“My behavior caused pushing, pulling and punching,’’ a young teen candidly shared. “I started to destroy everything I saw and started to break the door down.”
A parent described her son’s actions: “He punched a hole in the wall. I was shocked. I was hurt and surprised because it’s not his character at all,” she continued.
“So when I heard about Step-Up, I knew it was something that we had to do. It was something where we had to collaborate and do things together.”
The candid stories come from Step-Up program support groups in King County, Washington. The Step-Up (Stop, Think, Evaluate, Plan and Use Patience) program is a nationally recognized curriculum that addresses issues of adolescent violence in the home. That violence may range from threats, verbal jabs and intimidation to physical violence.
The program teaches skills that can diffuse tension between parents and their children. It’s designed to develop trust, respect and problem-solving techniques between youth and parents that can last a lifetime and in any setting, including work and school.
Today, a similar program is underway in Multnomah County for youth and parents who have also reached a tough intersection at home. Families facing harmful conflict at home may now be referred to Multnomah County’s Families United for Safety & Empowerment, or FUSE, program. Youths might be assigned a juvenile court counselor through Multnomah County’s Juvenile Services Division which provides community supervision and diversion programs for youth. The division oversees the FUSE program.
Referrals usually happen the first time there’s an incident in the home, said Annette Majekodunmi, a FUSE instructor at POIC + Rosemary Anderson High School, which implements the curriculum. Instructors from Latino Network also offer the FUSE curriculum for parents and youth who speak Spanish.
“There would have to be some kind of law enforcement interaction to begin the process,’’ said Majekodunmi. Calling law enforcement is usually a last resort for most parents and one they feel conflicted about making, Majekodunmi says. But when that moment is reached, the program serves as a diversion.
“We’re really working to intervene early, so anything we can do to keep youth out of the system,” said Majekodunmi. “We’re working on relationship skills with families.”
There is no archetype for youth and parents who join the FUSE program. Any family can be affected by violence and tension in the home.
Majekodunmi says that it can happen in homes with both parents or a significant other or a single-parent home. Parents may work full time or not. There are just as many girls in the program as boys. But the common thread shared by all is a crisis that has been going on in the home.
“It could be around school or bullying, divorce, or any number of things,’’ said Majekodunmi.
“What I’ve heard in the groups is that things escalate from there. And what may start as something different, turns into something else.”
Lately, that trauma might be exacerbated by the barrage of issues affecting everyday life, from news of new COVID-19 variants and health struggles to financial hardship, job loss or any kind of personal loss, to simply tuning into the news or social media.
It’s no surprise that tensions can occur in the home when a family endures stress. That’s where processing emotions in a healthy way and keeping positive connections come into play.
“There might be therapy being used too, which is great,” said Majekodunmi.
The curriculum consists of 10 weekly, 75-minute sessions. The sessions are held virtually.
Some youth start out not wanting to be on camera, but eventually those reservations subside, especially during break-out sessions where youth are among other youth.
There’s a session for parents only, too.
“I know just talking to other parents going through similar things is impactful,” said Majekodunmi. “Those youth get a chance to talk to each other and parents and youth come together in the end.”
Majekodunmi says that by the end of the curriculum, “we see parents and children really working to talk it out.”
Know your warning signs
The program delves into understanding your own feelings and how to respond when you’re upset. Like its King County counterpart, the curriculum relies on cognitive behavioral skills: an approach that includes learning about unhealthy ways of thinking and behavioral patterns, and unlearning those patterns.
There’s introspective and proactive work in the curriculum to help participants understand their warning signs and “recognizing when my body gets really warm that I need to take a break, or how do I pull myself out of this situation,’’ said Majekodunmi.
Teens are taught to recognize distorted thinking and work to better understand others’ emotions and motivations. The program also uses restorative practices to help youth engage in accountability and repair relationships.
Sessions include self-calming techniques, how to regulate, assertive communication, how to make your needs known without violence and how to ask for things.
“Saying ‘you, you, you, you’ is not productive,” said Majekodunmi. “So it’s just rethinking how we communicate and how we learn to communicate.”
Parents also appreciate the curriculum because it not only teaches them how to respond when their teen is violent or abusive, but also new skills they may not have learned earlier.
Many parents may have grown up being subjected to yelling or snide remarks. Re-learning how to communicate is important for parents, but it’s just as important to the youth who learn from their parents.
“[Parents] are using the tools they may have had as kids and it’s falling short. There’s also been a certain level of not seeing yourself as a parent but more of a peer, and that doesn’t work because they end up here,” Majekodunmi says.
“The program gives teens and parents the space to understand what the other may need. Even if there’s incremental improvement, it’s an improvement.”
Relationship building is a critical piece of the curriculum.
Majekodunmi recalls a mother and son who experienced conflict that included physical harm.
“What stood out for me is the son took part and the mom took part [in the program], and towards the end, their relationship blossomed,” she said.
“That’s one example of just how needed the curriculum is. These people don’t have any other outlet to build relationships with other families.”
There are families who complete the program but still come back to the program because they love the support.
“There’s value in youth being able to sit together and learn together and identify ways they can all get better, and the willingness of other parents to share and to let other families know you’re not doing this alone," said Majekodunmi.
For more information on FUSE, contact Mary Geelan, firstname.lastname@example.org, phone: (503) 750-1484