Jean Schumm thought things were going well for her and her husband and their five young children.
Then the kids started to hit their teenage years and began to experience all the new challenges and social pressures that accompany that stage of life. Schumm admits she didn’t understand the teen culture her children were entering into and certainly wasn’t prepared to deal with it. Things grew especially tense with her oldest daughter, Amanda, whose rebellious behaviors tested the family’s bonds.
“Truly I was ill-prepared,” Schumm says. “Our relationship strained because I was really far removed from her world.”
Their relationship would ultimately survive and grow deeper, but for Schumm it would take persistence, tough love, and a willingness to learn new parenting skills.
She decided to use her experiences to help other parents navigate similar challenges. Schumm formed the non-profit organization Operation Parent, which produces guidebooks, webinars, and other materials that give parents practical advice for surviving the day-to-day challenges of raising a teenager or preteen in today’s world.
That once-rebellious daughter is now grown and the parent of her own two young children. Amanda Gale also works for the Oldham County-based organization as the Director of Community Partnerships. Schumm and Gale appeared on KET’s Connections to discuss how their experiences inform the work of Operation Parent.
They can laugh about it now, but Gale admits she brought a lot of conflict to the Schumm family when she was younger. In high school she started socializing with a new group of friends. That led to her testing or outright breaking the boundaries set by her parents.
“I definitely caused a lot of strain and stress in the house just from decisions I was making,” Gale admits. “That was impacting my parents… and then that was spilling over into my younger siblings, watching every move I’m making.”
“She was a strong-willed child,” Schumm says of her daughter. “We saw her changing her personality based on some of the friends she was hanging out with, and that was a scary thing to watch.”
Things came to a head when Gale was freshman in college. Schumm and her husband told their daughter if she didn’t change her ways, she would have to move out of the house. Although tensions had been escalating in Schumm home for a couple of years, Gale says the conversation caught her off guard.
But it also did something else. Gale says it gave her a new respect for her parents.
“I didn’t see it all right then and there – it did take a little bit of time to digest,” Gale says. “But now especially as an adult and as a parent now myself, I know everything that they were doing and trying to do was to protect me and keep me safe and keep me healthy.”
It was also a learning experience for Schumm. She says she realized every time she and her husband tolerated a bad behavior, they were essentially teaching that behavior in their children. They had to learn as parents to set good boundaries, and then keep them in place.
But even that wasn’t easy. She says there came a point when she felt that her children and the teen culture was stronger than she was.
“I literally was so overwhelmed and so discouraged as a parent,” Schumm says. “I needed somebody to tell me, ‘Don’t give up, Jean, you’re still in the game.’”
No Matter How Bad It Gets, ’Keep Parenting’
Those experiences led Schumm to found Operation Parent about a dozen years ago. She talked with guidance counselors at her local high school to learn about the primary issues facing teens today, from substance abuse and family dynamics, to bullying and social media. Then she worked with experts to create a series of handbooks that would raise parental awareness about these issues, and give tips to help parents and their children have meaningful conversations about them.
Now the organization’s materials are also available online as downloadable e-books as well as webinars that parents can attend live or watch later in streaming video.
Schumm says the organization originally focused on parents with children entering high school. But considering the pervasive influence of cellphones, social media, and the addiction crisis, Schumm says Operation Parent also now offers materials for parents of elementary and middle school children. She says the conversations have to start that early to prevent a crisis from developing later, especially when it comes to drug abuse.
“We need to move at a faster rate than we are on prevention,” Schumm says. “We are losing young people and adults to this heroin and opiate crisis…. We can’t sit back and do things the same old way we’ve done them forever. It’s time for a new approach.”
That includes thinking that having “the talk” with a child about a particular issue is all a parent has to do. Instead, Schumm says it has to be an ongoing dialog that evolves as the child ages and is exposed to new sets of life challenges.
“That conversation needs to be two-way and you can’t freak out when you learn something that’s shocking,” Schumm says. “You’ve got to maintain that relationship.”
And most of all, Schumm says, keep parenting, even when you’re as overwhelmed, discouraged, and afraid as she was.
“You’re the number one influencer in your child’s life. Don’t ever lose that,” she says. “You’re going to hit some low spots, you’re going to feel like you might even lose them. This is when you step into your role even more.”
’It’s Worth the Fight”
That motto of “keep parenting” resonates with Schumm’s daughter, Amanda Gale, especially now that she’s a mother of a two and four-year old.
“It is our role to protect our kiddos,” says Gale. “While we can try say it’s the teacher’s role, it’s the church’s role… I’m the parent, I am their protector, and it is my God-given role to do that, and if don’t step boldly into that role, I cannot expect anyone else to do that.”
Looking back on her own youth, Gale says she never would have asked for the kind of intervention her parents ultimately held to help her, but she’s glad they did it. She says she thinks every child craves those kinds of healthy boundaries. Gale says that made it possible for her and her mother to be good friends and co-workers today.
“It’s pretty cool to see how some of our most trying times have turned into this relationship,” Gale says. “Even though those days were hard, I wouldn’t change them.”
Schumm says she was blessed to have five children because she says that gave her the opportunity to learn and practice the parenting skills she didn’t know when Gale was young. That’s part of what makes her so passionate about helping new parents learn these skills before a problem arises.
“I know that by being a more informed and a humble parent, and a parent who has the courage to actually talk and have some of the tough conversations is going to have a much easier ride than what we went through,” Schumm says.
“Almost every family in this country is struggling with one or more of the issues that we address here at Operation Parent,” she adds. “Please don’t give up on your or your children, because it’s so worth the fight.”