In a small room in Greenwich, south east London, seven people are learning how to be good parents. They are doing an “ice breaker” exercise, designed to remove social barriers. They have divided into groups and have been asked by the facilitator Anne Williams to guess from their appearance what newspaper they think the other person reads, what radio station they listen to, and where they buy their clothes. Laughter soon fills the room. Nervousness starts to disappear.
The idea, says Williams, who runs the Parent Support Group, is to examine how we can make unwarranted assumptions about other people and how they make assumptions about us – for example as the parents of children showing antisocial or criminal behaviour.
Tonight’s participants have all attended voluntarily – none is the subject of a parenting order imposed by a court. The group contains a couple of married mothers, three single-parent mothers and two stepdads. Over the coming weeks they will watch videos and carry out exercises in trust-building, effective communication and how to manage anger. Group members will get closer to each other and make friends. By the end, some will be transformed. And, if all goes well, changes in their behaviour will be reflected in changes in the behaviour of their children.
The group helped me. In January 2005, my daughter Karina came to live with me full-time. She had been brought up by her mum for 15 years while I had been a weekend dad, but their relationship had broken down. I now became the bewildered single parent of an adolescent who seemed to have gone wild. Karina had just been permanently excluded from school. She was angry and abusive. Most nights she refused to stay in. She was drinking more than a teenager should and this often led to confrontations with the police and to her being arrested.
She was soon put on curfew (not that she obeyed it) and on “tag”. I felt confused, embarrassed, powerless, inadequate as a parent and afraid. At this stage, I was at the end of my tether – possibly on the verge of a breakdown. That’s when the Parents Support Group, which I attended voluntarily from April 2005, offered me a life-line.
Sharing experiences with other parents showed me that I was not alone. I looked forward to the parenting classes and also to my weekly one-to-one advice sessions. They were immensely helpful. The Parent Support Group gave me exactly what I needed – mutual support, analysis of what had gone wrong and practical, well thought-out techniques to improve my parenting. Karina did not transform overnight, but my calmer, more “adult” behaviour helped her to change.
Little by little, she got into less trouble. We talked instead of shouting at each other. She started to cook for me. We are a happy family now and there has been an addition – I have recently become the grandfather of a beautiful baby boy, AJ. In my opinion, the service offered by the Parent Support Group was fantastic. I believe that such groups should be made available routinely to all parents of young people who are in trouble.
Another enthusiastic advocate for the group is Ellen*, now on her fifth course of classes. Ellen is a single parent of two children, a girl aged 18 and a son aged 15. Her daughter had been suffering from depression and panic attacks, seriously disrupting her education. Ellen explains: “About three years ago, I was on a course with my work. I had a phone call. I was told that my daughter had hit her brother in an argument and that she had been stealing. The day before I came home, I was told that she was pregnant. When I got home, she ran away. I found bottles of drink in her bedroom and a pregnancy testing kit.”
Ellen’s daughter later had spells in foster care, she suffered from severe mood swings as a result of losing her baby, and was put on anti-depressants that caused her to have blackouts. Ellen says that her attendance at the classes and her one-to-one counselling have been enormously helpful. They have allowed her to understand the dynamics of her family, in a non-judgemental environment, and have helped her relationship with her daughter to heal.
She says: “This year I have been talking to my daughter a lot more and she said ‘no one asked me how I felt. No-one believed I had a miscarriage’. She told me that she goes in shops and looks at clothes for the age that the baby would be. She has actually named it, so she hasn’t got over it.”
She adds: “We do have our ups and downs in our relationship, because we are together 24/7. But it’s a lot better than it was two or three years ago.”
Maggie*, another group member, is attending with her partner. She has two daughters, aged seven and 12. The event that caused her to seek help happened last year. She says: “Last August we went away on holiday. My older daughter who had just turned 12, got involved with a young lad. He was 16 and worked at a diving school. She became infatuated with him. One night we left him and my daughter alone but I trusted this boy. He seemed quite grounded and sensible. The following morning my daughter told me that she had had sex with him.”
Pregnancy was a concern. Because of her daughter’s age, who did not in the event become pregnant, social services became involved. The event had other important ramifications. Maggie says: “It was a slap in the face, because I realised that there were trust issues. My daughter tended not to talk to me about stuff that was bothering her, until she exploded. I asked for help because I felt that I was out of my depth. I didn’t feel that I was in control of the situation.”
She says that she has learned from the classes to listen more. “I have found that I am a lot calmer. I am more reserved and not so quick to jump in and shout my mouth off. It’s hard to do because that’s how you were brought up, with people jumping on you continuously. So it’s like re-learning. But I know that it’s much better to react in a positive way rather than jumping on negatives.
“A group like this is a safe haven, a place where you can air your concerns and feel supported and not alone. This has been a real lifeline because I had been feeling like I was the worst possible parent. How could I have been stupid enough to allow this to happen?”
Maggie’s final comment eloquently sums up the value of the group. She says: “You only learn how to parent from your own experience. Considering that you are responsible for molding this person who will eventually go out into the world and hopefully make a worthwhile contribution, it’s a huge responsibility. It is something that I take seriously. That was my motivation for coming here. The group is definitely helping me to achieve my goal.”
* Names have been changed
Anne Williams Parent Support Group, South London
Even parents ordered to us by the courts are satisfied
In 1993, Anne Williams, with a friend, started the Parent Support Group in Catford, south London. Today, the group employs two full-time workers and up to 20 support workers. It has service level agreements with Lewisham’s drug strategy team and youth offending team, the local primary care trust and education authority.
As well as classes in parenting skills, the group offers free, one-to-one advice sessions and drop-ins. Classes can contain up to 12 people and last from six to 12 weeks. Williams says family problems are often exacerbated by separation, a new partner or financial or housing difficulties.
Common themes are alcohol and drug use in older children and school exclusion. Parents, she says, almost always feel bewildered and isolated. She explains: “The hurt that parents present will vary from absolute anger and fury to total despondency and all points in between. When a young person is presenting very challenging behaviour, it is a very stressful time for the parent. You just feel for them, because it must be horrible. It may be their first experience of going to court and they went with their child, which is something they never expected to happen.”
Parenting orders, requiring attendance at parenting skills classes, were introduced by the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. Williams helped to pilot them in Lewisham. “When I was first approached, I felt very uncomfortable because parents had been ordered to take part. It felt like we were saying: ‘you’re a bad parent. You will now be told what to do’.”
However, she says that even parents who have been ordered by the courts to attend her groups report high satisfaction levels. “The only difference is that in a statutory group I will dedicate far more time at the beginning to addressing how people feel about being in the group. I will encourage the angst.”
➔The Parent Support Group can be contacted on 020 8469 0205.
This article appeared in the 5 July issue under the headline “Family dynamics back on track”