Parent Project Program
Not so long ago, Chelsea Graeff and Tyler Norvell were worried sick all the time. Their 15-year-old daughter wouldn’t come home for days on end and cut school constantly. Whenever the teen was around, Graeff and Norvell couldn’t talk to her without getting into an argument.
“We were sort of at our wits’ end. What do we do? How do we help her? And (we felt) a lot of guilt,” Graeff said.
Help came through a phone call from school resource officer Jeff Brandon telling them about a parenting course called Parent Project that would change their family’s life.
After an emotional graduation ceremony recently at the Morgan Hill Police Department building, Graeff and Norvell talked about the shift in the behavior of their daughter, who now is home on time every night and again excelling in the classroom.
“We’ve seen a huge turnaround in her attitude, as well as her happiness,” Graeff said. “She’s a lot happier now that she’s not in trouble all the time.”
The family stress is gone, they said, and they beam when asked if they believe they are better parents now.
Parents attend the Parent Project class, which is offered by the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office, once a week for 12 weeks.
Brandon says it takes most of them a few weeks to move beyond their guilt, embarrassment, and shame. But in Week 3, Brandon said, everyone starts digging deep, sharing what’s really going on at home.
It’s a powerful experience, parents said, to realize you’re not alone, that you’re in a safe space among friends who understand.
“Coming together with the other parents definitely helps,” Norvell said, “that camaraderie, that support group. That really helped our family in the long run.”
The support doesn’t end when the class does, said Brandon, who has facilitated it three times and who often becomes part of ongoing support groups that continue among participants after the course ends.
”I feel like I’ve been in the trenches with them for 12 weeks,” Brandon said with his big, easy smile. “We’ve created this bond together, and we don’t want it to end.”
One great community benefit, he said: Parents and teens come to learn that the police are not just about hassling and busting kids, that they care about the people in their community.
“Being a police officer is my job, how I earn a living. It’s not who I am,” Brandon said.
Besides, Brandon admits he’s no stranger to the stress and fear of managing teen rebellion.
“I was a single dad for a long time,” he said. “One of my kids is your typical compliant child that does everything you could want. But my son I could talk to till I was blue in the face and it made no difference. He just had to learn the hard way.”
Brandon found that the parenting techniques he’d used with his first child held no sway with his stronger-willed son. Luckily, he said, he went into training to learn the simple skills he now teaches to the parents of other rebellious youth.
“It made a huge difference in my home life,” he said.
The quick behavioral change Norvell and Graeff saw in their daughter after they consistently implemented their new skills at home is typical, Brandon said.
“Once they learn the techniques, it’s amazing how fast they see things turn around,” he said, regardless of what sort of trouble the child has been facing: truancy, drugs, stealing, gangs, violence, disrespecting teachers and others at school.
The most important thing, Brandon said, is changing the family dynamics, how they relate to one another. Step one: Refuse to argue.
Brandon said the primary problem is not that the parents don’t love their kids — they do — but that they don’t know how to show it. Given their upbringing, it’s no surprise that many parents don’t know how to do it, either. Kids don’t come with an owner’s manual, he said.
“Everything we do comes from love and affection,” Brandon said about the Parent Project approach. “Parents need to make sure they show their kids love and affection every day.” That means sitting down with them and telling them why they have rules: because you love them and are afraid of what might happen to them if they continue down the wrong path.
And when the child does the right thing, parents should acknowledge it. “A lot of parents, they focus on what their child is doing wrong and forget to notice what they’re doing right,” he said.
Brandon acknowledges that the Parent Project doesn’t work for every family. He’s seen cases where a child whose parents went through the program gets back into trouble — at least partly because the parents didn’t follow through.
But, he said, when the parents decide they really want to save their child, they already have the tools to do it.
Project director Gloria Maturino said the clearest evidence that the Parent Project has made a “tremendous difference” in the community is seen in the graduation night testimony of parents like Graeff and Norvell.
“It’s not only about helping the children; it’s also about helping parents because they’re on the same page,” she said. “They will come back to us and say, ‘You know, this helped my marriage. It also helped with my family and kids.’”
About Parent Project
Parent Project has been around for 28 years and touched half a million families across the country. Since it kicked off in Santa Clara County in 2008, nearly 7,000 families have completed the course, said Gloria Maturino, who directs the program under Supervising Deputy District Attorney Chris Arriola.
Arriola heads up the DA’s Office’s community prosecution and truancy abatement unit, which runs a host of programs to prevent and manage juvenile crime.
About 22 Parent Project classes are held in Santa Clara County each year, from Palo Alto to Gilroy but mostly in San Jose. Classes are held in English, Spanish and Vietnamese, with a maximum of 25 parents. A slightly modified version is held occasionally in the men’s and women’s jails. Police officers, prosecutors, and others are specially trained to facilitate the courses.
Parents of strong-willed kids who engage in high-risk behaviors, such as drugs, gangs, fighting, theft, running away from home and truancy, are taught simple, specific skills on how to use love and affection even while disciplining their children.
Some of the parents are ordered by judges to attend the 12-week-long classes (two or three hours, one night a week). Others are referred by the schools, and still others by family counselors.
- Love and affection are the keys to improving parent and child communication and discipline. Parents should tell their child they love them every day.
- Listening to your child is one of the first steps to effective communication. When parents fail to stop and listen to their children, it sends a negative message to the child.
- Help your child understand why you have house rules: because you love them and you are worried about their health and safety. Let your children know they are important to you.
- Involve your child in important family discussions and ask for their opinion.
- Make the house rules simple, and enforce them consistently, without apology and lovingly — for the child’s own good.
- Refuse to engage your child in an argument.
- Never confront children when you are angry. Do whatever it takes to calm yourself down before addressing problematic behaviors in your child.
- Increase wanted behaviors by encouraging your child and providing positive strokes.
- Parents cannot control their children, but they can control the things their child wants.
- Changing a child’s unwanted behavior may require that parents make some changes as well.
- Talk to your children every day. Find out what’s important to them and show an interest in it. And, when they follow the rules, don’t forget to praise them, and let them know how pleased you are.
By Chuck Carroll