You could say the Program for Early Parent Support (PEPS) is growing up and stretching, just like families it serves.
After a lengthy period of self-reflection followed by a pandemic that turned its way of connecting parents on its head, the organization is set to move into 2023 with a new mission and a wider breadth of programs to support it.
The facilitated support groups for parents of newborns that put PEPS on the map remain the organization’s cornerstone. But as of this year, PEPS also offers a support program for pregnant or adopting parents. And, in a significant shift, PEPS recently launched an education and support program for parents of adolescents and teens.
After all, says PEPS Executive Director Dana Guy, parenting teens is a lot like starting all over as a new parent.
“There’s rapid brain development and changes happening as kids exit elementary school and parents often feel unequipped — just as they did when they had a newborn,” says Guy,
There’s more than one way
Currently, there are no PEPS support groups for parents of kids ages 1 to 9, but organization leaders aren’t ruling anything out. Instead, Guy says PEPS’ new strategic plan demands that the organization keep asking parents what they want and need and keep building programs that support them in new and innovative ways — not only through the first year of a child’s life, but through all phases of the parenting journey.
“We’ve done a lot to shift the organization from a one-size-fits-all approach,” Guy says. “We needed to shift from the idea that we have this one program and this is what it is, and if it works for you, it works and if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. We started acknowledging the multiple different identities and needs that parents have and rather than that one-size-fits model, we’re adapting and building multiple ways for parents to engage and connect.”
A question of access
Change began brewing at PEPS long before the pandemic.
“In 2016, we made a commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion,” says Guy. “It started as a conversation about access. Who’s accessing PEPS? Who’s not? Why is that?”
That initial conversation led the organization into deeper self-review, including a community assessment, listening sessions with parents and other internal analysis.
There were a lot of positives: PEPS’ new parent support groups had seemed to blossom on word of mouth over the organization’s first 30 years. In that time, thousands of new moms and, eventually, dads had gained helpful – sometimes life saving – information and found connection and friendship with other parents in homes across Seattle. In PEPS group meetings their kids’ development as well as their own highs and lows of parenting were normalized for parents through the experience of meeting others in the same boat.
Need for change
Other discoveries were more difficult.
“Our groups have always focused on neighborhood connection, and Seattle neighborhoods have a history of redlining,” says Guy.
That word-of-mouth success left many neighborhoods and communities out, with little information about or access to PEPS groups. Participation fees excluded some parents. The unique questions and perspectives of non-English speaking parents, single parents, LGBTQIA parents and others were missing. The PEPS one-size-fits-all model of parent support, it turned out, did not fit all.
Prior to this deep dive, PEPS leaders had been looking at national expansion, says Guy.
“But then it was, wait, we’ve got some work to do here in our community,” she says. “That led to a lot of learning and reflection and acknowledging some of those places where we had made mistakes and where barriers had been put up.”
To say that PEPS has taken the issues of equity and anti-racism to heart is an understatement.
“We started with an anti-bias review of our curriculum and have been doing ongoing work to support group leaders to facilitate inclusivity,” stresses Guy. “We have new topics on race and social identity development and are planting seeds for parents – especially white parents — to learn, unlearn and have conversations about race, racism and social identity early and often.
She adds: “We know Black and brown families have always talked about race and racism with their children as a matter of survival. We acknowledge that it never should have taken us this long to make this a required topic in our groups,” Guy says.
Breaking down barriers
The organization has made significant changes in recent years to break down barriers to access. For example, programs now operate on a flexible fee schedule —– no one is denied participation for lack of ability to pay. And, rather than have groups rotate meetings through the homes of group members, in-person meetings are now held in community locations, including the Good Shepherd Center in Wallingford.
As Guy explains: “Meeting in homes, it’s a benefit, right? It can help people get to know each other better when they know where the other folks in the group live. But it’s also a barrier. There are lots of folks who might say ‘I could never host in my home.’ They live in a small space. Or they’re just uncomfortable.”
Some meetings in group member homes will likely return in 2023, says Guy. But, the organization will continue to offer all programs in multiple formats: virtual, in-person at community sites, in-person in homes or a hybrid of in-person and virtual gatherings.
Ready! Set! Wait.
The PEPS board of directors approved a new vision, mission, values and goals for the organization in 2019. Following that roadmap, PEPS plans to build and expand programs and partnerships to ensure its programs are “accessible, inclusive and racially equitable.”
Unfortunately, a change in leadership and then pandemic lockdown got in the way of rolling out the plan publicly at an event scheduled for March 2020.
“My first decision as executive director was to cancel the event,” says Guy.
The organization will celebrate the tenets of its new mission and vision, along with its expanded programming, at a 40th birthday celebration planned for May 9, 2023. In the meantime, here’s a review of what’s new or different at PEPS:
Connecting the Expecting
Getting through pregnancy, planning for birth and preparing for a baby’s arrival have always been stressful. Throw a global health crisis on top and what you get are expectant parents with increased anxiety and isolation. This new 6-week virtual PEPS program helps new parents get ahead of the game. Topics covered include preparing for a baby’s arrival, managing work, child care and family life, self care and perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, parenting identities and roles and building a family culture.
Although actually launching the program hadn’t been on the PEPS 2020 agenda, the pandemic greenlighted the project.
“Parents were really, really stressed. They didn’t know if their partner would be able to come to the hospital. It was scary,” says Guys. “People just couldn’t get the support that they needed – they couldn’t even get out. We ended up deciding parents need this now, let’s just start doing it and learn as we go.”
The Newborn Program
Parents of newborn babies ages 2 to 16 weeks continue to meet for 12 weeks in this program, as they have since 1983. One or both parents may attend, depending on the group. Facilitated topics cover the gamut from newborn feeding to sleep deprivation to developmental milestones, parent identity, postpartum mood issues and sex after baby.
