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A PAT for Parents of Teens

A new PEPS program provides help for parents in the teen trenches

Published on: February 27, 2023

Family smiling on the beach

Everybody knows that being a new parent is terrifying. But by the time your child hits the adolescent years, people generally expect you to have a handle on things. Adolescence, that transitional phase of growth and development between childhood and adulthood, is a time of great opportunity and risk — and vulnerability. Both parents and adolescents need empowering support, research-driven information and resources. Now, parents have a new resource and community to turn to during this period of newness and rapid change: Parents of Adolescents and Teens (PAT), a new PEPS program to support people raising teenagers.

The Program for Early Parent Support, or PEPS, has been providing parent peer support in the Puget Sound region for 40 years. Generations of new parents have found community and knowledge in the organization’s neighborhood peer-support programs. And many of them have voiced a desire for the same kind of support once their children reach their teen years.

“PEPS is basically about parents supporting other parents through a very difficult transitional time,” says Melanie Roper, program director at PEPS. “The adolescent period is surprisingly difficult for some folks. Parents experience a lot of conflicting emotions about their kids’ increasing autonomy. The brain is under construction during adolescence, which impacts kids’ self-control, their emotions, risk-taking behaviors — everything. There are supports built for teens, but not their parents. A lot of parents feel ill-equipped to navigate these big changes,” says Roper.

The difficulties of the teen years can make parents feel isolated.

Julie Ellett is a PAT facilitator who helped develop some of the PAT curriculum. The Austin-based therapist notes, “When you have a baby, you see somebody else with a baby and it’s an instant connection. That visual is absent when you have teens. You don’t get that same connection with others.”

The PEPS philosophy of parents finding community and supporting each other is the foundation for PAT. But the details were built on the needs and feedback of caregivers in the throes of parenting teens.

Parents of Adolescents and Teens Program

The PAT program is open to solo parents, caregivers, couples and co-parents who have children ages 10–19 years, i.e., anyone who is responsible for a teenager is a “parent.” Each PAT group is led by a group leader trained in adolescent development and group facilitation.

“There is a learning curriculum for the PAT program where parents are learning a lot about what happens developmentally for their kids. But, at the same time, there is that huge peer-support component, which is the bedrock of what we do at PEPS,” says Roper.

Groups meet for two hours each week for nine consecutive weeks. Every session follows a formula: an opportunity to share successes and challenges from the previous week; a presentation of a curriculum topic; skill-building activities; and a breakout session. Parents also receive a community-specific list of resources for getting more information and support outside of the group. There are often assignments to try out during the week.

“Parents have shared that they really walk away with some tools in their toolboxes on things that work not only for their teens but just for better family communication as a whole. Even though I’m delivering information, it really is about the parents connecting with one another and giving encouragement,” says Ellett.

Flexibility is key

Flexibility turned out to be a major theme for developing the PAT program. The time crunch faced by teens’ caregivers, for whom ferrying multiple children to sports and other activities can be almost a second job, meant that physically attending weekly meetings isn’t possible for a lot of them. Despite initial concerns that virtual groups wouldn’t build the same sense of community, so far, all groups in the year-old program have met online.

“To be honest, it has been such a treat for people to have that flexibility in their schedules. They’re able to pop on from the car, meet while they’re at their kid’s sports practice or join during lunchtime without having to leave their office in the middle of the day,” says Ellett. Even so, PEPS is looking into adding in-person PAT groups to support families that don’t want another Zoom meeting in their week or don’t have reliable internet access.

Tailored community

Parents with multiple teens and those who appreciate a wider range of perspectives can choose to join a group of parents whose teens fall into the 10- to 19-year-old range. Those who prefer a more age-specific focus can join groups just for the 10–14 or 15–19 age ranges.

“At PEPS, we realize that we may not be the best people to serve every family, so we work with partners who are embedded in specific communities,” says Roper. For Spanish-speaking families, PEPS partners with Sistema Escolar USA and ChildStrive to offer groups in Spanish. PEPS also offers PAT programs in partnership with Bainbridge Youth Services for parents of adolescents and teens living on Bainbridge Island. Additionally, PEPS partners with Mercer Island Healthy Youth Initiative and City of Mercer Island Youth & Family Services to offer PAT groups for families living on Mercer Island.

Tailored topics

While a handful of topics dominate infant care, the issues that adolescents face are myriad. With generous grants from King County Best Starts for Kids and the Jolene McCaw Family Foundation , PEPS developed the PAT curriculum based on more than a dozen topics. The formulation of curriculum and a blueprint for brand-new discussion topics were developed using resources from other evidence-based programs, along with guidance from professionals in family therapy and in adolescent and teen mental health. Discussion and resources on the topics of adolescent mental health and brain development are presented in every group. In the groups that have chosen to discuss it, the topic of gender identity has been life-changing for some parents.

“We have lived in a very binary world, and now this generation is talking about things very differently. They’re parsing sexuality and gender from very different ways of approaching the world. It gives us a chance to learn not just what this means for our particular kid, but [for] the world at large,” says Ellett.

Every group has asked for conversations on effective communication with adolescents and managing parental stress, which they often use to help teens deal with their own stress. The topic of the social and online world of adolescents, which can include discussions on dating, social media and bullying, is also a popular choice.

Peer support

“There have been cases where parents have needed more than just the supportiveness of peers,” says Ellett. When that happens, the facilitators can privately connect caregivers with professional help and resources. Learning to recognize mental health red flags can be literally lifesaving. But even for families with less serious problems, the curriculum can make life easier.

“We know from research that the better the parent is doing, the better the child will do,” says Roper. What is even more valuable than the knowledge parents gain from PAT is the emotional support and the knowledge that they’re not alone.

“Parenting, it’s a total beatdown and also it’s the best. We’re all trying. We are all failing,” says Ellett. Herself the parent of 17-year-old twins, she says it’s invaluable for parents to see each other’s similar struggles. PAT is helping parents build community. Some group participants are meeting outside of sessions, and sometimes continue to text and get together when the program is over. Some parents have valued the experience so much that they’ve signed up to go through the program again.

Learn more about the PEPS PAT program and register for a PAT group today. Groups are available in English and Spanish, with weekday and weeknight options available. Flexible pricing program fees and financial assistance are available for all programs.

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