Jenny Barton, lead learning mentor at Norham Community Technology College, shares her experience of developing and facilitating a support group for parents of teenagersBackground

Norham Community Technology College, located in North Tyneside local authority, serves an area characterised by socio-economic deprivation. We recognised the importance of adopting a holistic approach to extended schooling and in recent years we have been developing integrated provision aimed not only at students but also their families and the wider community. This approach was deemed important as without engaging and offering support to parents and the wider community our efforts to support students would be diluted. We also recognised the importance of fostering good relationships with parents and held the view that meeting parents’ needs was an important outcome in itself.

My role as lead learning mentor involved supporting students with learning and wider needs and engaging and supporting families whenever necessary. Feedback from parents pointed to an array of support services for parents of young children but an absence of similar mechanism for parents of teenagers. This is something we intended to address and three years ago I was given responsibility for setting up a support group for parents of teenagers alongside Jane Blacklock, our home-school liaison worker. At first, we were not quite sure how to tackle this, but after careful consideration we were able to identify clear objectives for the group (see below). This gave us clarity of purpose and a real impetus to get things under way.

The best piece of advice I can give anyone wishing to embark on a parent support group project is to know what you want to achieve from the outset. Having identified clear objectives for the provision we turned our attention to some of the nitty gritty practical issues of advertising, venue and funding and also the importance of ground rules and generating a culture of ownership. Getting these right is paramount.

We designed leaflets and posters which gave relevant information and stressed that the group was informal, confidential and led by the group members. We displayed the leaflet and posters in local primary and secondary schools, libraries, doctors’ surgeries, newsagents, supermarkets and other community venues that local people regularly use. Word of mouth was also important – if parents value the support and enjoy attending the group they will be more likely to encourage others to come along. Other strategies for engaging parents include ensuring other multi-agency staff working in school are aware of and promote the provision to other parents they come into contact with. It is always difficult to engage the hard-to-reach families and it may take a long time for you to get more than a few members, but I say be patient. For the first three months only one parent attended the group every week. Rather than being disheartened we valued the opportunity to support this parent and in the meantime continued with our advertising campaign.

It is essential to remove as many barriers as possible when setting up a parent support group. Finding the right venue is something that cannot be overlooked. It is important to identify somewhere parents feel comfortable and can access easily and to remember that school, even a community wing of the school, might not always be the best option. We recognised that parents can feel threatened by school buildings and that some would prefer not to enter them. In turn, we decided to use a room in a local community centre located five minutes’ walk from the school. This turned out to be the ideal place as it was centrally located, welcoming, had a comfortable space for confidential dialogue and also crèche facilities. Other venues that you might also consider include local libraries or leisure centres.

Ground rules and boundaries
We use the mantra ‘what is said in the room stays in the room,’ but we also explain to the group that we are bound under the school child protection policy meaning that we had a duty to pass on certain information if we felt any young person was being harmed or at risk of being harmed.

The ground rules should, if possible be displayed so they are visible every week in the group. They are also reiterated at the start of each session and group members are reminded that they were involved in establishing the rules. This helps everyone know what they are and also helps back you up if you feel that something has been said that is inappropriate. It is also important to take appropriate action if parents are in breach of the ground rules. For instance, when a situation arose when a group member started using inappropriate language, I politely asked her to refrain from using certain words. In this situation, she became very angry and eventually walked out. I subsequently contacted her and we were able to talk about what happened, acknowledging that she had every right to state her opinion but that she could used less offensive language to do so. After about a month, the parent returned to the group full time. On reflection, it was risky to challenge her in front of others and perhaps I should have taken her to one side and had a quiet word; however if I had not done this in front of others they may have thought I had disregarded the ground rules, which in turn could have deterred them from coming back. I think you must expect and accept that parents will have differences of opinions and possibly arguments from time to time, but remind the group that as a collective they decided what was and was not acceptable in the group. In this case I was able to stress the collective decision made to treat one another with unconditional positive regard, acceptance and respect, ensure that no member of the group should ever feel uncomfortable and that racist, homophobic, sexist, and ageist remarks were entirely unacceptable. I have also been in situations where a parent has been very derogatory about colleagues of mine. It was a real test to remain impartial and not fall into the trap of defending other professionals or their practice. You can try to explain why they might be motivated to take a certain course of action or simply listen. Group work can be very challenging because of many potential conflicting interests and opinions and we cannot underestimate how careful and tactful a group work facilitator must be.

The group is parent led. Encouraging parents to discuss their issues was hard at first but as time passed, trust started to build and parents found it easier and became much more willing to open up. One strategy we used to encourage the group to talk was by introducing some ice breaker questions each week such as ‘What was your favourite holiday and why?’, ‘If you could have anyone around for dinner who would it be and why?’ These proved helpful in putting group members at ease and also many of the answers provided clues as to issues in the family they wished to work through and aspects of support they required.

Our role in the group was that of facilitator. We facilitated the discussion, made sure everyone had a chance to speak and kept a track of the time. We provided advice and signposted when appropriate but in the main it was other group members taking the lead, sharing advice and identifying possible solutions.

A support group can be run on relatively low costs; there might be venue hire, refreshments and possibly crèche places. We found that there are many opportunities available for funding a parent support group. Constituted groups (ie those with a named treasurer, secretary, etc) attract many funding opportunities but it is also possible to access funding from other sources, including community foundations.

Our best advice is to start searching for what is available locally and nationally and get into the habit of applying for funds. It has become apparent that when completing a funding bid, stressing potential benefits to the community (or actual ones if you are looking for funding to sustain provision) looks strong, especially when it is clear benefits will outweigh costs.