In recent years, the program has been flexed to meet the needs and interests of “affinity” groups of parents, including groups for single, LGBTQIA, working moms, parents of kids with developmental delays and disabilities and others. At the same time, PEPS has upped its efforts to partner with other groups and organizations to meet the support needs of families. For example, PEPS suggests local parents of color also join parent support groups through Families of Color Seattle (FOCS).
Adapting the model
Through partnerships with Open Arms Perinatal Services, Mercy Housing Northwest, NISO Programs and Denise Louie Education Center, PEPS has adapted its model so that other organizations are able to provide responsive parent peer support to the communities they serve, including groups conducted in first languages like Spanish and Farsi/Dari.
New parent groups are now offered in three options: in-person, all virtual or hybrid. One parent who joined PEPS during lockdown says the latter would have been optimal for her.
“Our group was virtual, but we got together in person outside of our weekly meetings to get to know each other. We have become a pretty tight-knit group since then. We share a WhatsApp group chat and get together regularly,” says South Park mom Jodi Mack. “Meeting virtually had its perks, like being able to just roll onto the Zoom call in a pair of socks and a long tee-shirt covered in god knows what, but nothing compares to meeting in person – eye contact, body language, and just generally soaking up each others’ human-ness.”
Meeting in community spaces
Mack says she supports PEPS’ decision to hold in-person meetings in community spaces as well as the likely return to homes in 2023. New parents need to feel comfortable and included, not stressed.
“I can imagine how difficult it would be if some families in the group had space to host, it may make the families who don’t have space to host feel left out or stressed. I think community space is a nice compromise.”
“The community space provides a neutral environment,” adds Gloria Martinez, who has facilitated new baby and parent of teens PEPS groups in English and in Spanish. “It’s an excellent first step to returning to socializing after being isolated with the baby. Usually, at the end of the sessions, parents meet nearby or find new resources in the community.”
Ballast in the postpartum storm
Mack, who says she was skeptical of joining a group at first and who struggled with an intense postpartum anxiety disorder, says her PEPS experience has played a significant role in her healing as well as her trust in herself as a mother.
“Initially, I was self-conscious about sharing my mental health status with the group. I was having paralyzing, graphic hallucinations around the clock, and I had no idea how to articulate what was happening to me, which just made me feel more and more isolated from the group,” she recalls. “But even when everything felt hopeless and I wanted to sink deeper, hearing the muffled voices of our group above gave me the ballast I needed to snap out of it and keep trying. Even if just for one workout class. One beer. One lap around the park.
“Over time, this group has played a huge factor in my confidence level as a mother, and I’d like to think we all feel that way about each other,” Mack says.
Parents of Adolescents and Teens
This year the organization launched the Parents of Adolescents and Teens (PAT) program, a 9-week program aimed at connecting parents and helping them navigate the sometimes confusing and turbulent years between 10 and 14, 15 and 19 or the whole range of 10-19.
“You’re not necessarily connected to a friend’s parents anymore or as connected to your child’s teachers,” Guys says of the transition to middle school. “There is a lot of information out there, but less of bringing parents together and normalizing that experience.”
Shifting how parents show up for teens
PAT meetings are facilitated by leaders with professional experience in the areas of adolescent child development, child psychology or child therapy for adolescents or teens. Similar to a newborn group, parents share their highs and lows of the week at the beginning of each meeting and then move on to topic areas, including adolescent brain development, effective communication with teens, substance use, identity and gender development and the social worlds (including online) of adolescents.
“I have a lot of access to all of these things about what to do as a parent,” says Guy who recently joined a PAT group to learn more about parenting a 12-year-old. “That doesn’t always make it easier in the really hard moments that I’m having with my kiddos. Literally every week I would walk away with something concrete that would kind of help me shift how I was showing up in challenging situations.”
Simple ideas make all the difference
She pointed to the mom in her group who put into action advice she heard about connecting with teens through their interests.
“One week she told us, ‘There is nothing. She won’t connect with me.’ And then the next week, she came back and she said, ‘I figured it out. She has her learner’s permit! She really likes to drive. If I ask her to come on an errand with me, she’ll say no. But if I say, ‘Can you drive me to do this?’ she says, ‘Yes.’”
“Adolescence is a stage that impacts not only teens but the whole family,” adds Martinez, who facilitates PAT groups. “Teens are seeing the world differently and parents are learning to change their protective role to a supportive one. The program provides parents with the context of what’s happening in the brain and body of their adolescents and how, as adults, we can provide the support that our kids need. The group lets the parents know that other parents and adolescents are having similar experiences and encourages the exchange of ideas on managing specific situations.”
Does the acronym still work?
Dana Guy says she is looking forward to 2023 and, eventually, the PEPS 40th birthday celebration and the chance to highlight the organization’s many changes. She hopes that party will make up for the one that she had to cancel in the face of the pandemic.
There will be a lot to celebrate. Parents are finding their way back to PEPS after the chaos of the pandemic. At its peak, PEPS served upwards of 4,000 parents a year. This year, they are happy to have connected 3,400 parents, up from about 3,000 during the height of the pandemic last year.
Still, Guy points out, numbers aren’t the goal. The goal is to provide all families with access to a healthy, supported start in life.
In the meantime, the Program for Early Parent Support will be rolling out a “refreshed” brand in 2023 to address the fact that the Program for Early Parenting Support now serves more than early parents, says Guy.
More on Seattle’s Child:
“Families of Color Seattle: ‘Where parents of color don’t have to hold back’
“Unmasking anxiety: Resources for parents”
“Taking to teens about suicide: an important conversation”