Tag Archives: adult allies

Don’t call me an adult ally, I’m a parent. Always was, always will be.

May 3rd, 2015

Mother and teenage sonOne day, 17 years and 364 days after his or her birth, your child goes to bed and wakes up the next morning a legal adult. You have a party (okay, maybe just a cake), give presents and feel a flutter of anxiety in your stomach. For many young people, being 18 doesn’t mean much these days. They can vote, sign a contract and register for the draft. They have already been able to drive a car, see an NR-17 movie or consent to sex for at least a year. They have to wait until age 21 to legally drink, purchase a firearm or adopt a child. But if your son or daughter has mental health needs, when they turn 18 you are relegated to a special category. Now you are an adult ally.

Yes, that’s right. When your child went to bed, still age 17, you were a parent. But when they woke up as a young adult, your status changed to adult ally. Or in some mental health circles, that is what the current thinking is. Adult allies, the definition says, partner with young adults, view them as valuable resources and ensure they can speak up and participate.

However, parents are parents and have a completely unique role in their children’s lives. It’s part of parenting to try to balance how we support, interfere, teach, back away or say we are proud, disappointed or relieved. Sometimes we get it right and sometimes we don’t. But that’s part of it, too – learning, adjusting, making mistakes and doing it better. No one gets a handbook as if your child is an appliance; there’s an art to parenting that simply cannot be captured precisely.

Sometimes it’s your job as a parent to be the “not-ally.” Instead of allying, you disagree with your son or daughter. It’s learning how to do it while respecting their right to make mistakes and being clear that you disagree with their decision or position, but still love them. That’s the trick. Like all skills, this takes practice.

But there is another reason to choose words that describe the parent role carefully. Parents know how they feel when certain terms are used. Some words make us feel respected while others feel derogatory. Some terms take away power while others make us feel powerful. Describing a family as dysfunctional, for instance, robs parents of their strengths. They feel judged, unworthy and unable to change that perception. On the other hand, when a family is described as a “resource” for their child or a “strong” family, they feel empowered and valued. Unfortunately, lumping parents into a category of adult allies shifts us out of a unique role and into one that limits us.

Not long ago, I told a colleague of mine, who has children in elementary school, about this idea that parents become an adult ally. She listened to me in disbelief and said, “I put my heart, soul, time and money into my children in a way that only parents can. If someone told me that I am suddenly not a parent, but an adult ally, I would be pissed.” When she heard this term she felt it lessened her role, not enhanced it.

There were days and weeks while my son was transitioning to young adulthood (we are on the far side of that now) when I would have happily relinquished my role as a parent to become an adult ally. It would have been far less demanding and a much clearer role. But what he needed was a parent, someone who had known him forever and knew his strengths and foibles. I would say things like, “That sounds great. You are a hands-on learner and this would work for you.” I’d also say things like, “That makes me worried. Sounds like you are putting yourself in harm’s way. ” Sometimes he’d agree and other times he would think I was wrong. But we’d talk it through together, because that’s our mother son relationship. Sometimes the conversations were heated or exhausting but they worked for us.

When providers, emergency services and mental health providers ignore parents of young adults, it can send a message. When adult mental health systems exclude family involvement, that message is even stronger. The message I hear when this happens is, We don’t value parents and family involvement. If I am hearing it, my son or daughter probably is as well. Sure, there are privacy concerns and it’s important that young adults learn to take the lead in treatment and life decisions. But they may not want to do that every time. Sometimes we all need a team and parents can be valuable team members.

Other adults in a young person’s life should be encouraged to be an ally. The Free Child Project encourages adults to be “allies to young people when they work with, connect, partner, and unite with young people in personal relationships.” They encourage adults to take on a partnership and support role and offer guidelines to do it well. But parents are not just any old adult. They are the only ones who can do all the things only parents can do. Why would we want to prune their role and stuff it into this thing called adult ally?

There has been a lot of recent attention, research and thinking about young people who are transitioning to adulthood. We understand better that the prefrontal cortex of the brain doesn’t fully mature until the mid-20s. We now understand that transition is a unique time between adolescence and adulthood. And so, the thinking goes, if this is a unique time, then parents should behave in unique ways. But is that true? Should we just be version 2.0 or 15.0 of the parent we’ve always been?

I am not saying it’s easy to figure out your role when your child turns 18. It’s not. But it doesn’t easily fit into a slot either. Sometimes you are an ally and sometimes you’re the one saying, “Wait a minute here. “ Sometimes you are amazed and astounded at what your child knows and sometimes you shake your head and say, “Really, that’s your decision? Okaaaaaay.” We used to call this a generational gap but it’s more like an experience gap. Our experiences change how we look at things. It can make us cautious or cynical. Youth can have a fresh perspective. We sometimes have to remind ourselves how wonderful that is.

There is room at the table for many voices. Those voices change in tone, in volume and in how often they speak. Transition to adulthood is a time when that happens. As parents, we learn to be less the authority and more the coach or mentor. Sometimes we are not either one but simply the observer until we are asked to participate. That’s okay; that’s what all parents have to learn. What’s different for parents of young people with emotional and behavioral challenges is that we have to learn to set our anxiety or need to impact the outcome to one side and have faith our son or daughter will be okay. My father used to say, “You can’t learn to ice skate without falling down.” We need to believe it’s okay for them to fall down and just be there, when needed, after the fall. That’s what parents are for.

