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Even after raising multiple children, these parents found there was still much to learn and room to grow.

Blending a family can present challenges, even under the best circumstances. No surprise there. But some situations are tougher than others.

Tony was done with his active parenting years before he and Ellen married. It wasn’t easy to start over. But he was the first real father figure his new stepkids had ever had, and he took that responsibility seriously.

Compared to many Beech Brook families, Tony and Ellen are in a better place to provide a stable environment for the kids still at home. Each has a steady job, and they were able to buy a home together.

But both had also grown up in homes where there was a lot of physical discipline. Ellen also had experienced domestic violence in her previous relationships. Despite that, they were doing their best to be good parents.

As is often the case, however, it was just a little thing that precipitated a family crisis.

A minor argument between Tony and his teenage stepson Jimmy had escalated. His patience exhausted, Tony went to give his stepson a push, but the boy ducked, and the blow landed on his face. Jimmy’s grandmother, on the phone at the time, heard the uproar, and understandably alarmed, called the police.

Children’s services workers determined that this family’s history made them a good candidate for the Alternatives for Families: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (AF-CBT) model, and they called on Beech Brook to manage this case. Emily Slusarz, one of just two Beech Brook therapists trained in AF-CBT, got the assignment.

“I really don’t believe that it was the father’s intention to hurt the child,” she said, “but Jimmy has a long history of witnessing domestic violence from his mother’s previous partners. This incident felt like a big violation of trust for him, and his stepdad was going to have a long way to go to regain his trust.”

Fortunately, the family was open to this therapy and committed to repairing the trauma brought on by this incident and building a stronger relationship.

Emily has been working with the family over several months.

As part of the AF-CBT model, the parents were asked to write a letter to Jimmy – but not just a quick note. The questions posed required some serious reflections, discussed over multiple sessions.

Among the topics they were asked to address:

  • describing what happened and accepting responsibility
  • absolving the child from blame and praising him for talking about it
  • identifying traits and accomplishments they admire in him
  • taking responsibility for the impact of their actions on the family
  • apologizing
  • telling the child what they had learned and expressing willingness to talk more about it
  • committing to nonviolent parenting and making plans to keep the family safe.

In a family session, they will read the letter to the boy as a starting point for further discussion.

“It was a very meaningful experience for the parents and for me as a therapist,” Emily says of the letter.

After several months with the family, she’s seen some real change. “The parents have gained insights into other ways to discipline. They talk about their parenting styles now, something they didn’t realize they needed to discuss previously. The stepdad sees the importance of using different techniques, depending on the age and needs of the child. They talk about things now as a family. There’s more negotiating and use of techniques such as setting up contracts to outline expectations.”

Jimmy is much more open now, and he’s able to verbalize and process his feelings much better. And, most importantly, he’s not worried that this will happen again.

Everyone feels safer, and the family came through this process with a firm foundation on which to move forward.

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