All Kinds of News for June 07, 2017
About eight months ago, I was looking for a way to work with families that would engage the parents, not the adolescent, as my primary clients. I have worked in wilderness and therapeutic programs for many years, and in those roles have always involved the parents in the therapeutic process, but the child was primary because she was the one who was always sitting in front of me. Of course, any of those jobs, done well, includes deeper work with the parents if they are willing to partake in a meaningful, self-reflective level of work.
As a synchronous, pivotal event for me, and I believe for the school, Headmaster John Grago and I had a conversation in which we realized simultaneously that this was what Greenbrier was looking for as well, and the role of Family Specialist/Parent Coach was born. As a result of that meeting, we have enriched our family services and continue to build on the school’s strong foundation. Here are the pieces that we have added to the GBA’s parent services.
First, all parents receive a welcome call from me within a few days of their daughter’s arrival on campus. I do a quick introduction and set up a phone call to begin our work together, including my educational and work history, how the school decided to engage parents in their own growth processes, my role at GBA, my role and how it differs from that of their daughter’s primary therapist, as well as some housekeeping details. From there, I arrange a recurring phone or video call with those parents every other week.
During these calls, I endeavor to understand the family dynamic, how willing the parents are to work on themselves, and at what level they may need my support. This can change over time, but I have found the general trajectory to be as follows: at the beginning, they may need help navigating the first few therapy phone calls and understanding what is “normal” in regards to their daughter’s adjustment. Most parents hope for a happy pronouncement of “I love it here!” and some girls do feel that way right away. However, more often than not, their daughters are struggling with the adjustment and might use early therapeutic phone calls to demonstrate their unhappiness to their parents. As long as parents know this up front, and have a sense that this is normal, they can handle these calls in a more balanced, informed way. The infusion of a few tools seems to go a long way to calming them down. And when the parents are calm and firm, the student typically settles in and then maybe someday becomes accepting and even appreciative of the experience. During this period, it is vital that I demonstrate confidence to parents so that they can trust my experience and will work with me at a deeper level later.
Soon after the initial adjustment, we may settle into a process of exploration about the family history and dynamics… essentially, what went “wrong?” What hurts? What’s pushing your buttons? What is it about your beliefs/history/values/vulnerabilities that is getting triggered? This might involve looking at the parents’ childhoods to determine the seeds of their own struggles. Perhaps not… but there are always dynamics in a family and if parents are willing to look at it from multiple levels and perspectives, there is inevitably something to learn.
Parents may need education about adolescent brain development, individuation, attachment and adoption dynamics, manipulation, boundaries, enmeshment, relapse, and so on. Some of this happens on our regular calls, but some of it happens during monthly topical videoconferences. Historically, small groups of Greenbrier parents whose daughters were at roughly the same stage of the process attended the Parent Programs together, where parents became support systems for each other. Our monthly videoconferences give these parents an opportunity to connect with their cohort’s other families, but also to meet families at different stages of the progress. Parents whose students are doing very well and getting ready to graduate often support parents who are new to the process and anxious or uncertain.
As the student progresses, we may work on issues of boundary pushing or relapse that come up, both their daughters’ and the parents'. We talk about letting go of who they thought their daughters were, or who they wanted them to be, and getting to know who they truly are. Parents learn that the goal is not to change who their daughters are, but to support them in becoming more functional, more loving, happier versions of themselves and being true to what they discover. As their daughter nears transition, we will talk about how to support them coming home or to traditional boarding schools, including setting boundaries, allowing them appropriate freedoms, and building a support system at home. I teach them about “normal arguing,” and that the goal is not necessarily smoothness; the goal is a commitment to getting through each challenge without anyone getting hurt.
Several families whose daughters have graduated from Greenbrier Academy still utilize my support for various situations that might come up. Together, we have handled responding differently to students pushing boundaries, how to hold the line, and how to support their daughter in becoming her own person while maintaining the structure they have set up.
The newest feature of the parent support program, launching this week, is a weekly drop-in videoconference support group for parents who may be struggling as well as for others who are on solid ground and wish to mentor newer parents. Some recently transitioned parents who can shed some light on the process of the student’s return home will be in attendance.
Of course, parents may need more or less, or different support at various stages of the process while their daughters are enrolled. We are free to flex up and down as needed. Parents who are willing to engage at a more vulnerable level (not just at a behavioral level) are more likely to have the tools to respond to their daughter’s ups and downs in a more balanced way.
A former colleague once described the process of therapy in this way: “therapy involves working through and healing the wounds we carry with us one by one, and dismissing those people that have been living ‘rent-free’ in our heads, hindering our freedom and peace. Eventually, the client’s job is to dismiss the therapist.” Parents can keep speaking with me for as long as they wish after their daughter’s transition… and I often tell them, “I am yours until you fire me!” Most parents want to keep talking for a while, and after a few weeks or a few months, they seem to develop some comfort in their own skills of navigating the challenges, and then they move on into a new rhythm of “normal” in their family's life.
Together with the Clinical Director Mike Beswick, our Aftercare Therapist Ron Schwenkler, and the day-to-day work of clinical, residential, and teaching staff, the addition of these services provide a full spectrum of work with families. I am proud and grateful to be a part of such a supportive, caring, passionate team of people. Especially, I am gratified to work with the many families who are willing to be open to their own processes of growth. - Greta Lutman, LPC (NC, GA), LCAS (NC), Family Therapy Specialist
About Greenbrier Academy
Greenbrier Academy for Girls is a college preparatory, therapeutic boarding school for grades 8-12, located in the mountains of West Virginia. The mission of Greenbrier Academy is to mentor and empower adolescent girls and their families to create quality, healing intrapersonal and interpersonal relationships through inspired critical thinking, advanced therapeutics, college prep academics, and stimulating adventures.