The adolescent years can be choppy waters for both parents and their teens. Sue Dudman finds out how Jigsaw Whanganui is trying to help.

"The White Water Years": a name that suggests a turbulent time of ups and downs, navigating rapids and clever manoeuvring.

It's the title of Jigsaw Whanganui's programme for parents and caregivers of pre-teens and teens that supports them to build skills and confidence in dealing with the teenage years.

Jigsaw Whanganui executive officer Tim Metcalfe says the agency developed the programme about 14 years ago and has continued to refine it.


"The name 'The White Water Years' came out of discussion within our team, reflecting upon our various experiences as parents and the seemingly sudden challenges as our children come into the teenage years," Tim said.

The nine-session programme focuses on increasing communication, problem solving and limit setting.

It is part of Jigsaw's suite of parenting programmes which includes The Incredible Years, an internationally recognised programme for parents of children aged three to eight years, and Building Awesome Whanau for parents of 0-12-year-olds.

The agency also runs MAPPS (Mothers Addressing Past Pain) for mothers who are experiencing anger and a small programme that is part of the overall drug and alcohol programme in the Maori focus unit at Whanganui Prison.

At any given time, there are 70 to 80 families actively involved in Jigsaw's parenting programmes across the Whanganui, Rangitikei, Ruapehu and Taihape areas.

The Incredible Years, White Water Years and Building Awesome Whanau programmes are run by Jigsaw programme facilitators Robina Nicholl, Anne Marie Gray, Sue Wells and kaiwhakahaere Building Awesome Whanau me hotaka Nicki Rees. Clare Hiroti facilitates the MAPPS programme.

The White Water Years is tailored to parents' requirements, with the team doing a significant amount of work with parents before they come into a programme.

"We make it a very welcoming and safe environment because people see parenting programmes as a judgment of themselves," Tim said.

"It's the kids' job to test boundaries - parents don't have to take it personally."

Anne Marie says the programme facilitators meet with families, in their own home or at Jigsaw's premises, before parents start on the programme.

"We find out what their expectations are and what we can do to make them feel comfortable. We spend an hour to an hour and a half before the programme starts and then continue to keep in touch with them throughout the programme.

"Parents come and think it's the children who need to be fixed but during the course they realise they may have too high expectations and those need to be adjusted. They realise they are not alone and others are facing the same situation and it's what's normal for teens today.

"There will be blips because that's human nature but after doing the programme you have skills to look at what was working and get it back on track."

The team tries to make the programme as unlike a school and classroom environment as possible, with a focus on practical skills.

"Each week we introduce a strategy or quality," Robina says.

"We try stuff out in the group and then the parents take it home and try it out in their own home. The first week is a great unbundling and they all realise they aren't alone.

"The following weeks their faces look lighter and they are less accusatory of their children.

"Most of the behaviours are normal developmental stages. When kids are acting out, they are trying stuff out. Parents can put consequences in place but it doesn't have to be punitive.

"We are coaching parents to be consistent and let teens know when they are getting it right. It helps parents reconnect with their children as the people they are."

The White Water Years programme principally follows an adult learning model where people reflect on their experience and learn from shared experience.

"We believe group work and mutual learning is the most powerful way of learning," Tim said.

"They build a close network of support within the group. Confidentiality is key in the groups and we reflect on our own practice after every session.

"People take a lot of responsibility about how they hold other people's korero.

"It's very rare that there would ever be a breach of that. That's the strength of the group. They hold one another with a lot of respect."

Nicki says the facilitators model positive behaviour in the groups "so there isn't a punitive response from us to some of the things people say".

"All parents who come in want their homes to be full of love and they want their homes to be the best for their whanau," Nicki said.

"We are always encouraged by the parents' commitment to do it. We talk about aroha and positive processes being the base foundation for whanau.

"The programme empowers and builds confidence for parents and that then happens with their children.

"They connect with other parents in the community which is an unexpected outcome for some parents.

