By Callie Langford
“I could use a little extra support, I’m having a hard time with my 3 year old.”
It was impressive when Abigail Sharp, Senior Director of Child Abuse Prevention at SAFE, shared that they receive a lot of self-referrals to their Strong Start prevention program. It takes a lot of courage to admit you need help with parenting, or that you’re concerned about becoming frustrated and potentially harming your child. Last year during April’s National Child Abuse Prevention Month we talked about breaking the stigma and opening up the conversation on how challenging parenting can be. This April, we spoke with Sharp and with Coni Stogner, Vice President at SAFE, about the prevention tools they’re using to support families.
“We have parent educators that do in-home work with parents, basically educating them on parenting skills and coping with stress. We offer group classes in the community and in schools. Our parent educators focus on building skills and helping parents strengthen the bond between them and their children,” says Stogner. Their parent educators are trained in the Triple P technique (Positive Parenting Programs), and Nurturing Parenting, which is a trauma-informed approach to parenting skills.
Almost all the skills they teach are based in coping with the daily stressors and frustrations that can come with parenting. “Parenting is hard. I have 3!” says Stogner. “Absolutely it’s stressful! So how do you manage that? How do you know it’s coming? What do you do? How do you reach out for help? There’s no shame in that. I think every parent experiences times when they just can’t take it anymore, so how to do you plan ahead for times of stress?”
When asked about some of the most effective lessons and skills they teach, Sharp focused in on three main areas:
“In Nurturing Parenting (NP), one of our most successful lessons is on praise,” says Sharp. “We do a full hour interactive session on the difference between praise for doing and praise for being. It’s not just good job, or thanks for brushing your teeth, but developing the relationship between parents and the child… praising the child and the things that they love about the child, not just the things the child does. We have them do a parent-to-parent exercise where one person sits there and says nothing, while the other has full minute to tell them everything they like about them. Then they switch. They talk as a group about how it feels, and most people tend to fall on one side or the other in terms of being good at either giving or receiving praise. This exercise brings about awareness about how often they are or aren’t praising their kids. We have them think about interactions between them and their children over next week, encouraging them to implement more praise for being. Parents will say, ‘Just by having done the activity I’m so much more aware. When we’re in the grocery store and I’m making eye contact with my kiddo and praising them, they’re less likely to act out and create a stressful moment,’ or ‘My son lit up! He was so happy, it was such a great week.’ Sometimes we’re rushing around and we don’t think to stop and praise our kids all the time.”
Stogner adds that this “helps parents to strengthen the bond with their children. It’s not just, ‘Oh good you put your clothes away,’ – it’s ‘You’re a good person.’ It’s building knowledge in kids that they have value no matter what. Even if they make a mistake, they know they still have that love.”
“The activity in Triple P that is most effective for prevention is our planned activities routine. A lot of parents are riding 4 buses to get their kids to school and then get to work on time. So when they’re standing in the doorway of their home and the 4-year-old doesn’t want to put shoes on, the parents become stressed and worried about losing their job,” says Sharpe. “Prevention is about thinking ahead, preventing yourself from becoming frustrated and doing something towards your child you don’t want to do. We walk parents through the day and have them plan it out: ‘I will get on all of these buses to get to this place. I will have a busy bag for the kid with coloring books.’ We role play. We talk about how everything you planned didn’t work, so now what? We go through it step by step and it really empowers parents to feel prepared to travel with kids. They’ve thought ahead about challenges they might face. We operate from the perspective that every parent is the expert on their own child, and desires to have a child that experiences a happy healthy childhood. Unfortunately, life stressors get in the way and prevent that from happening sometimes. We try to empower parents to say reality is reality and things get tough, so what are we doing to proactively prevent getting to that level of frustration with your child?”
“Parenting in isolation is really challenging, especially when you’re experiencing multiple life stressors,” Sharp adds about one of the final components we discussed. “We encourage families to build community with schools, neighbors and family. We love to leave our families more connected to other people in their community, relatives and support systems than they were before receiving services.”
She shares that their elementary school parenting groups are really successful. “We build a community for parents through the group so they do a lot of connecting with each other. By the seventh or eighth session they’re bringing dinner to the group and coming together as a community.”
“Our ultimate goal is to help keep families together in a safe, healthy way. When parents feel more connected to their children and to a support system, they are more capable of parenting in a healthy, constructive way,” says Sharp.
“I think that sometimes people feel like child abuse prevention is very stigmatizing,” says Stogner. “We try to not frame it that way. It’s about helping parents get more tools in the toolbox to become stronger parents and increase that bond with their kids. I think any parent could benefit from that. We hope all parents feel comfortable reaching out to us. It’s not about something negative or punitive… It’s about strengthening your family.”
SAFE is a merger of Austin Children’s Shelter and SafePlace, both long-standing and respected human service agencies in Austin serving the survivors of child abuse, sexual assault and exploitation, and domestic violence. SAFE’s goal is ambitious and simple: stop abuse for everyone. Learn more about their services and programs, campuses, and locations of services at safeaustin.org.
Prevention CASA Partners April 2017