical unavailable. The parents’ emotional unavailability is usually due to their need to over-achieve, or to escape, and can cause their child to experience inadequacy and shame. The parents’ behavior is often a result of their own conscious or unconscious feelings of inadequacy that have remained with them as a result of their own childhood feelings of abandonment.

If unresolved, parents’ feelings of inadequacy can be projected on to their children, and can cause parents to have unrealistic expectations for their children. They might not even realize that they want their children to achieve unrealistic dreams because it could create a positive reflection on them as parents. However, since the dreams are unrealistic, they are unlikely to be achieved by the child, resulting in the child experiencing failure and shame. These feelings are often coupled with the abandonment the child already feels because the parents are busy over-achieving or escaping from their own pain.

Dr. Black explained how her work has shown that unresolved past pain, in combination with currently felt pain stemming from experiences and beliefs from the past, can cause a cycle of pain responses. This cycle can lead to rage or depression, and a desire to numb pain through substance abuse or become a perfectionist, in an attempt to finally live up to the unrealistic expectations they were held to as children. These feelings often cause parents to develop various forms of addictive behavior and set the same pattern for their children.

Dr. Black described how healing can occur when people recognize that it is distorted boundaries that lead to a sense of shame during childhood. The solution is to recognize that unrealistic responsibilities had been placed on them, given their actual capabilities. They need to release themselves from the guilt that arose from being unsuccessful at achieving impossible dreams. The challenge and the healing, is for them to see that their sense of inadequacy is a result of unrealistic expectations. They need then to make a conscious decision to create new boundaries that separate realistic challenges from the unrealistic expectations from the past. To make this a conscious choice requires awareness and self-regulation, in order to notice when we are buying in to unrealistic expectations and feelings of inadequacy. It also requires awareness and self-regulation as parents, in order to avoid creating unrealistic expectations for their children.

Many of the NATSAP presenters also talked about how issues of control often create conflict when the adolescent’s need for autonomy, a normal part of development, bumps up against the traditional caretaking role of the parents. But in some cases, the parent’s need for control can be more extreme than necessary, and is present due to the parents’ own, often difficult experiences as children. Dr. Black described how some parents have a strong need for control, which they developed as a response to their childhood feelings of being unable to make sense of a chaotic family situation, coupled with their shame at being inadequate. Accompanying this sense of shame are feelings of powerlessness, either from being unable to live up to parent’s unrealistic expectations or being unable to change an abusive situation. Some people compensate for their past by developing a need to control every detail in their present situtation. This control can be external, when they become oppressive, or it can be internal, where people minimize their needs, which can lead to other problems. When parents attempt to over-control, it can cause the adolescent to become angry, which in some ways gives the adolescent a sense of empowerment. Other people respond to their anger by avoiding it, which is at the heart of a lot of addictive parental behavior, according to Dr. Black.

Kimbal DeLaMare, of Island View, spoke about how parents’ control issues can create havoc with schools and programs. For example, traumas experienced during the parents’ childhood can cause them a great deal of anxiety about not wanting their children to experience trauma. This in fact can get in the way of treatment when parents want to protect their child to the point of not wanting any kind of discomfort to be experienced, and mild discomfort actually might be necessary therapeutically for the child in order to stimulate a change of heart and create a desire to rethink a belief system.

Dr. Jenike also discussed control issues during his presentation about Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. He explained how people with OCD have a very distressing set of rituals they feel compelled to enact, in order to rid themselves of anxiety caused by various belief systems. In this case, clearly, it is important for them to gain control over their thoughts and actions. No one approach is always successful, although he described cognitive behavioral therapy as being much more effective than medication alone for this condition. In addition to the importance of working with a skilled behavioral therapist, Dr. Jenike stressed the importance of parents being firm and consistent when they attempt to carry out an extinction game plan for these very troublesome behaviors. In this situation, the parent must learn to not give in to the demands of the child with OCD, while also explaining to the child why they are not succumbing to the child’s obsessive demands. He also emphasized how important it is for parents to learn to take care of their own needs, since working with OCD children can be exhausting.

NATSAP speakers encouraged people working in this field to help parents create the courage and skill to problem solve in the midst of their pain and addictive behaviors. One way families can gain this courage is by learning to love and accept themselves more completely, by understanding and letting go of their feelings of shame and inadequacy, also challenging the negative beliefs their children hold about themselves.

Dr. Julia Lewis, Professor of Psychology and Director of the Psychology Clinic at San Francisco State University and co-principal investigator of the 25-year Children of Divorce Project reinforced the idea of learning how to problem solve even when in pain. She found that a major factor that determined a child’s ability to function after a divorce was having at least one parent who kept the child as a top priority. In this case, the airplane oxygen analogy is once again relevant, in that it is important for the divorcing parent to maintain his or her own situation well enough so that the child still feels they are a high priority in the parent’s life.

Commander Shawn D. Mank, M.S., from New Lifestyles in Winchester, VA discussed issues of young adults, in his lecture on healing the wounded warrior through spirituality. He quoted the ancient proverb: “The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right name.” In a sense, this proverb pertains to the idea of not succumbing to feeling shame because of an inability to achieve unrealistic expectations, but rather, to recognize the situation for what it is: unrealistic. Through a willingness to confront, rather than avoid the belief systems that have caused the pain and need to control, it can be possible to create a new sense of self. He described the metaphor of the Wizard of Oz, in which the Tinman, the Lion, the Scarecrow and Dorothy all finally learned they had what they sought all the time; they just needed to realize it for themselves.

Helping adolescents to realizing their value and their ability can motivate them, in Monk’s words, “to fill the existential vacuum” of meaningless they so often feel. It can cause them to become motivated to give back. Then their questions then become, “who am I, and what am I supposed to do,” which helps them to shift away from their experience of woundedness and shame.

The themes that emerged from the NATSAP Conference discussed the importance of recognizing how our past has influenced the way we view our selves and the way we behave towards our children. This knowledge can be used to create much needed healing in our families, which can ultimately result in our children experiencing their value and developing a desire to explore their life’s purpose.

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