On Saturday, January 30, 2016 Coronado SAFE (Student and Family Enrichment) held its 4th Annual Parenting Conference entitled The New Science of Parenting at the CoSA Theater from 8:30 am to 1:00 pm. Georgia Ferrell, the Executive Director of Coronado SAFE, said this year’s conference was “amazing” and added that it was “definitely the biggest turnout yet” with over 150 people preregistered and more registering at the door.
In the past, the annual parenting conferences consisted of seven speakers, each speaking for twenty minutes. After listening to feedback from previous years’ attendees, who expressed an interest in “more in-depth” presentations, Ferrell said Coronado SAFE changed the format of this year’s conference. Instead of seven speakers, there was a keynote speaker at the beginning, two one hour workshops in between, and then the conference closed with another keynote speaker.
The first keynote speaker Diana Divecha, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist from the San Francisco area, gave a fascinating presentation about “key brain changes that are happening in 11-15 year olds and the gifts and challenges they present.” Divecha used real life examples of parenting challenges she and her husband faced themselves such as when their teenage daughter came home telling them she wanted to get her nose pierced. She told parents, “I choose the big battles not the small ones.” While Divecha, who is a developmental psychologist and research affiliate for the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, has an extensive educational and professional background, it was the way she connected her knowledge along with her own emotions as a parent that really resonated with parents.
Divecha discussed how parents scaffold for their children when they are young, teaching them how to do things step by step, such as getting dressed or feeding oneself. As children reach their preteen and teenage years, however, many parents forget how scaffolding continues to be an essential element of parenting. “As they get older, tasks get bigger. Parents tend to back up and let go,” Divecha explained. She added, “We need to keep scaffolding throughout this change,” and said teens need help scaffolding their reasoning. When her daughter wanted her nose pierced, her first reaction as a parent was to forbid it, but instead she tasked her daughter with doing homework about nose piercings, and told her, “We will decide together.” When her daughter wanted to go to a party, she didn’t just say no. Instead she talked with her daughter and really listened, discovering that the reason her daughter wanted to go to the party was because she felt left out of the social scene on Monday mornings as classmates reminisced about fun times they shared at parties each weekend. Divecha said parents need to let their teens know that they are listening to them, suggesting parents say, “Tell me more,” and then problem solve together in a gentle way. Then parents can introduce what Divecha calls “non-negotiables” such as never getting into a car with a driver who has been drinking.
Divecha broke down parenting styles based on how much parents give as well as how much they ask for from their children. According to Divecha, the ideal parenting style is authoritative, in which parents ask a lot of their children while at the same time giving a lot. Her presentation was informative without feeling preachy.
When people registered for the event, they were given the opportunity to choose two of the four available workshops. Workshops were spread throughout the campus of Coronado High School, but transitioning from workshop to workshop was seamless thanks to the help of Coronado High School’s JROTC students, who volunteered by directing everyone where to go. I chose to attend “Zoned Out: Kids & The Digital Screen” and “Evict the Anxiety: Calm Yourself & Your Child.”
Dr. Andrew Doan, a Commander in the United States Navy, and his wife Julie Doan, a registered nurse, were the speakers at the first workshop I attended, offering “Solutions and Approaches to Raising Kids in the Digital Age.” They not only provided fascinating information about the physical changes that go on in the brain when exposed to video games and pornography, but they offered a specific list of warning signs used to screen a gaming/internet addiction disorder. The Doans offered an action plan and solutions to overcoming such a disorder. My favorite take-away from their workshop was the idea of introducing the idea to children that for every 30 minutes of gaming and internet use, they are required to exercise for 30 minutes so kids can “utilize the endorphins video games and the internet provide.” Brilliant!
The Doans’ presentation was especially raw, honest, and touching when they revealed that Andrew’s own video game addiction almost lead to them divorcing. Andrew, who likens himself to being the “Bill W. (the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous) of gaming,” said he was playing video games for about 50-100 hours a week, which caused serious problems in their marriage, especially when they realized that their son Nicholas was following in his footsteps, and he too had developed a gaming addiction. After both father and son went on a “digital fast” of 45 days, not only were the couple able to reunite after their separation, but their son went on to discover his running ability, and today is a remarkable runner in college. Without their family intervention, Nicholas may have never discovered his natural given abilities. It was a good reminder for all of the parents in the room to help their own children uncover their true potential away from the influences of social media, cellphones, the internet, and video games.
After leaving the Doans’ workshop, I met parents Rob and Amy Steiner, who have two boys, ages 9 and 7. The Steiners caught my attention as I heard them remarking about the workshop, and were discussing revisiting which apps and games on the iPad and computer were educational and worthy versus which ones were violent or not educational. As they made plans to “weed out” the unworthy apps and games, I spoke with them, and was introduced to Amy’s mother, Mary Griffin, who attended the conference with them. Mary, who takes care of her grandsons after school, was also involved in the conversation, and it was evident that the family was collaborating as a team to determine what was best for the boys. They shared that last year for Lent, at the kids’ own choosing, their children gave up screen time. After listening to the Doans’ presentation, they said they wanted to eliminate screen time again this Lent, and, who knows, maybe even longer. The Steiners said their boys are aware of other children who enjoy playing on iPads more than running around, and the boys have expressed that they don’t want to be “iPad Zombies” like those kids.
