Thursday, December 28, 2006


Anxiety. Guilt. Fear. Shame. Isolation. These are constant companions for parents of at-risk teens. In contrast to parents of other children with special needs, they find little, if any, compassion and understanding. Rather, they are faced with overwhelming feelings of hopelessness, discouragement, failure, fingers of blame pointed at them, harsh judgment and criticism. Support withdraws. People turn away and walk a wide circle around them, as though their pain might be contagious. A pariah. The one to be avoided. I know first hand what it feels like to live in that dark, frightening place.

Despite everything you have tried, your child continues to self-destruct. You dread the phone ringing because it likely means more bad news from the school, your neighbors and/ or the authorities. None of their solutions are working either. Yet, the love for your child, and your resolve to halt their downward spiral, forges your sense of duty and responsibility to find a solution before all remaining options disappear.

With great courage, you research new alternatives and are heartened to find professionals dedicated to helping families, just like yours. As you transition through the steps of placement, the roller coaster ride of emotions surge onward as you embark on a new chapter.

Although you may experience a sense of relief in knowing that your child is beginning to get help, you also feel the emotional void of not having them in your home, a void that you must fill. As I moved on from being one of those people, to working with other parents experiencing the same things, I learned first hand how coaching and encouragement from peer parents can lift that enormous burden. For me, the giving and receiving of mentoring was an invaluable part of the family healing process.

Shortly after my child's placement, I was fortunate to be part of a parent support group. Through that unity and support, we not only helped ourselves, but also helped each other. Within that system of 'parent mentoring,' we saw our own direction better and became more capable of focusing on being part of the solution. For the first time in a long time, we had reason to hope.

Developing and strengthening our parent network allowed us to stop focusing solely on our child and 'tend to the wounds' of the other people in our family, including ourselves. The need for parents to take care of themselves is a frequently overlooked, fundamental basic. However, it's much like the flight attendant's speech at take-off, "if the need for oxygen becomes necessary, you must place the oxygen mask on yourself first before lending aid to someone else." There is a heavy toll placed on each member of the family of an at-risk teen, and to provide the best possible support for your child as they work to make and sustain the changes required, it is vital to "place the oxygen mask on yourself first."

As a result, the parent support mentoring system affords you a "soft place to fall," and you start to regain some balance in your life. There is strength in numbers, and from that strength, you build a reservoir of energies that allows you to invest in the support of your child's program. It also allows you to support the program in which you placed your trust and your child. With the support of your parent mentors, you know you're no longer tackling this challenge on your own. While mentoring one of your peer-parents, you often find that you not only helped to lift their spirits, but also lifted your own, thus creating a better day for both of you. As parent mentors, we invite you to join us in the excitement of looking forward to the parent conferences at your child's school and reaffirming those lessons with other peer parents when you return home. Your parent mentors will cheer you on and celebrate joyful days, as well as exchange concerns, information and offer practical ways to create solutions. You will learn from each other, laugh together and lead by example, which will create long-lasting bonds of friendship. In addition, these bonds will help you and your family to become an active and important member of your School's team effort.

This is such a personal battle and there are no instruction manuals on how to make these big changes, but with the help of other parents who have already experienced and truly understand these challenges, it is easier. It's like the old adage of "it takes one to know one," that makes peer mentoring a benefit to parents as much as it does our kids.

On those days when you want to give up, draw on the strength and support of your fellow parent mentors. At this point, it may be hard for you to visualize that light at the end of the tunnel. However, if you stay the course , and take advantage of all the resources available to you, both you and your child will pull through it.

Remember . . . no one ever said it would be easy . . . just worth it!

About the Author:
Glenda Gabriel is an advocate for parents rights and the parent choice industry. She has worked to develop vital parent support services for structured residential boarding schools.