ParentCorps and University Settlement Society

Building Strong Relationships with Families and One Mother’s Journey

ParentCorpsDespite struggles with anxiety and post-partum depression, Cristina was determined to parent her child differently from how she was raised. She needed support and ideas.  Fortunately, the Community Service Plan partner University Settlement Society linked Cristina to ParentCorps. ParentCorps was developed by the Center for Early Childhood Health and Development at NYU Langone Medical Center to help parents, teachers and childcare workers provide safe, predictable and nurturing environments for children and to strengthen home-school connections. ParentCorps creates a supportive and inspiring space for families to come together, share ideas and learn about the science of parenting and early childhood development. Parents set goals based on their cultural values and beliefs, and try new strategies to help children learn social and emotional skills (like taking turns, using words to express feelings, calming bodies when upset), develop healthy habits (like eating a variety of foods and getting enough active play and sleep). Together, these skills build the foundation for a happy, healthy and successful future. The following story is written by a social worker from University Settlement.

Cristina’s ParentCorps group became a “family,” assuring her that she is not alone and giving her the confidence that she is “a better mother.”

Cristina is a woman in her early forties who lives in East New York, Brooklyn, with her husband, Ishan, and five year old son, Sridhar. Cristina is a driven, warm and friendly woman passionate about her beliefs, despite experiences of verbal abuse, sexual harassment, anxiety and depression.

When Cristina became a mother, she threw herself into parenting 100%. She stopped working and spending time with her friends so she could focus all her of time and attention on her son. Cristina suffered from severe post-partum depression; she rarely left the apartment, and remembers weeping for hours. Throughout Sridhar’s early months, she felt overwhelmed, helpless and most of all, alone. 

Cristina came to see me when her son was four years old and in a UPK classroom at Children’s Corner Early Childhood Center. She had gotten through the difficulties of Sridhar’s infancy, but she had yet to find a support system, and was surprised by how challenging and confusing parenting her preschooler was, even with the very best of intentions. She wanted the absolute best for Sridhar, but in the midst of difficult moments with him, she felt confused and clueless as to how to support him. She didn’t want to parent the way she had been parented, and yet in moments of frustration, she heard her father’s stern voice coming out of her own mouth. Cristina was unsure of when and how to productively set limits while still maintaining a loving and caring approach in her parenting. She also wasn’t sure what she should expect of him, and what he could do for himself. She wondered…When was he old enough to feed himself? Was he throwing a tantrum about putting on his shoes because he really needed help or was he being stubborn and defiant? Was she expecting too much of him? Was she spoiling him?

In the classroom, Sridhar was extremely well behaved. He was quiet, respectful, and serious. He was so quiet, in fact, his teachers had concerns. They never saw him “let loose” or be silly, he rarely joined other children in play and he was silent during large group activities. The teachers and I brainstormed ways to help Sridhar feel comfortable, be himself, make friends and take initiative in the classroom. 

Although during school hours Sridhar was shy and reserved, at home he was throwing tantrums daily and refusing to follow directions.  Many of Cristina’s daily interactions with her son were escalating into power struggles that left them both frustrated, creating a deep strain on their relationship. When Cristina came into my office and shared all of this with me, she asked for help, and said, “Tell me what to do and I’ll do it. I’ll try anything”. I offered to meet with her weekly and invited her to our new ParentCorps group about to start the following week.

ParentCorps KidsWhen Cristina arrived to ParentCorps, she shared honestly about her parenting struggles. Her son’s defiant behavior deeply troubled her, and she was desperate to know the cause. Sridhar had tantrums and seemed so angry she wondered if he was possessed.

During our ParentCorps sessions, Cristina heard stories from other parents about their preschoolers’ behavior, which familiarized her with developmentally typical behavior for her son’s age, and normalized some of the parent-child struggles she had experienced. She learned specific strategies to set her family up for success, to prevent a power struggle before it even had a chance to surface. She learned how to create routines, help her son stay in his own bed all night successfully, and handle meal time without worrying about his nutritional intake or fighting over eating those pesky vegetables. Cristina learned about encouragement and positive reinforcement, how to support her son’s strong feelings and still discipline effectively. She discovered the power of pretend play with Sridhar and began to regularly let him take the lead in imaginative play time together at home. This became a joyful ritual for them that was absent of conflict, and strengthened Sridhar’s initiative skills. 

In addition, ParentCorps asked her to reflect on her own upbringing and early childhood memories, incorporating discussion of culture and family into the sessions. This reflection gave Cristina the opportunity to evaluate the strategies she had been using and intentionally choose the ones she wanted to use going forward.

As Cristina went home each week and put her new knowledge and strategies into practice, she began to see results. Her son’s behavior changed rapidly. Within the first few weeks of ParentCorps and consultations, his tantrums ceased all together and he began sleeping in his own bed all night, a huge accomplishment and relief to his parents. These positive interactions relieved stress in Cristina and Sridar’s relationship. Her anxiety about parenting began to decrease as she trusted her instincts as a mother and experimented with creative ways to bring the concepts she was learning alive at home.

Cristina came back each week to ParentCorps and shared excitedly what worked for her and her child. She brought her questions and struggles back to the other parents and group leaders, who problem-solved specific ways to accomplish her parenting goal, individualizing the ParentCorps information just for her and her family.  Parents alternated sharing their concerns with listening and offering empathy to each other.

This provided Cristina with the opportunity to share ideas and suggestions with other parents, as well to create supportive networks with them. She struck up a friendship with another group member whose son was in the same class as Sridhar. They started spending time together while the children played, and sometimes had a cup of coffee while their children were in school. Cristina had not spent time alone with a friend since before her child was born and found this new friendshipit to be an emotional and practical support.  Now, they regularly pick up each other’s children from the center and spend time together on the weekends. During one ParentCorps session Cristina shared, with tears in her eyes, that ParentCorps had become her “family” and got her through the “rough weeks”.

While Cristina was meeting with me individually and attending ParentCorps, her son was in a ParentCorps program of his own called Friends School, which occurred weekly in his UPK classroom. His classroom teacher reported that Friends School provided Sridhar with problem-solving techniques she has noticed him using throughout the school day, which increased his social skills. Being a shy child, his teacher was impressed that Sridhar actively participated consistently in Friends School, which then led him to participate in group activities more often throughout the week. His initiative skills throughout the school day increased as well, as he began eagerly raising his hand to share and ask questions at circle time. Friends School topics correlated to topics explored in the parent groups; so, for example, while Cristina was learning how to handle her son’s difficult feelings, he was learning how to express them.

Cristina has become increasingly more involved at Children’s Corner, and often invites other parents to ParentCorps.  She recently told me, “Believe me, before the ParentCorps course I was lost- a sufferer of anxiety, depression- I had no clue why my son was acting like that and I didn’t have knowledge. Now, I know it’s normal for children to express their emotions and how they feel. And it’s okay for him to tell me how he’s feeling. And I share that knowledge with my husband. And now I feel I know what to do. And I know I am a better mother”.