The next workshop I attended was presented by local therapist Wanda Brothers, a licensed marriage and family therapist and somatic experiencing practitioner. She is the founder of Real Life Solutions Trauma Recovery, and helped parents at the workshop learn how to “quickly calm yourself and your child during a challenging parenting situation using three easy steps.” Brothers emphasized that “children feel what we feel” and that “happy parents make happy children.”
Of course, being happy is certainly what we all strive for, but how we go about getting there can be done with practicing what Brothers calls G.O.T. When faced with a challenging parenting moment, the first thing parents need to do is ground themselves. She advises parents to sit down, take a breath, and feel your heartbeat. Stop doing anything else, and give yourself an “adult timeout” to focus on the situation at hand. The next step is orienting, connecting to your actual environment. Take yourself away from all of the what-ifs and trains of thought leading to frustration, and simply take in where you are at that moment. The last step is touch, starting with clasping your hands. Just like babies are soothed by someone touching them when they are upset, so are we as adults, and touch, even if it’s as basic as clasping your hands, is key to calming yourself down.
The conference ended with an invigorating presentation by “Antarctic Mike” Pierce, who inspired the crowd by talking about perseverance and grit as the keys to success. Pierce himself was inspired by the leadership of Sir Ernest Shackleton, who led harrowing expeditions to the Antarctic, and survived them by being an exceptional leader. Pierce, who ran a marathon in Antarctica in an attempt to get a glimpse of the challenges his hero and his men faced, said, “Kids are starving for leaders. They need us to make good decisions that are in everyone’s favor.”
According to Pierce, parenting, which is the most critical leadership role an adult will ever take on, is just like surviving the harsh elements of the Antarctic. There are barriers that need to be faced, sudden and unexpected changes, and forces that push against you. Just like in the Antarctic, parents need to “think collectively about what’s best for the group.” Shackleton had to make difficult decisions as a leader just as parents must do. “Difficult conversations are part of being a leader,” Pierce reminded the crowd.
Pierce weaved the story of Shackleton’s survival along with his own personal journey of training for his frigid marathon. Shackleton’s group of 28 men all survived because of his leadership, but they didn’t just make it out alive; they found their best selves along the way. According to Pierce, when it comes to parenting, “We are responsible to help them see themselves differently.” According to Pierce, parents’ help “can sometimes ‘rob’ their children of the opportunity to struggle and learn how to overcome challenges.”
How did other parents in attendance at the 4th Annual Coronado SAFE Parenting Conference feel about the conference? Amy Frost, who attended the conference last year, returned, and said of this year’s conference, “Another great parenting seminar put on by SAFE! The speakers always target the hot topics on parents’ minds. I always enjoy hearing what I ‘should be doing’ for my kids, especially when it comes to gaming. It was a nice refresher on many topics to get me refocused and back on track.”
Parents Alan and Amy Schiaffino, who moved to Coronado this past summer, have three children, one at Coronado High School, one at Coronado Middle School, and one at Village Elementary School. I spoke with them prior to the start of the conference, and they said they were attending because they have three kids at three different stages, and they want to ensure that they are meeting everyone’s emotional needs as they “transition through key milestones.” They were especially interested in attending the workshop about anxiety because “in moves with military families, anxiety can always be found.” Amy added, “You never know when one them may be feeling more anxious at a given time than another.”
The Schiaffinos, who had heard from other families how “awesome the SAFE conferences are”, already attended the SAFE talk given by Dr. Doan earlier this school year so they chose to attend Evict the Anxiety and Staying Steady in the Storm. Afterwards they said the conference met their expectations. Alan said, “There were a variety of perspectives, but they tended to trend around a certain theme of taking the initial reaction out of responses to challenging interactions with the kids and trying to approach things from a more thoughtful perspective.” Amy added, “I loved hearing their personal stories, and liked how they shared their own parenting struggles rather than just stand up there and share their clinical knowledge. It made them human, and you can really draw on that, and relate it to your own family.”
Coronado SAFE Executive Director Georgia Ferrell wrapped up the conference by saying, “We could not be more pleased with this year’s Parenting Conference. From our biggest turnout to our fascinating speakers who traveled in from across the county, it was definitely our best year yet. I’m a mother to a 9 year old and 11 year old, and I’m personally leaving this conference with so much great insight. It takes a village to raise children, and Coronado SAFE is helping to provide that village of support. I’m very proud of the work that our staff, board of directors, and coalition members do for our community.”