Ying Duan, Early Childhood Mental Health Clinician at University Settlement, is focused and intentional in her work with children and families. She connects with parents in the Mandarin Parenting Program she facilitates, where she is quick to model patient curiosity and inject humor into her responses. Parents in her group consistently report feeling a sense of wholeness and connection. In my many years of working with Ying, I can confidently say that I get what the parents mean.
In our coaching conversations, Ying often recollects what parents share in her group. For instance, a parent may share how challenging mealtime is with their child. Ying reflects to parents that it is not just about mealtime. She affirms their feelings and supports them in processing their own childhood memories around mealtime in order to be more available to their children.
She speaks about parents with care and respect, and holds a deep belief in their capacity to grow. She is uniquely able to focus on tiny details families share while holding a larger scope and meaning of her work: to help families heal from trauma and engage with the world in meaningful and productive ways. Ying’s support lets parents and children learn that their stories are important and that they, as individuals, matter. Below are excerpts from our conversation.
What led you to the field of social work?
My childhood gave me that curiosity [about early childhood mental health], but I was also seeking a healing power. I grew up in a domestic violence household. I always wondered, “Why was I in that household?” And, looking back, seeing how my mom went through the most challenging times, I also wondered if there were groups, resources, places, or people that she could turn to so she could gather her strength and go through those challenging times. That might have made things easier for us back then.
It gave me a lens into how certain trauma can contribute to disconnection within a family. I wanted to learn more for myself to grow and to heal. I can be that person to serve as another layer of protection or just to share some resources to those families who might be struggling with different trauma, challenges, and stresses.
"I can be that person to serve as another layer of protection or just to share some resources to those families who might be struggling with different trauma, challenges, and stresses."
I find that ParentCorps is very structured and touches on all those elements in a preschooler’s life. We know about these stressors and we talk about them, but then we never have a systematic way to reflect on them. So I feel ParentCorps can be a grounding platform for parents to form a community to learn more about resources, but also to share the struggles, the difficulties, and to feel safe to talk about them together.
What do you think has made your ParentCorps group serving the Mandarin-speaking Chinese population so successful?
I believe the ParentCorps philosophy: the parent knows best. But as the facilitator and clinician, it’s kind of like when we're driving a car, right? The parents are in the driver’s seat and I'm in the passenger’s seat.
“I believe the ParentCorps philosophy: the parent knows best.”
Within this parenting path, there are bumps, there will be different weather. I cannot drive the car for the parents, but I can tell them what weather is coming up. I can serve as a GPS and ask them how they want to approach. I also want to be there with them when there is a bump to let them know, “It’s okay. We are still on the path. I'm here with you along the way.”
I want to introduce all those scientific and evidence-based strategies, but I respect the parents’ choice, their understanding, and where they are coming from. I can help them adjust the strategy to utilize it in their household.
Eventually, they will find a way to drive the car without me and feel confident in the driver’s seat. That's always my hope. I think that also helps the parents to feel more connected with each other - to share their wisdom, to share their stress within the group, and then to feel open to hearing different perspectives.
What are the most enjoyable parts about facilitating the group? Can you share some memorable moments?
I want to share a statement from one of the parents in my group. She said the first time she came to ParentCorps, those strategies were like planting a seed in her parenting path. But she still had questions. The second time [she attended Parenting Program], those strategies made much more sense because she had a lens from the seed being planted the first time. She could focus more on how the strategies could be utilized in her relationship with her child, and also reflect more on herself growing up as a child. She was then able to compare those different experiences and what she wants and hopes for her and her child.
What gave her courage to keep trying is that we emphasize this message in the group: sometimes when you're trying new things, it's kind of like learning a new language. We're first learning ABCs and it can feel impractical. But as we move from individual letters to words to phrases, eventually it becomes a paragraph. It becomes a way to communicate. You feel the mastery of utilizing strategies with your own family and the way you communicate with children.
So she felt that she grasped the strategies and picked out the most useful strategy for herself. She had less anxiety and fewer feelings of “I have to be a perfect parent all the time.” That is very therapeutic for the caregiver.
I hear throughout our conversation that your North Star is being able to heal relationships and see parents and children connect and remain connected with one another.
That is kind of like a compass for me. Sometimes the way we think about relationships is that the parent does something and then the children do something in response, but actually it’s not like that. The parents have their own experience, personality, and how they interact with kids. Their children are responding with their own temperament, their growing experience, and at different developmental stages. Those factors make the relationships change from time to time.
We all learn in different ways and we are ready at different times - you have the flexibility to offer that to families.
Working with children and families is like this beautiful garden. We plant a seed in the garden, and sometimes the garden does not have the most ideal earth. Or as the seed grows, there is different weather and different seasons. But it’s important to plant that seed and give it sunshine and water and nurture it as it grows to the little seedling poking up, and eventually to a tree starting to blossom. That is also what I see in the families.
Each seed is different. They are all beautiful. They all have their own way to grow and their own way to contribute to the garden. You're able to see all of that growth and all of that beautiful garden variety. I am grateful to have that experience with those families and I appreciate how they invite me to be part of that garden with them.
Sair Goldenberg is a ParentCorps Educator.