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Easthampton families get help navigating the teen years

Games, videos, role play and talk help Easthampton families navigate the teen years

  • Audrey Hyvonen, a facilitator, speaks to a group of children Wednesday during the Easthampton Healthy Youth Coalition's Strengthening Families Program at Easthampton High School. JERREY ROBERTS—

  • Audrey Hyvonen, a facilitator, speaks to a group of children Wednesday during the Easthampton Healthy Youth Coalition's Strengthening Families Program at Easthampton High School. JERREY ROBERTS—

  • Audrey Hyvonen, left, and Jan Marciniec, who are facilitators act out a peer pressure scene for the kids. JERREY ROBERTS

  • Tommy Vaillancourt, right, speaks Wednesday during the Easthampton Healthy Youth Coalition's Strengthening Families Program at Easthampton High School. Listening are Nina Pereira and Thupten Sherpa. All are 11. JERREY ROBERTS—

  • Audrey Hyvonen, a facilitator, posts ideas written by a group of children for discussion. Talk, role playing and games make up the structured sessions in the seven-week program. JERREY ROBERTS—

  • Jan Marciniec, a facilitator, speaks to a group of children Wednesday during the Easthampton Healthy Youth Coalition's Strengthening Families Program at Easthampton High School. JERREY ROBERTS—

  • Blaise Baker, 10, left, Brianna Santiago, 12, and Tommy Vaillancourt, 11, are involved in an activity focused on handling peer pressure. JERREY ROBERTS—

  • Audrey Hyvonen, second from left, and Jan Marciniec, third from left, who are facilitators, talk to Tommy Vaillancourt, clockwise from left, Nina Pereira, Thupten Sherpa, Blaise Baker and Brianna Santiago during the Easthampton Healthy Youth Coalition's Strengthening Families Program at Easthampton High School, Wednesday. JERREY ROBERTS—

  • Audrey Hyvonen, left, a facilitator, with parents Lori Vaillancourt, left, Angelique Baker and Sonya Barnes, take part in a warm-up exercise at the start of the parent portion of a session of the Strengthening Families Program. JERREY ROBERTS—

  • Jan Marciniec, front left, and Audrey Hyvonen, front right, act out a peer pressure scene as Thupten Sherpa, 11, left, Blaise Baker, 10, second from left, Brianna Santiago, 12, and Tommy Vaillancourt, 11, watch Wednesday during the Easthampton Healthy Youth Coalition's Strengthening Families Program at Easthampton High School. The children are holding signs that represent different ways to handle peer pressure. JERREY ROBERTS—

  • Sonya Barnes, front left, talks to her daughter, Brianna Santiago, 12, front right, during the Easthampton Healthy Youth Coalition's Strengthening Families Program at Easthampton High School, Wednesday. Listening are, from left, Nina Pereira, 11, Angelique Baker, and Blaise Baker, 10. JERREY ROBERTS—

  • Paul Pereira, above with his daughter Nina Pereira, 11, says the program has given him good ideas, such as posting family rules on the refrigerator: “The girls see it and it reinforces it.” JERREY ROBERTS

  • Lori Vaillancourt talks to her son, Tommy Vaillancourt, 11, during the Easthampton Healthy Youth Coalition's Strengthening Families Program at Easthampton High School, Wednesday. JERREY ROBERTS—

  • Angelique Baker, left, talks to her son, Blaise Baker, 10, during the Easthampton Healthy Youth Coalition's Strengthening Families Program at Easthampton High School, Wednesday. JERREY ROBERTS—

  • Sonya Barnes and her daughter, Brianna Santiago, 12, take part in an activity during a session of Easthampton Healthy Youth Coalition's Strengthening Families Program at Easthampton High School. JERREY ROBERTS—

  • Social worker Albie Park advises parents to take a measured approach to discipline. “When you have a small problem, you need a small motivation,” he says. JERREY ROBERTS—

  • Thupten Sherpa, 11, above, talks to her father, Tashi Sherpa, during the segment when parents and kids come together. JERREY ROBERTS—



Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 22, 2016

‘Middle school is a challenge,” says Paul Pereira of Easthampton, who has two daughters, 9 and 11.

That’s not exactly breaking news. But he and others in town would rather not wade through those turbulent years on their own. They are reaching out for guidance through a program offered by the Healthy Youth Coalition in town called Strengthening Families Program for Parents and Youth 10-14. It’s a free seven-week series in which children and parents meet separately and together to work on communication skills.

“Every little bit helps,” said Pereira, 48, before a recent Wednesday night session. “It's challenging to raise a kid with so many distractions, like digital media, social media. Anything we can do to learn, to prepare ourselves, we would take advantage of.”

Filling the toolbox

And so, each week seven families gather at Easthampton High School, the kids going one way for the first hour and the parents going another, for games, role playing, videos and discussion.  For the final hour, they come together to talk about matters that get to the heart of substance abuse, peer pressure and parent/kid communication. 

 “It's about increasing bonding, giving parents tools, and building skills with the youth themselves,” said Ruth Ever, Healthy Youth Coalition Coordinator.

The games and role playing might at first seem cheesy to the kids, says Audrey Hyvonen, one of the three trained leaders. She oversees the kids' group. But, despite a little reluctance on the part of a participant or two, the kids are into it, she said.

Like they were during the role-playing scene Hyvonen and facilitator Jan Marciniec led at a recent meeting.

It involved one child telling another to meet her for a trip to the comic book store, a plan that involved stealing comics.

