‘Co-ed’ Parent Group

Strengthening family responders

Björn Ratjen, PhD and Gabriele Ratjen

Reprinted from "First Responders" issue of Visions Journal, 2006, 3 (2), pp. 27, 29

As a therapist with the Canadian Mental Health Association’s Cowichan Valley Branch, Gabriele works with young people who struggle with eating disorders. She is often approached by parents interested in meeting with other parents. Early this year, in response, she contacted mothers and fathers who had already accompanied a child through the healing process. Three parents stepped forward. One couple and another mother were willing to share their thoughts and experiences with other parents actively confronting the challenge of a young family member struggling with food, weight and body shape issues.

With its emphasis on parent-to-parent support, the initiative fit the mandate of the Strengthening Youth and Family Voices pilot project, which Gabriele coordinated at the Cowichan Valley branch of CMHA.1 Under the umbrella of this program, space, refreshments and administrative support were provided.

Mental health issues affect the whole family. This truism was addressed by involving both parents whenever possible. To support hearing and appreciating both male and female voices within the family, Gabriele invited Björn, also a therapist, to co-facilitate the group. Providing the framework for this group as a couple highlighted the importance of mothers and fathers by emphasizing and respecting the different roles within a family. Gabriele and Björn are also parents of young adults, which strengthened the emphasis on parent-to-parent support.

Gabriele was the main therapist for many of the families and therefore was able to act as a resource for general questions regarding eating disorders. Since the young people were concerned their parents would talk about them, it was agreed that specific details of the affected youth would not be discussed and that things would be kept confidential.

Björn became the main facilitator and was particularly able to connect with the men in the group. Each meeting began with sitting in a circle and “checking-in” with our thoughts and feelings. The first round was just about listening and being heard. In another round, concerns, announcements or questions would be raised, helping to shape our agenda. A dominant topic for the evening easily emerged. Each meeting closed with “checking-out”—for sharing insights, pondering thoughts, formulating intentions, expressing wishes and giving compliments. The group quickly became an open space for heartfelt sharing.

There were many insights

  • All family members have an important role, including the siblings of a young person. There is a normal developmental stage of separation between teenagers and parents, which siblings share.

  • There is a fine balance between confidentiality and secrecy within a family. If no one talks about the condition, then there is secrecy and some denial. Siblings are often affected by secrecy. They generally know something is going on, but if no one talks to them, they may feel very alone. Confidentiality maintains respect for personal issues and keeps discussion of the problem within the family or therapeutic circle.

  • Both parents may feel abandoned by the other. Fathers shared how they felt left out—the line of communication would often be from daughter to mother and mother to father—so they often stayed in the background. When men stay in the background, women sometimes interpret this as abandonment and think they have to do it all.

  • Mothers and fathers may react differently to situations. For example, fathers tend to look for a clear path towards a goal, whereas mothers are more likely to worry or to long for emotional affirmation. When they are struggling, men tend to withdraw, whereas women often seek relationship and conversation to process things. This may send different messages to the young person and can lead to tensions within the family.

  • Parents must give themselves permission to “step out” of being in charge of the eating disorder. It is the young person who has to take charge of the condition; parents can only assist. Dads found it harder to step back; they want to ‘fix it.’

  • Eating disorders are not just a female thing. Men or boys can also be affected by eating disorders or body image issues. And fathers need to realize the importance of their role in the healing process.

  • When women heard their husbands’ sharing and the responses by the other men, things shifted from being a personal difficulty between them, to being viewed more objectively as a partner’s action in the context of gender roles, societal expectations and different coping mechanisms.

Benefits for all

The group showed how a challenging personal experience can be turned into an asset for helping others who are in the middle of a similar struggle. Parents who had already gone through the whole process with their child provided understanding and a kind of roadmap, enabling parents who were going through the initial stages to identify where they were in the process.

The willingness of the experienced parents to revisit painful memories of feeling at a loss or overwhelmed was appreciated. Their presence and sharing validated the issues the other parents were facing, and spread hope and encouragement to everyone. Newer parents gained confidence and said they felt compelled to “try [new] things out.”

The experienced parents also benefited. All had consulted with their daughters and sons before and after meetings. They noted that revisiting and reflecting on the past provided an opportunity to appreciate the growth within their own families and to “still learn to see things that I couldn’t see before.” 

The group stopped meeting when summer arrived; however, it is likely a similar group will be established again. If you are interested in participating in the group, or for information on setting up a similar group, contact Gabriele at CMHA Cowichan Valley, 250–746–5521.

About the authors

Björn has provided individual, child and family counselling in private practice for many years. He specializes in recovery from trauma, has created psychological first aid courses for emergency responders, teaches peer support and is president of the Cowichan Men’s Resource Centre.

Gabriele has been a clinical counsellor for 17 years. Through the Child and Youth Mental Health team of the Canadian Mental Health Association, Cowichan Valley branch, she provides therapy to young people struggling with eating disorders. Gabriele has been local coordinator for the CMHA Strengthening Family and Youth Voices project.

  1. For more information on the Strengthening Youth and Family Voices program of the Canadian Mental Health Association, BC Division, visit www.cmha.bc.ca/get-informed/public-issues