“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” -Benjamin Franklin
I often tell parents to imagine their family as if it were a beautiful car -their dream car, the one that they’ve always wanted. In the beginning, they were totally in love.
It looked beautiful and ran great. Over the years they washed it, waxed it and were able to maintain the outside appearance perfectly. Over time it began running a little rough, so you did what you knew to do: put gas in it, change the oil, add coolant when needed…but it continued to run rougher and rougher. Then one day, you notice that you have a flat tire.
A-hah! There’s our problem.
So once the tire is in the right shop, you are hopeful that it will come back fixed and your beautiful car will once again run smoothly and be back to what you remembered and cherished. So the tire comes back full of new air and hope, but the car continues to run rough because no one checked the transmission, no one looked at the belts or the battery or the engine.
That’s what it’s like when one family member is sent to treatment or therapy while the rest of the family is unaware that they too have much to learn and change. The person getting help will receive tools during their treatment process to help them feel better and learn ways to communicate effectively, however when they are placed back into an unchanged environment, eventually all of their new skills will fade and old patterns and coping mechanisms will return.
When a child enters into treatment parents will usually fall into one of these two thought patterns:
1) It is all my child’s issue. I’ve been a good parent; they just need to get their act together.
2) I’ve failed them as a parent. I haven’t given them enough, or I’ve given them too much.
Why is it so important for the parents to be actively involved in the treatment process?
Because it has been proven time and time again that the more involved the entire family is, the greater the chance of a successful outcome.
Whichever category you fall into or swing back and forth in, the important thing to remind yourself is that the old patterns that shape the functionality and communication within your family is not working and will need to change. So while your child is learning new tools, new coping skills, and new ways to communicate in treatment -you too can be learning new tools, new coping skills and new ways to communicate with your child and others in your life. I hear parents say “but I have other kids and I don’t have these problems with them” – I believe you! I’ve seen it time and time again. As a parent of five children, I know how difficult it is to adapt to each child. Our parenting methods seemed to work perfectly fine with four of our children but it did not work with the fifth. It was not until we finally listened to the experts in her treatment center and started going to our own support groups, talking to other parents, reading and learning all we could about our patterns and behavior, that our child began to improve and our relationship became stronger than ever.
Let’s face it -parenting can be hard. The shame that comes with a child who is struggling is incredibly difficult. Denying the problem, keeping secrets and not wanting others to know is common. Discontinuing a social life, arguing and blaming other family members become some of the symptoms in a family in crisis. I know if your child is in treatment you are probably tired, frustrated, sad, confused, and maybe even a little hopeless. It is normal to feel like you’ve done everything you can to help our child. You might have talked to school administrators, sent them to individual therapy, read self- help books, listened to other well intentioned family members or friends. Your child may threaten that if you send them to treatment that they will not participate and it will be a waste of your money. They may tell you how bad the counselors or other kids in their program are to try and convince you to let them leave. They might go willingly, but refuse to tell you anything about what they are learning in treatment or how they are feeling during the process, which can leave you feeling in the dark and walking on eggshells.
Even after treatment is started there are days, weeks and even months where it looks like it will never get better and it can leave you wondering if you are capable of helping your child during this struggle.
You are already the perfect person to go through this journey with your child.
They are going through all the same ups and downs right along with you and now all of you have an opportunity to make a significant change together as a family. Our kids are not “the problem”, they are simply the catalyst to helping a family system find better ways to work well together. Family therapy can be especially helpful in this regard as a safe space for your family to expose and discuss difficult topics while learning new ways to listen and speak to each other. Our clients consistently tell us they love to see their parents (and siblings) willing to do some hard work on themselves too.
How can parents most effectively participate in and be partners in this therapy process? First and foremost, listen to the staff. Believe they are seeing your child and working with the entire treatment team to meet the needs of your child and your family. Let the team know if you hear or see behavior changes, good and bad. Attend ALL of the offered groups; therapy, support, education, etc. Read any literature that is suggested from the staff. Remember these words by John Wooden: “If you don’t have time now to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?” Your family is being offered an opportunity to take the love and concern you all have for each other and foster it into a healthy family unit with all of the love, joy and connection you deserve. In the book- Not by Chance by Tim R. Thayne-Ph.D., he concludes the book by saying “If you need to borrow my faith in your abilities for a time, by all means do it. It’s what I’m here for. I have no doubt you will emerge from this journey down your life’s river more experienced, wise and appreciative of what your family gained,” I completely agree. I know my family for all of the trials and tribulations we went through with my daughter, we’ve become a stronger, more open, and honest and close family. Because we were all willing to look at ourselves and stop focusing on her, we have each gained insight into our weaknesses as well as our strengths. And being willing to do things differently we continue to grow stronger and better today, individually and as a family. Our perfect car is a bus… It’s big and open; it can carry us as well as welcome others. We make sure we keep it in good running order by checking all of the working parts, by making sure everyone is given a voice and listened to no one falls through the cracks. I have been amazed at both my own resilience and the resilience of other parents who have been willing to be a partner in the process of their child’s treatment. Knowing and accepting it is a process, one in which you must be involved, I promise you can have a smoother drive into the rest of your lives.