The second child was reluctant — “That's shoplifting.” She suggested going to her house and reading her new comic book instead.

The kids watching eagerly pointed out that such a simple solution might not work in real life, Hyvonen said. Their friends would likely get mad and stop talking to them.

True enough, said Hyvonen. Not all solutions are easy. That would be covered next session.

Tightly planned

In addition to such pointed activities, the meetings include physical games intended to be fun and ease participants into the program’s more intense moments. “Sometimes, with the emotional stuff, they can get overwhelmed,” Hyvonen said. “This is a way to get bodies moving before you go back into the heavy stuff.”

Angelique Baker, 36, of Easthampton says her son, Blaise, 10, wasn't interested at first. “He didn't want to go,” she said, “but he had so much fun.”

Five sessions in, he's a fan. “I think he thought it was gonna be a lecture. Now he's always raising his hand and participating, and he's made some new friends.”

Thupten Sherpa, 11, sums up the kids’ activities this way: “Kind of weird, but really good.”

Besides having fun, Thupten says she's learned ways to deal with stress: “There's the pillow scream. You can drink water, hide in a closet, meditate, make a poster.”

Based on evidence

The Strengthening Families Program is heavily structured in large part because it's evidence-based — it's been evaluated in randomized, controlled testing via Project Family at the Partnerships for Prevention Science Institute at Iowa State University, where it was developed by psychologists Elizabeth Fleming, Karol Kumpfer, Virginia Molgaard and Richard Spoth. It's worth noting, too, that there are other programs called Strengthening Families or variants, but the World Health Organization declared this specific version, with the extra tag “for Parents and Youth 10-14” number one out of around 6,000 programs aimed at substance abuse prevention.

Ever says the Healthy Youth Coalition is thinking big about SFP. The eventual goal, she says, is for the program to become so embedded in the culture of Easthampton that when a child enters fifth grade at the middle school it’s expected that he or she will participate “in this thing that everyone does.”

Most of the families in the current session signed on via hearsay or direct outreach by organizers.

Baker, who’s been outspoken about domestic violence issues, says, like Pereira, that she gets involved whenever parenting help is available.

Both say it’s comforting, too, to hear from other parents and realize that their struggles aren’t unique.

“The program is validating for me,” Baker said. “I'm not a parent that likes to yell or do anything harsh.” As a result, she says, she is often advised to be tougher on her son. “But that's not my style.” This program teaches parents to be “consistent and gentle, firm and loving.”

That kind of balance is achieved, says facilitator and social worker Albie Park, via measured responses to conflicts.

The parents’ perspective

Park, who leads the parents’ segment of the night, sticks to a strictly timed script. Videos, straightforward illustrations of different parenting styles and scenarios, are followed by discussion.

At a recent session, the parents were eager to talk about their own methods.

One father said that he’s prone to imposing harsh punishments quickly. Others said they are, too.

That can be counterproductive, Park said.

“When you have a small problem, you need a small motivation,” he said. Telling a child he or she is grounded for three months may not be practical. “It's also something you're probably not going to follow through on,” he said. Once a child knows that, “Why would your kid listen?”

A better approach, he said, is fitting the penalty to the infraction and starting small when possible.

For example, failing to do a required chore, like washing the dishes, might result in getting an extra job like wiping down the counters, too. 

If the child continues to refuse to comply, the penalty gradually escalates.

The key, Park says, is “doing it really calmly.”

Pereira said that advice hit home. “I would right away go to 'No more TV for you today,' as opposed to saying 'You have 15 minutes less of screen time,' “ he said. “Maybe the punishment didn't really fit the crime.”

Coming together

The second hour of the night is a whole-family affair. Much of what takes place centers around guiding participants on how to hold weekly family meetings, which also follow a specific format.

Hyvonen says those include activities like refereed problem-solving, or discussing families’ values.

Or, the groups may make family trees of their strengths and the attributes each member contributes.

The guiding principle behind such activities, Hyvonen says, is helping families identify their priorities, which offers strength when they face challenges.

Baker says that the emphasis on including children is a key aspect of the program. With the kids involved, dealing with family matters is easier, she says, not a challenge she might dread. “I actually look forward to the family meetings we have at home some days.”

The Pereira family also has found it helpful. Paul Pereira says the recommendation to have house rules posted on the refrigerator, for instance, has been a boon. “The girls see it and it reinforces it.”

It’s also helped, he says, in “being less judgmental, keeping a conversation open.”

For Baker, the program has offered “just the right information at the right time.” Her family’s issues, she says, involve serious problems that bring a lot of anxiety, so an act as small as her son stealing a cookie, she said, might spark real concern on her part. “I’m afraid he’s going to repeat the behaviors (he’s seen),” she said.

But the classes, she added, have taught her to worry less, that “kids do this stuff, and setting boundaries is not the end of the world.”

The children, says Hyvonen, have had a few revelations of their own. “Our homework has been ‘Notice a rule you followed or a rule you broke and what the consequence was.’ One kid said, ‘I took the trash out. I even took it to the curb, and I didn’t complain.’”

It may seem like small stuff, but those moments add up.

“I think 90 percent of the job (of parenting) is just being there,” said Pereira. “We’re trying to figure out the remaining 10 percent.”

A second seven-week session of Strengthening Families Program for Parents and Youth 10-14 begins April 26. The free sessions run from 6 to 8 p.m., with an optional 5:30 dinner. Childcare is available.

For more information call 207-5725 or visit easthampton coalition.org.