Operation Parenting: Changing the Immigrant Family Conversation

The Child Center of NY was founded with the mission of destigmatizing therapy and improving mental health for children in poor communities. Sixty-seven years later, we are again at the forefront of addressing an unrecognized need for therapeutic support — immigrant parents raising American-born children with behavioral issues.

Enter Operation Parenting, an eight-week group therapy program that supports caregivers to break out of traditional and/or negative parenting patterns. To date, The Child Center has run three pilot groups to great success involving 30 parents speaking either Spanish or Mandarin. A group of six recently attended their graduation session and shared the transformation in their relationships with their children.

“My son is in therapy for a nervous tic. I used to get mad at him about this. Now I understand he can’t control it, and I have let go of my anger.”

“I am learning how to listen, how to talk differently. My son recently noticed this and said, ‘I realize you really love me.’ That meant so much to me.”

“My friends now see me calmly interacting with my daughter and ask, ‘How do you do that?’”

Indeed, how is it that the early outcomes of Operation Parenting are so strong? One place to look is the innovative play-based and group approach.

“Research shows that action-based programs utilizing a group model are effective in enabling people to open up and create judgment-free, trusting environments,” explains Dr. Anderson Sungmin Yoon, Vice President of Integrated and Value-Based Care at The Child Center, and the driving force behind launching the pilot.

At first, the parents were reluctant and skeptical about playing games together. But as they began to get into the exercises, they started discovering new things about building relationships. For example, in “Parachute,” each participant holds up a section of a parachute while the therapist tosses a ball in the middle and directs each parent to try to keep the ball in their section. Of course, this is impossible to accomplish while each person pulls for their individual area. But when parents are directed to work together to get the ball to a designated section, it takes no time at all to achieve the goal.

For immigrant parents who can quickly go to feeling shame around family issues and prefer to keep their problems to themselves, the access to communication and strength-based tools has changed their lives. One father shared at graduation, “I no longer keep my emotions inside.” One mother realized, “I can ask for help! And when I do, I get it.”

This spring The Child Center is deepening its research into the program by studying the outcomes of a control group run in a classroom format, and an Operation Parenting group tapping into the power of play.

“I have made it my mission to think outside the box and pilot new programs that give immigrant parents the tools to build strong relationships with their children, and to care for their own mental health in the process,” concluded Dr. Yoon. “It’s great to work in an organization that values evidence-based innovation.”

For a first-person account of Operation Parenting’s impact, read Angela’s Story in English and Spanish.

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