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The imminent demise of parent voice, sort of

January 4th, 2015

Talk to the handThe other day I opened my mouth and my mother came out. This happens to most of us as parents whether we expect it or not. There are phrases that you heard over and over again as a child and you find yourself repeating them. Maybe it’s a prediction (Someday, you’ll be glad you had to say “please”), maybe it’s encouragement (You can do anything you put your mind to) or maybe it’s just the way you say “I love you” to your child. What all of them have in common is that in your family, this was parent voice. It’s passed down from generation to generation.

Parent voice became a growing part of children’s mental health services through the persistence and persuasion of parent leaders. It grew from an individual voice to a collective voice asking for a role in our child’s treatment and a seat at the governance table. Progress was slow at times and while some providers and decision-makers embraced family involvement, others said to themselves, Aren’t parents part of the problem?

The amazing thing was that parent voice incorporated what families said was important, not what others thought should be in it. (Note: it’s often called “family voice” to include grandparents, foster parents and others raising children, but it still comes from the same set of experiences.) Parents said that each family is unique and their strengths should be the centerpiece of any care plan. Parents said that they didn’t want others raising their children, even if they were in out-of-home placements. Parents said to respect their culture, their decisions and their expertise. Models such as family-driven care were developed and parents became trainers, evaluators and colleagues.

In many ways, parent voice had its heyday in the early 2000s. There were still too few services and many remained deficit based. But parent voice was recognized in many places as unique and indispensable and more and more attention was paid to it.

Most parent leaders (like me) thought that there was room for parent voice alongside adult consumer voice, youth voice, provider voice and professional perspective. We often tolerated being the token parent representative and advocated for more parents in various roles. We partnered with others who had “lived experience” to promote its value. We advocated, we collaborated and we thought we had claimed solid ground.

Initially, we argued with adult consumers, often in their 40s and 50s, who had worked to retain control of their treatment decisions, take back their strength and gain respect. Some were uneasy with parents, especially when their own parents had made decisions about their care that they felt was harmful. But we talked and found common ground. We explained that children are not little adults and do better when their parents are their advocates, their supporters and often, their voice. Parents have their own unique experiences, too, which often galvanize them into seeking changes in the system that provides services for their children.

Then along came youth voice, which we also promoted. After all, in most families you want your teen or young adult to be a critical thinker, have skills to deal with complicated systems (including behavioral health) and craft a life that has meaning and makes them happy. That’s what parents do, right? My own son used to watch and listen as I talked to his insurer or argued with his school. “I want to be as good an advocate as you are,” he would say. The original metaphor for family driven care was a van, with the parent driving behind the wheel and various professionals, educators and other providers giving directions and expert advice. Eventually, as the child grew, he or she became the student driver, then the sole driver of the car. But the parent was still there, often riding shotgun.

So what has happened to parent voice? Well, sometimes the very things we work for and want to see happen create changes in unexpected ways.

In the introduction to Family Peer to Peer Support Programs in Children’s Mental Health: A Critical Issues Guide, three types of family support are identified. They include the family partner, often seen in wraparound; paraprofessionals, who augment the role of providers; and family peer support which provides support, information and advocacy. The Guide points out that family peer support – which strengthens parent voice – is at a critical crossroads. This remains true today.

In Massachusetts, as in many states, family partner roles have grown exponentially. They are well defined and often incorporated in mental health services. Clinicians are becoming more accustomed to working with family partners (which is excellent). These roles are well defined and family partners coach and assist parents in using their family voice to help determine their child’s care. But there it ends. Here, parent voice is about individual treatment, not advocacy or systems change. Family partners are essential but they are also becoming the way we do business. They are just one perspective among many in their organizations; a note in the melody, sometimes a minor chord. We worked hard to grow the numbers of family partners but their role is not robust enough to carry parent voice into systems advocacy.

Ten years ago, youth voice was a fragile and new sound. There were a handful of youth in the public arena and no one was sure if their experiences were unique or represented hundreds of others. Family voice included parent voice and youth voice and while they weren’t the same, we were all used to that. After all, our own families included both types of voices and we somehow made it work. Organizations like mine fostered youth voice and listened in delight and awe as it grew.

In some discussions about policy and practice, youth voice is now stronger than parent voice. It is still unexpected, often unedited and startling. But there is a subtext at times that when parent and youth voice don’t align, everyone must choose which to hear and honor. It reminds me of those early times with adult consumers when we saw parent and consumer voice having too little common ground. In our families we expect different voices and each is important. The same must be true in public conversations as well.

Parents have also recounted their unique experiences in raising youth transitioning to adulthood. Sheesh, I know this one well. It’s a kind of dance with your son or daughter where you step forward to embrace and support and cha-cha backwards to create space for independence. I recently heard the phrase, “parents as adult allies” where parents were tossed in with other adults in a young adult’s life as supporters and cheerleaders. This worries me. Parents are unique in their son’s or daughter’s life. Their relationship has many layers and textures and nuances that no one else can come close to. We all have a learning period – sometimes a long one – where we find out when to offer advice, when to listen, when to be emotional and when to use your poker face. Sometimes we are allies, sometimes we aren’t. But we are always something no one else can be—parents. Parent voice needs a recognized place during transition to adulthood.

Parent voice has changed. Sometimes it is institutionalized. Sometimes it is muted. Sometimes it is seen as relevant to individual care but not needed for program design, evaluation, policy work or systems reform. Wherever we find it, we should listen. Parents continue to experience the behavioral health system in ways no one else does. Each week I talk to a parent who wants their journey and their story to mean something; to make it a little better for the parents coming after them. When I open my mouth and my mother’s voice comes out, it says “You can be anything you want to be.” Parent voice can change the world too. We need to value it enough so it does.

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