Family Forum: Where Heartaches and Hope Meet Over a Cup of Tea

Parenting is said to be one of the most rewarding parts of being in family. It’s also one of the hardest parts of being in family. Our children are growing up with challenges and dynamics that none of us had to face. When we combine that with the social and economic challenges, being a parent can feel totally overwhelming. Especially when we are being asked to do things differently to what we know.

Family Forum is an open group that we host twice a week at the Arise Family Centre. It happens around a table. A table with tea, sandwiches and open hearts as together the challenges facing families are discussed and supported by people facing similar, if not the same challenges. Mothers, fathers and grandparents or extended families all make up the caregivers who sit together.

A grandmother was raising her 14 year old grandson. He got involved with the wrong clique of friends, smoking dagga, skipping school and displaying challenging behaviours. This escalated until he was was suspended from school numerous times for misconduct and stealing. His parents were absent and so his grandmother had assumed responsibility for raising this young man. She came to Arise as she was concerned that he would drop out of school altogether and be absorbed into a gang. After sharing her concerns at Family Forum, her grandson was sent to an intervention programme. Part of this young man’s story includes reconciling with his biological father and returning to school. He is now performing well at school and his grandmother still attends Family Forum – receiving but also offering support and hope to help others dealing with similar challenges.

Family Forum is about parenting challenges but also about giving hope and finding new ways of being together. About learning what we are doing that is helpful and our own growth areas; about learning to listen to the needs and reason for our children’s reactions rather than simply trying to shut them down or label them good or bad. It’s about re-imagining what family, the existing family can be, what belonging feels like and what it can look like to actually enjoying being together.

Sometimes this re-imagining means coming to the Family Forum table when you decide you are ready to stop using drugs. Even if this means no longer using with your partner and father of your children. For one mother this was her story – a story where she was repeatedly told by others how badly her children behaved. Out of frustration and not knowing how to respond, she used to hit and bite her children. In contrast, after unlearning old patterns and learning new skills, including listening to what her children’s behavior was saying, she changed the way she speaks to her children. She now makes time for them when they get home from school. This mother has been able to reflect on how her changes, the changes in the way she speaks to her children, has changed the way her children relate back and are willing to open up about themselves. Family Forum has become this mom’s support group, her encouragement space and a space where she encourages others who share the same challenges.

These are two stories of heartache that now speak of hope. Family Forum has grown from one meeting a week to two meetings to accommodate people wanting to join. Most of these families learn about Family Forum from other members of the community, some are referred from school and some through the court system.

Family Forum is a lot like family – it’s messy, it’s beautiful, there is heartache but also hope. There is room at the table for all.