It is amazing what spin-offs have occurred since setting up the group, which of course is down to the group members and their willingness to attend and make the effort outside of the group. Members have reported feeling more supported and less isolated. They are also more informed about issues that might affect teenagers and feel better equipped to work with their children to overcome any adverse issues. Parents also report improved relationships with their teenage sons and daughters and new friendships with members in the group. The most fundamental outcome and one which was incorporated into our objectives, was the mutual support offered by parents. A comment from one parent is testament to this: ‘I have enjoyed being able to talk openly about problems, worries and other things that concern me. I now have new friends who have similar problems and it is great to be able to share experiences and have somewhere to speak out.’

And finally, a word of advice. Do remember to keep it informal and relaxed. Discussions can get heavy and you need to judge when to wrap things up. You want parents to know they are welcome and their opinion is valued but you also want them to come back next week. If it becomes apparent that parents require additional, more specialised support, draw on the expertise of services working to support families in the area. Working in an extended school definitely facilitates this process as collaborative working with key partners will already be happening and structures for referral will be in place.

Key objectives Raising confidence and empowering parents The support group offers parents a chance to talk about their successes as a parent as well as any difficulties they are currently experiencing. Focusing on and reinforcing the positives has helped increase levels of confidence and self-esteem among the group. Some of the group have since accessed training opportunities including Parent And Children Together (family learning) and Heartstart (first aid). They felt confident to do so with the accompanying support of other members. One group member has been given the motivation to re-sit maths and English GCSE, whilst another started her own parent-toddler group.

The key to empowering parents is to listen to them and make sure they know they are not alone. By attending the support group they are being positive, proactive and reaping the rewards.

Fostering positive relationships between parents and young people
We were able to anticipate from our work with students and parents that one of the most significant concerns group members would have is the poor communication between their teenagers and themselves. This proved to be the case, to varying degrees, with one parent, for instance, disclosing that her relationship with her son consisted solely of arguments and constant exchange of negative comments. One way we identified to foster positive relationships between parents and young people was to put on some enrichment activities, such as joint cookery and arts and craft sessions and trips to local areas of interest. These enrichment activities provided opportunities for parents and families to bond while learning something fun and new. Some activities are restricted solely to parents and the teenagers (not younger siblings) to give parents and young people some time together that they may not always get at home. Moreover, as other parents and teenagers are involved in the activities, it gives both the parents and the young people a chance to consciously or unconsciously model behaviour with that of others in the group. In addition to identifying improved relationships between teenagers and their parents there have been some unanticipated outcomes – younger children have had the opportunity to mix with each other in the crèche and the teenagers of the group members have also become friends through the joint activities and the new friendships between their parents.

Signposting parents to relevant services or agencies for support and help
It was our firm intention from the beginning to refer parents requiring specialist support to agencies that are qualified and experienced to give it. We knew that working in an extended school would facilitate this process as we had a good awareness of statutory, voluntary and community services in the area and had already established very good working links with many of them. As such, if and when swift and easy access and referral to specialist services was required, we felt confident the mechanisms were in place to take appropriate action. As the group developed, we recognised the scope to introduce a more preventative approach and began to invite different agencies along to the group to discuss their work and the support they can offer. This was very much led by what the group want. For example, one week we were discussing drugs and it became apparent that the group knew very little about them, for instance, the names of various recreational drugs and what they looked like. As they wanted to broaden their knowledge and feel more confident talking with their children about the dangers of drugs, we invited a member of staff from Never 2 Late, a local drugs support service, to present to the group. The session was well received, with parents being much more informed afterwards about different drugs and the support that is available locally. The group have also benefited from similar sessions from the primary care trust (PCT), who gave a workshop on stress and anxiety, from Parentline Plus, and from a service specialising in debt management.

Improving links between home and school
We recognised some of barriers Norham, like many other schools, have encountered in engaging parents. It would make sense, we thought, if Jane and I acted as the go-between, passing on information and collecting parents’ opinions on school-related issues. For this to work effectively we had to be approachable and encourage dialogue about a range of pertinent issues. Through a relaxed, informal approach we have engaged parents in discussions of issues ranging from option choices for Year 10 students to school menus. Also it became apparent that sometimes parents encountered difficulties contacting specific members of staff in school, so we facilitated communication, making certain that messages were received and responded to. This approach helped ensure that Norham was accessible and responsive to parents.

Providing a safe space to parents to off-load without being judged

Jane and I made it clear from the outset that it was not our place to judge or to tell them how to be parents. Failing to do this would have prevented open, honest dialogue. I think the most effective way to let parents know they are safe to discuss their family, is by being consistent in your approach. Over time this enables you to build trust and create a culture of mutual respect. This supportive and non judgemental approach was conducive to the objectives of the sessions involving group members sharing experience and offering advice. I was also happy to use self disclosure and was open about the fact that I have no children myself. I was able to facilitate and join in discussion, however, as through my work I had developed an understanding of many of the issues affecting teenagers and of the challenges this presents to family dynamics.

Supporting isolated parents in the community and facilitate friendships

The group has had a core of six members for the last three years, with occasional members dropping in and out of the group. Strong friendships between the core group members have developed, which has enabled parents to know that they can count on each other in times of need. For example, the group have rallied round and offered hands on support when members have moved house, when pets have needed to go to the vets, for babysitting, etc. There is even the case of one parent acting in the capacity of birthing partner for another pregnant group member who had no friends or family living in the area. This practical support is a lifeline. There is also emotional support and friendship formations which are invaluable. Just knowing you are not alone, that there are others who have experienced similar things, and others who can share advice of what worked for them is valued by all group members.