Heroic Parent Work: Writing Your Letter of Awareness

Posted by Dr. Matt Hoag on June 03, 2020

1matt resizedWilderness treatment began as an intervention where the identified patient, typically an adolescent or young adult, left their home to go and receive therapy in an outdoor setting. Yet, the patient’s challenges occurred within a family setting and dynamic, so wilderness therapy has evolved to include the parents in the treatment process, rather than just their child. Evoke has taken the lead in involving parents in Wilderness Treatment, as family systems and dynamics have increasingly become emphasized and explored. We offer the following interventions:

As we have emphasized this, it is powerful to see the participant’s reactions to their parent’s therapeutic work. They notice change first in their letters and the way they write and become more aware of it when their parents visit the field. One specific assignment has stood out to the boys in my group, the Letter of Awareness (LOA). This is a parallel assignment and often takes the boys two to four weeks to write on their own. The instructions for parents include:

Write a detailed narrative of the ineffective/hurtful behaviors from your past as a parent. Focus on thoughts and feelings that preceded these behaviors, and describe your awareness of the impact these behaviors had on you and others. You may include any regrets you have as a parent, considering that if you had the opportunity to go back in time you would choose differently. This assignment is designed to provide an opportunity to forgive yourself, let go of the past, empower you to move into the future with freedom, and provide your child with the gift of knowing you are working on yourself.

I ask parents to complete their LOA’s to coincide with the time their son or daughter finishes their letter. Many young people comment on the work their parents have done, noting that they learned something about their father or mother that they did not know before, and express relief that this process is not just about them. The LOA is proof to these young men and women that this is not lip service, their parents are doing their own work. They get to experience the change in their parents, they get to see the change, and it is inspiring for them to engage their parents in this manner.

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What does a parent Letter of Awareness look like or address? Here are a few example paragraphs:

I regret fighting with your Mom so much. I wish that we would’ve handled that differently. I think there was a lot of energy spent in trying to hurt her and we lost track of what was best for you and your needs as a small child. I think this must have been very hard on you. I know you often wanted to protect me from her criticism.

After you returned from the hospital, I was aware that I needed to talk to you differently. I was beginning to take your learning issues more seriously and trying to educate myself on better techniques to communicate with you. However, sometimes I would still say some pretty mean things to you not really thinking how it could impact you. I regret the hurtful things that I would say to you out of frustration. I knew that they were not nice things to say and sometimes I would get so angry I did not control myself very well. I regret not hugging you more and telling you how much I love you and what a wonderful person and young man you are.

I regret drinking too much. I admit that in the past I drank too much and had a problem. It created a lot of confusion and I could have navigated situations better had I been sober. I think that if I had a better handle on my drinking back then maybe I would have noticed more that you were struggling. I would have been more present and equipped to deal with the issues at hand and be there for you in a way that I couldn’t because I was coping and masking with alcohol. I would have been present for you. I want you to feel comfortable and at ease. I have been working very hard on it and through my AA meetings and working with my sponsor it has gotten easier and easier.

When parents step into owning and doing their own work, they demonstrate to their child that the family dynamic is changing and that the child is not solely responsible for making change. The family begins to create safety with a new language and process. Parents often share that while Evoke was wonderful for their child, it also changed their own lives. Our family program and services offer hope, peace of mind, and healing to the vicarious trauma loved ones experience when watching a young person suffering with mental health and addiction issues.

PHOTO: Letter by John Jennings on Unsplash

Reedy, B.M. (2015). The Journey of the Heroic Parent: Your Child’s Struggle & the Road Home. Regan Arts.

Pozatek, K. (2010). The Parallel Process: Growing Alongside Your Adolescent or Young Adult Child in Treatment. Lantern Books. 


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