"We are guided by participants' needs and what they see as relevant in the community. Sometimes we become an advocate for a whanau who just needs to make a connection [with another agency].

"I think Jigsaw is recognised within our community as being great supporters of whanau and people feel encouraged to self-refer."

Robina is impressed that Jigsaw's work in Taihape is an Primary Health Organisation initiative.

"It's a 'top of the cliff' health initiative which is outstanding," she said.

"A happy family is more likely to be a healthy family but that's the only health funding we get," Tim says.

"The Ministry of Social Development funds a small amount of work but we have to find all the rest from our fundraising activities.

"We are very grateful for the support we get in the community.

"There is no fee to attend our courses. We do everything we can to make sure there are no barriers to people being the very best they can be for their families."

The parents' story

"It can feel very isolating when your kid's screaming at you or going snail's pace getting ready for school. But we found out we aren't the only ones who go through it on a daily basis."

Natalie and James* have three children aged 17, 16 and 10. The couple has been having some challenges with Master 10 ("not huge behaviour, not violence, but growing behaviours and we were yelling at him") so enrolled in the White Water Years programme after deciding there must be a better way to deal with the conflict in their home.

Even though they already had two teenagers, it proved a real eye-opener for them, "once you get over the ego thing of not wanting someone else telling you how to raise your child", Natalie said.

"Doing the programme was to learn strategies for us and also to help us teach our child strategies going forward in his life. At some point he will have to take responsibility for himself so he is learning life-long strategies."

After deciding to enrol in the programme, Natalie asked James to go along too. He was hesitant about the group environment but agreed to give it a go. Both were apprehensive about who would be in the group and whether anyone would know - and judge - them.

"The group environment was a bit daunting at first but then we realised that it's not just us," James said. "It's a human being a teenager thing. Our problems were very similar."

"What happens in the group is confidential and stays in the group," Natalie said. "You never mention people by name but talk about situations instead."

Gaining an understanding of what is going on in the development of a teen's brain has been key to the couple's new approach to parenting.

"The programme taught us about the teenage brain and how some of what they are doing is automatic behaviour," Natalie said.

"To feel it and not act on it is a very adult thing," James said. "Self-control is very hard to be able to teach someone. We had a situation recently where Master 10 was angry with someone at school and wanted to hit them but, because of the strategies we had taught him, he didn't."

Other strategies that have made a difference include talking to their child in a respectful way, praising "little and often" and being consistent.

"It's not rocket science and it's not difficult," Natalie says. "Some of it is basic stuff like spending 10 minutes a day doing something your child wants to do and everyone eating at the dinner table. People aren't always good at giving praise but it comes easier with practice."

Continual changes in technology are an ongoing challenge for parents and the programme offers strategies on how to deal with this.

"Technology is in the same bracket as sex, drugs and drinking," Natalie said. "It's the education around using it and then it's their choice. It's good to see Jigsaw is keeping up with changes in technology and can provide advice."

The couple say the shift in behaviour happened fairly quickly after they started introducing the strategies they were learning.

"I can't put my finger on the point where things got better as it's ongoing," James said.

"It's the way we ask him to do things. We are saying the same things but in a different way so it's not so confrontational.

"Praise is one of the more effective strategies with him - it had a marked effect. It encourages the good and lessens the bad. There was a lot of anger from Master 10 before but now his frustration has reduced. He seems a lot happier."

"It's realising that the change has to come from the parent first and ask 'What could I do differently?'," Natalie said.

"There's not so much tension in the house now. We are teaching him to strategise situations for himself. I encourage anyone to do the programme. You will have setbacks but Jigsaw is there to help."

James says after his initial reluctance, he got a lot out of the programme.

"We are a testing board for them. As a teen, you hurt the people you love the most because you feel you can push the boundaries.

"It provided a bit more self-worth for us and we can try things slightly differently. The information was very valuable and provided relief. We are normal, this happens normally."

Natalie: "It doesn't make you a bad parent to go on a parenting course."

James: "It makes you a good parent wanting to be better."

* Names have been changed to protect the identity of the children.