(Estimated reading time: 10 minutes)
Where has the time gone? This is what some parents may be pondering as the child whose bottom they once wiped is now muttering goodbye as they race out the door to meet with friends – maybe even driving off in the family car with their newfound independence.
Parenting an adolescent or teen is not for the faint of heart. The moments of closeness you had with your little one when they were a baby or toddler are replaced with kids who are seeking autonomy from the family unit and prioritizing friends and peers. But just like the early years, there are major changes happening in the child’s brain and body during adolescence. And this time, it feels like there are a lot more books to read about developmental milestones and far fewer answers on how to support this child as they struggle with friends, anxiety, school, and go through puberty and developmental leaps.
The Need is Real
For years, PEPS has heard from families that they wish there was a program like PEPS for when their kids hit adolescence. Parents often report feeling increasingly isolated and overwhelmed by the challenges of parenting youth at this age. This feedback is backed by research on parent-adolescent relationships. There is an abundant and critical need to support youth – and the parents of those youth – during this time of major brain changes and development.
Over the past two years, PEPS has been listening, learning, and leaning into the opportunity to support parents, this time through a new and sometimes nerve-wracking parenting stage. With generous grants from King County Best Starts for Kids and the Jolene McCaw Foundation, PEPS has developed a program for parents of adolescents and teens (PAT) to support parents in this critical parenting stage.
Some parents have compared parenting an adolescent to toddlerhood all over again, except this time they’re considerably taller and can verbalize their opinions. Listening to parents in the community, it is clear that parents raising adolescents need support, especially in the midst of a global pandemic that has caused upheaval and strained adolescent mental health. As shared by US Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, “The future wellbeing of our country depends on how we support and invest in the next generation,” and there is an urgent need to address this nation’s youth mental health crisis.
Stronger with Support
In January 2020, PEPS initiated a landscape analysis to determine if there was a gap in support services for parents and caregivers of adolescents. One goal was to explore what kind of program would bolster support and combat isolation for parents and caregivers. Methods for gathering input included focus groups, interviews, and surveys of youth, parents, and professionals who serve families and youth. The landscape analysis showed overwhelming support for groups for parents of adolescents and teens. While many parents expressed having access to educational materials, lectures, and school-based information, the majority did not feel they were able to process information in a way that helped them feel supported by others who were experiencing similar challenges, or in a way that was applicable to their parenting and relationship with their child.
In January of 2021, PEPS hired Sarah Crystal to lead the development of this new program. Sarah is a child clinical psychologist who has spent the last decade working with children, adolescents, and parents. She has practiced in outpatient, inpatient, and residential treatment facilities, providing diagnostic evaluations, individual and group therapy, and parent coaching. As the PAT Program Manager, Sarah pulled together the research, data, and analysis to build a program with the goal of strengthening family relationships, reducing parental isolation, and improving the mental well-being and relationships between youth and parents.
In this newly designed and highly tailored program, families initially participated in an online pilot series consisting of 90-minute sessions for six consecutive weeks. Some parents showed up with their caregiving partners, some showed up solo. Some groups met during the daytime and others in the evening. Some spoke freely as their kids were out while others whispered quietly into their microphones so their adolescents wouldn’t overhear them chiming into the conversation. “Delivering this content in small, intimate groups where people can talk and learn from each other…seems to be a really effective way to have an impact on families with adolescents,” shares Kari O’Driscoll, one of the pioneering facilitators of the pilot program.
Families living in Puget Sound logged onto Zoom to meet with other parents raising adolescents in neighborhoods outside of their own. The ability to connect families from all over the region was one of the positive unifying outcomes of online connection, even if there were sometimes challenges in deciphering whose turn it was to speak. Participants shared that gathering in community with others was instrumental to their own well-being, and they felt heard, seen, and supported. When asked what the most valuable aspect of participating in this program has been, one virtual PAT pilot program participant shared, “Hearing others’ experiences and what they’re going through…knowing you’re not alone in dealing with these things.” No longer were there physical barriers such as a commute across the city after a long day at work or waiting for a group to become available in their neighborhood. If anything, parents in the pilot programs were eager to find folks who lived further away to avoid meeting families who might share the same school or social circle as their child.
Each meeting focused on a weekly discussion topic. The curriculum was developed for more than 14 brand-new topics, using resources from other evidence-based programs, along with guidance from professionals in family therapy and adolescent mental health. Together, parents and caregivers took part in conversations and gave feedback on foundational topics ranging from adolescent brain development to diving deep into adolescent mental health, identity development, and ways to effectively communicate with adolescents.
