Craig was coming out of the front door as I was walking up the driveway. He carried two suitcases full of tools and computer equipment. He was wet with perspiration. As our IT guy, it had been his job to enter this beautiful California home and get it wired up and ready for the video coaching we were going to do with our first Homeward Bound family.
On entering the home, I looked up to see white video cable strung high on the living room wall, leading down the hall to be plugged into the kitchen desktop computer. The anxious parents greeted me at the door, evidently willing to do whatever it took for me to help them with their daughter’s return from a year of residential treatment.
In our Marriage and Family Therapy graduate program, video-taping our sessions was a powerful tool that produced rapid understanding and paved the way for a fledgling therapist’s faster growth. Just as teens can become defensive when therapists tell them what they observed in their behavior, parents will often do the same thing when a therapist tries to help them recognize their contributions to negative patterns their teen exhibits. But showing them a playback of their voices raised, their teen’s eyes rolling, their waffling and uncertainty about boundaries is a completely different ball game. There is little room for subjectivity and not much need for coaching. The information is in living color, right there for them to soak in and understand for themselves.
Knowing this, I decided to use videotaping in the work we would do for Homeward Bound families. Things were set up with the family’s permission of course, s that I could sit at my desk in my office and pan and zoom around the living room. The family was instructed to go into the room when they were going to discuss a subject that would bring up powerful feelings, or when there was an argument going on. I could then immediately and precisely coach them as they used new communication skills t navigate the crisis. Later, the family could access a playback of the digital recording as a refresher course if they needed it.
And it worked. A parent from Miami watched himself on video as he addressed a drinking incident with his daughter. His weak attempt to implement preset consequences for her actions summoned this response from him join our coaching session later: “That was the most pitiful display of parenting I’ve ever seen. I will never do that again.” I didn’t need to say a word. He could see it all o his own. Another parent from Connecticut said, “If you think you know about your relationships with your kids and spouse, there is no substitute for seeing the experience live. For me, the video feedback was eye opening and revealing. Inside five minutes, I knew what I was doing right and what I was doing wrong as a parent, and no one had to tell me. It was as clear as day.”
So a brilliant idea right? Well, I will say now that it was definitely gutsy. Not only did it take a very specific kind of family to agree to this procedure, but I frightened off 95 percent of the families we could have helped. Other professionals were stumped as to how to motivate their families to enroll in our process because most couldn’t get over the hurdle of that scary video-camera stuff. It took years for professionals in our field to move past the guys-that use-video-taping reputation, even though we realized the obstacle we had created and stopped using cameras within six months of implementing them.
Why would I tell you this awkward story about our first families and our initial attempts to help them? It’s simple, really: because you can’t solve a difficult problem if you don’t go “all in.” At the time I started Homeward Bound, I remember reading studies that reported 50,70 even 90 percent recidivism, depending on the issues being addressed. These dismal outcomes were not acceptable in my mind, as the best our field could produce. I was driven to find a solution to the problem of recidivism after treatment with the courage and gusto common to those who want to make a big difference. We weren’t savvy marketers; we were just determined to build a program and process that worked, regardless of whether it was hard or uncomfortable. The only criteria we used to determine if a certain feature should be included in our model was the question “Will this enhance the likelihood of success?”
Parents, if you want to become good at parenting, you need to practice. You need to watch yourself or ask your spouse to watch you and give you a compassionate, but frank review of how you handled a situation. I understand how threatening this can feel, but if you truly want to improve, you have to be humble enough to take the coaching. If you don’t have a spouse or someone you trust, get a therapist or coach. And for heaven’s sake, don’t pick someone who just wants to remain on your payroll, so they are heavy on the validation and soft on the direction.
There is nothing more important than our family relationships. Put your best efforts, your money, your time, your everything into learning how to relate to and direct your family. It takes practice, coaching, and at the end of your life, you can rest assured that you used your time and life wisely.
To Family Success and Happiness!
Tim Thayne, Ph.D.