The first week of December 2008, up to 30 educational consultants and therapists from throughout the country were invited to Asheville, NC. The center of the activity was a demonstration of the regular Parent Workshop given to parents at the Wolf Creek Lodge of SUWS of the Carolinas. Although this demonstration was unique to SUWS of the Carolinas, all the other programs in the Aspen outdoor division have their own similar family program. The rest of the week was filled out through visits to Four Circles, Stone Mountain, SUWS of the Carolinas and Phoenix Outdoors, all Aspen programs and all an easy driving distance from Ashville.
The workshop was conducted by Brooke Judkins, PhD, a Family Therapist for SUWS of the Carolinas, to demonstrate the approach Aspen uses to help its parents learn to better their relationships with their child. The Workshop usually takes two days to give the parents plenty of time to process and internalize the perspectives shared. For us, it was abbreviated into a couple of hours, which meant we talked more about the major steps taken rather than experiencing it like the parents do.
The first step, vital to the success of any group process, is developing a sense of safety among all participants. The parents would be reassured that although they would need to get out of their zone of comfort to obtain full value from the workshop, they would not be required to do anything that might create a sense of panic. All participants are helped to find their own personal challenge level throughout the workshop. In this demonstration this was just mentioned for us, but for a full fledged workshop with parents participating, this step would take a fair amount of time. Continuing on to the next step would not begin until everyone felt safe and comfortable with what was going on.
Once a group has come together to where all were feeling comfortable with being there, each participant would be asked to fill out some short questionnaires designed to measure their parenting styles. In these questionnaires, there are no right or wrong answers. It was just an attempt to help the parents gain insight into the assumptions and habits of their own personal parenting styles.
Once this exercise was completed, the parents would be given a scoring sheet to be used as a guide to learning what parenting style they favored. The styles were broken down into three major styles consisting of Authoritarian (Do What I Say!); Permissive (Do Whatever You Want); and Authoritative (Consistency, Limits, Respond rather than react, and within those limits, allow their child to own their feelings and experience consequences). Obviously the Authoritative style is considered the healthiest, but the implications of each would be discussed and shared within the group.
Armed with this information, the parents would then be asked to create what is called a Genogram, a multi-generational map of the key people in a family primarily showing characteristics and the quality of relationships between members. Once completed, parents could study this map of their family and more easily see how family patterns run through the family--sometimes over generations.
This exercise is designed to prepare the parents to consider their own personal skills in relating to their children and other family members. The first skill covered related to how we think, which dictates what we feel, experience and communicate. A major emphasis here would be how anger can be managed to reduce negative impacts on others. A harmful communication is done when we feel anger and then blame (this bad thing to me was done on purpose), or catastrophize (this couldn't be worse), over generalize (concluding the person does this "always," "never," etc.) or label (a negative judgment of the person). Instead of these habits of thinking, an alternative approach would be presented suggesting the parents could use coping thoughts such as: There might be a reasonable explanation; This isn't the end of the world; or She/he sometimes does it right, all with or focus on the behavior rather than the person.
The next skill to be explored would be the type of messages parents give to their children. The most harmful is the You-message which generally provokes resistance and rebellion because they usually come across as blaming, accusatory, critical or judgmental. They would next present how I-messages could deal with the behavior with the likelihood that it would much less likely to be seen as an attack. An I-message responds to the behavior instead of the person and is more likely to result in a rational discussion rather than a highly emotional and defensive argument.
The third skill presented would be active listening. Learning this skill reduces a parent's response from being seen as an attack, thus with less chance of a negative reaction. It also promotes a shared sense of problem solving between the parent and child and airs the problem, avoiding a common parental tendency to just "stuff" their anger.
The summary of the workshop would be for all the parents to write a letter to their child, sharing "how you came to be the parent that you are, with your own parenting style, beliefs and ways of interacting." The letter was also to include any new parenting goals for the future.
Even though our session with professionals was an abbreviated one, it obviously contained the very basic elements the parents needed to absorb in order to support the changes their child was undergoing at the program.