The remainder of each meeting focused on engaging in lively group discussions – starting with group agreements, sharing highs and lows, time for asking questions, and sharing resources. It was a time to air frustrations, reflect on the week’s events with their child, and share laughter (and occasionally, tears!).
Kari, one of the PAT Group Leaders, shared an impactful moment she remembered from one of her groups: “About halfway through the series, one parent opened up and shared something unique to her child that was impacting their health and well-being, and immediately one of the other parents who was raising a child with similar challenges reached out and offered her insight and support if it was welcome. The two of them agreed to connect online and the relief that the first parent expressed was immense.”
A Great Leader Can Make a Difference
Each week’s engaging conversations were facilitated by a Group Leader with a background in adolescent development and psychology, trained in inclusive group facilitation. Each of the Leaders joined this program with applied experience working directly with parents raising an adolescent or with adolescents themselves. With this professional background, Leaders lend a deeper understanding of the brain and social development in adolescence and are acutely attuned to many of the resources available to families.
One attribute all PAT Group Leaders share is a deep passion for supporting families in this parenting stage. For example, Kari is an author and founder of programs for youth who has been waiting years to be a part of a program like PAT: “(T)his program has been my dream child for years. As someone who was a PEPS Leader before, and whose passion is adolescents, it felt like a perfect fit for me to work toward realizing a goal of supporting parents of adolescents.” Other Leaders are clinical psychologists, therapists and licensed clinical social workers dedicated to the development of youth and support of families.
Knowing group facilitation would look different for this program, PEPS has found ways to further support Group Leaders. PEPS modified and tailored the Group Leader facilitation training to support the content of this new program. Advanced facilitation training is offered, supporting Leaders in facilitating conversations on race and cultural identities. Additionally, facilitators gather in weekly online sessions to connect with each other and the PAT Program Manager, talk through challenges, and share resources and ideas with one another.
The PAT Program is Here to Stay
Throughout this program development process, PEPS has been continuously gathering feedback from participants and facilitators. The observations and information shared by those leading and participating in the program have been essential to its development and growth. In an effort to keep the program robust and the discussions engaging and supportive, PEPS continuously evaluates and adapts the curriculum and program to make adjustments and improvements.
Interested in participating in the PAT Program? Learn more and register today!
After the first pilot series, participants shared that one-hour meetings for six weeks felt insufficient. There was simply too much to talk about, and with each passing week, more questions arose. In response to this feedback, participants now meet for two hours each week, and the length of the program was extended to nine weeks including an opportunity to gather without the facilitator to simply connect and get to know one another. Additionally, participants are paired with another parent in the group based on their intersecting identities and interests and encouraged to connect one on one. Three additional topics were added to the curriculum to further reflect relevant topics and a Flexible Pricing program fee structure is in place.
Parents joined the pilot in search of information support and took home so much more than they’d anticipated. Participants most commonly shared that they hoped to learn how to support their child, gain better tools to relate to them, and build a strong relationship. One parent shared, “I’ll be grateful for anything that helps me feel even a little bit more supported or more capable.” Another parent wrote, “I just want to learn, learn, learn!”
Participants were surveyed upon finishing the program and reported their highest gains in areas of adolescent development support. Parents overwhelmingly indicated that after participating in the PAT Program pilot, they gained their biggest increase in confidence and ability to understand the different developmental tasks that occur in adolescence and how they can support their adolescent’s individual development across a variety of areas. Other areas where caregivers saw large increases in knowledge were parenting support, learning tips for engaging with and spending quality time with their youth, and strategies for responding to their child’s psychological and emotional needs. Pilot participants appreciated the program and felt it met an unmet community need, rating the program at an average satisfaction score of 9 on a scale of 1-10.
Over the course of 12 months, more than 125 families participated in more than 30 virtual PAT Groups through PEPS. PEPS has also built partnerships to co-create and adapt the program. Three groups were piloted in Spanish in partnership with Sistema Escolar and two groups were piloted with Mercer Island Healthy Youth Initiative and City of Mercer Island Youth and Family Services. As of 2022, the PAT Program is officially part of PEPS program offerings with several groups starting each month, providing a space to support the growing needs of both parents and youth during this transitional time in their family’s life. And if you’re like a few of the families who’ve participated so far, you may find yourself coming back for more than just one group!
Interested in participating in the PAT Program? Learn more and register today!