When parents first bring their teen or young adult children to Newport, it’s not just the children who are struggling. Parents are typically in a state of fight-or-flight—drained, hopeless, and feeling a myriad of difficult emotions, from guilt and shame to resentment and frustration.
In this Q&A, Danielle Roeske, PsyD, and Michael Roeske, PsyD, Executive Directors of Newport Healthcare’s programs in Connecticut, explain how our treatment model helps parents work with those emotions, how parents can nurture their own well-being, and why admitting mistakes is often the most meaningful gift a parent can offer their child.
What are parents’ biggest fears when a family first enters treatment?
Danielle: Every parent who comes through our doors is desperately afraid they’re going to find out it’s their fault. One of the first things we help them to understand is that no one is to blame here. That’s not what this is about. Lack of love is never the issue—it has nothing to do with that. The reality is that we all do the best we know how to do with what we have. As the parents of two young boys, Michael and I get that on a personal level as well.
Michael: One of the primary things we do for parents is help them get out of that space of being in constant reaction to their child’s behavior. They come to us talking about how their teen or young adult is failing in school, sneaking out of the house, engaging in risky behaviors. A big part of the initial family therapy session is slowing parents down and simply asking how they’re doing. Often they haven’t asked been asked that question in a long time, and they’ve stopped taking care of themselves and doing things they enjoy because they feel guilty doing that when their child is suffering. The irony is that the more they are able to slow down and take care of themselves—whether that means sleeping better or eating right or exercising or starting their own therapy—it actually has this wonderful effect where it improves not only their own well-being but also their relationship with their child.
Danielle: The night of the day when they drop their child off with us is often parents’ first time being able to sleep deeply for months if not years. They’ve been running on adrenaline, full of anxiety and fear, and once their child is in treatment, they have the space to take on the components of life they discarded because they were entirely focused on their child’s needs.
How does the Attachment-Based Family Therapy (ABFT) model used at Newport help families heal?
Danielle: ABFT is unique in that it sets a clear structure for what we’ll focus on within a relatively short period of time, so we’re able to hone in on some of the key areas of need. We can actually set a concrete time frame within which we can help a family get to a better place. It can be easy in therapy for families to get caught up in debating what’s happened in the past, and ABFT cuts through that to get to the core issues, what’s underneath the behaviors.
One of the most important aspects of the process is helping families to communicate better, so they can connect in a more genuine and impactful way. For parents, the idea of speaking honestly to their child, and also listening to what their child is saying and validating their feelings, without defensiveness, can be anxiety producing, but it’s ultimately incredibly rewarding. It’s not about avoiding the difficult emotions or making them go away—the skill is to work with those emotions in a way that’s going to be useful. Parents often feel guilty about being angry or frustrated with their child. The truth is we’re allowed to be human and to have human reactions to really hard moments.
Michael: In his work on attachment theory, John Bowlby proposed that there is a window of attachment—up to maybe two and a half years—and if children don’t achieve healthy and secure attachment with their primary caretakers during that time, they are in trouble for the rest of their lives. We no longer believe that’s the case. It’s a much larger and more flexible window that remains open throughout the course of life. Parents and children can still create that attachment relationship when the kids are in adolescence or young adulthood, and ABFT facilitates that.
It’s important to mention, though, that what makes Newport a family-centered program extends beyond our family therapy component. It’s about the family’s experience in every aspect of the program and with all of our staff, from Admissions and residential supervisors to the culinary and housekeeping team. All of those team members and our entire immersive approach are what create a safe place in which parents can begin to talk openly about what they’re going through.
How do Newport’s peer-to-peer support groups benefit parents?
Danielle: It’s extremely valuable to our families to connect with other families. Most of our parents feel very isolated in the struggles they’re having. They’re watching their friends post on social media about their kids going off to college or winning a track meet or getting a great internship—and meanwhile they’re sending their own kids off to treatment for the third time. Being with other families is so helpful in alleviating shame and isolation.
Michael: That made a huge impression on me when I started working at Newport—sitting in our parent support groups and seeing the sense of relief they had in knowing that they were not alone. We see parents come in to the groups when their child has started treatment, feeling so afraid and alone, and over time, we see them get back on solid ground and begin to mentor the newer families. They’re not only helping those new parents on their journey, they’re also helping themselves by being of service to others.
Danielle: We also emphasize for parents the importance of accessing their own individual therapeutic support, so they can better understand how their own experience and what they were taught growing up influence their parenting.
Michael: Our psychoeducation sessions for families include a focus on intergenerational trauma—how trauma-induced behaviors and mental health issues are passed down through the generations. Knowing how that works helps them look more clearly at how they were parented and how that has shaped them as parents. In some cases, when families come to us, the trauma that occurred was outside the home, and parents have profound guilt about not knowing what happened. But in either case, the focus of treatment is not on looking backwards—it’s about being clear on where the family is now and how they can move forward as a unit.
What message would you want to give to parents who are feeling hopeless about their child’s and their family’s struggles and are conflicted about reaching out for help?
Danielle: I’d want them to know that it’s never too late to start making things better. Often parents are afraid that the ruptures between them and their children are so great, and there is so much distance between them at this point, that it’s going to be nearly impossible to get to a better place. But it’s remarkable what a little bit of vulnerability can do, especially on the part of parent.
The greatest gift any parent can give a child is the willingness to be vulnerable, to get support to do their own work, and to tell their kids, “I didn’t do my best, I’m going to try to do better and understand you better.” Many of the parents we see share with us how much they wanted to hear those words from their own mother or father, and here they have the opportunity to give that to their child. It’s not admitting failure—it’s a chance to create something with and for their children that they didn’t get to have growing up.
Michael: No parent is perfect. There are going to be times when you do great, and times when you don’t do as well. Recently, we were teaching our older son how to ride a bike, and I had to figure out, does he need me to be the strong dad who encourages him, or the empathetic dad who attends to his hurt if he falls down? As parents, there’s no way to know how to give a child exactly what they need all of the time. And, at each period in your child’s life, you get presented with a new challenge—suddenly whatever was working two weeks earlier no longer works now, so you have to try something else and keep moving forward.
Parenting is a hundred times more difficult than getting a doctorate. The key is to be honest with yourself, to reflect on your actions, and to be able to admit to yourself on the not-so-good days, Today I didn’t do a great job, tomorrow I can do better. Beware of any “perfect family”—that isn’t real.
Dr. Danielle Roeske has worked in the mental health treatment field since 2003, in roles including CEO, clinical director, program developer, family program director, therapist, and supervisor. Her experience spans acute psychiatric care, outpatient community therapy, and residential mental health and substance abuse treatment. Danielle’s accomplishments include the creation of an intensive family program for a longstanding treatment center.
In his two decades in the treatment field, Dr. Michael Roeske has held roles including chief operating officer, chief executive officer, and clinical director for programs serving children, adolescents, and adults. A licensed clinical psychologist, he has worked in community mental health clinics, inpatient psychiatric hospitals, and residential and outpatient substance use disorder treatment programs. Michael has also been a national presenter, adjunct professor, and trainer of psychotherapy graduate students.