Children’s Trust has launched the first interview in a new series highlighting the experiences of Triple P practitioners in South Carolina.

In this interview, Nicole Sheppard, Triple P Greenville Coordinator, recently sat down with Sara Mendez, a Level 4 Triple P practitioner with the state Department of Mental Health.
They discuss what it’s like to be a Triple P practitioner, how Triple P has impacted Sara personally, and more.

Nicole Sheppard (NS): My name is Nicole Sheppard, I am the Triple P Coordinator at Greenville First Steps in the Upstate or Greenville, South Carolina, and I am here today with Sara Mendez, with the South Carolina Department of Mental Health. Sara is a school-based mental health therapist, and I will let her introduce herself and tell us a little bit more about how long she’s been at the organization and a few other things about herself!

Sara Mendez (SM): Yeah! So, I have been with the Department of Mental Health for going on four years in August of this year. I have done school-based the entire time, so my job is essentially to work with children between kindergarten all the way up until fifth grade on different goals that they have as it relates to mental health conditions. Most of those are going to be like ADHD, ODD, autism, depression, anxiety – there are a whole plethora of things that we do.

So, some things about myself: I have two children. I love them so much. They are definitely my reason for why I do what I do. I want to to make it very well known that the biggest reason why I wanted to do Triple P in the first place was actually to understand skills for myself, in order to apply at home, but also to help the kids and the families that I work with here at my job. So that’s a little bit about me, without going to deep!

NS: Wonderful, thank you! That says a lot and I appreciate your responses. Sarah is trained in the Positive Parenting Program, again with Greenville First Steps, and trained in one of our first training cohorts and actually trained virtually! When she trained virtually, it was with some other team members at Greater Greenville Mental Health, who are also school-based therapists. So, they were trained in the 10-session, Triple P Standard model, and have been doing a wonderful job with the families they work with at their schools. They have also been willing to see some families from the general public, as the project continues to grow in the Upstate. So, we’re very thankful for her and her team. Sara’s been delivering Triple P in different formats, and now it’s been a hybrid I imagine, in the virtual and in-person world that we are back into, for almost two years now.

She tells me that if she could have a billboard with anything Triple P related on it what would it be and why? – I love this question! – it would say “We all need help sometimes and to normalize asking for help despite your background”. Tell me more about your response there.

SM: So, I think it’s very important that with the families that we work with, but also with ourselves, we understand it doesn’t matter the color of our skin, it doesn’t matter how much money we’re bringing in-or not bringing in, kids are kids. And parents or parents. There’s a lot of different ways to parent; we hear it from our elders and from books and shows about all these things that you’re supposed to do and not supposed to do with your kids.

I think that the biggest thing that we can do for families, and for just each other, is to help normalize the fact of we all need help. We never, always have the right answers. And I often find as a parent, doing Triple P with other families, I even find responses from the parents I work with and I’m like “I need to try that at home, like that is a great idea!”

NS: Wow, yeah.

SM: So I think that when we are really engaging in these Triple P sessions, even though I’m there to be the person who is trained and kind of go through this, I often find that having that sense of normalization in the session to say “I go through that, too!” really helps to motivate my parents to say “OK, I’m not crazy. This isn’t, you know, something just out of this world.” So if I had a billboard, I think that would be the most important thing to share; is that everybody goes through things. I don’t care which position you’re in and we should be able to be more comfortable with that.

NS: I love that, thank you, well said. So I hear you saying that the Positive Parenting strategies and principles are applicable to everyone. And anyone.

SM: Everyone. Anyone. I don’t care who you are, I can find something (Sara chuckles) that we can all use within Triple P.

NS: Right, that’s great, that’s great. What’s motivating you to deliver Triple P right now?

SM: I would say the fact that my families, a lot of the time come to me and they’re like “I don’t understand why my kid’s acting like this. I didn’t teach them that. Where are they getting this from?” So, my biggest reasoning is actually to help parents understand their children better. We often get into this mode of “Just because we’re the parents, we think we know our children so well”. But, I’ve noticed that in today’s society, a lot of children are more shut down. They’re not really wanting to open up as much and parents are really busy. And so, trying to find time to get to know their children has been difficult.

 I would say that the biggest thing that I have noticed from this (Triple P) would be parents are getting to know their children in a different type of way and children are starting to open up because they know my parent is trying. It’s not just punishment, punishment, punishment all the time where the children are then shutting down.

NS: I love that! What a testament to the work that statement says you’re doing with the families. With the knowledge, the general knowledge, that you were providing them as a mental health therapist and the general Triple P knowledge that you’re providing the parent or caregiver. That’s really a testament to normalizing it, not only for the parent or caregiver, but for the children as well. I haven’t heard that statement before and that’s very important. I love that. Is Triple P important for caregivers and parents today? And why is it important for caregivers today, in your mind?

SM: Well, I think that at least- I’m not old (Sara laughs)- but for my generation and those that are older than me, there is a lot of this history of ‘Children are to be seen, not heard’, spankings fix everything, taking away things, that that I really feel like we need to think outside the box. While some of those things might work at times, you know, there’s a lot of research. This is an evidence-based practice! And so, by using things that are evidence-based and research has been done and it’s been used time and time again, it tells us that there are other ways besides the ways that we’ve been told in the past, in order to raise children to be competent, to be multifaceted, to be holistic, in the way that they think and behave and get along with people. Some of that is also breaking generational curses. I don’t have to, you know, spank this person and this person and these are the things that you have to do.

 It’s like, consistency, and being reliable, and being available for your children and setting boundaries and having them understand ‘I respect you as a person, even though you’re a child and I am also going to demand respect’.  I feel like there’s a lot of these principles that are outlined within Triple P, and that’s why it applies to everybody. Because if we can learn how to respect each other, as you know, a parent and a child- if I can respect my child- then I’m modeling that my child can also respect me. Which also means that when my child gets old enough, they can respect their children and their children can respect them. They have learned through modeling and practice how this is the way that could be a healthier way for people instead of going towards other ways that are thought to be helpful. I just think that there is more to parenting than just punishment.

NS: Well said, well said. It sounds like you’re saying that parenting is very multifaceted and there is a lot to it! (Nicole chuckles)

SM: It is!

NS: And you can speak to that personally! So, what’s one thing that you would say the Positive Parenting Program has done for caregivers that you didn’t expect?

SM: Yes, so (Sara pauses in reflection) I’m trying to think of the best way to put it. That is a very good question.

NS: Well, I know at one point described a very big success story.

SM: Yes, I do remember there was one family I was working with. This specific child was diagnosed with Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD), which basically means “I don’t want to follow directions, I want to do what I want. It doesn’t matter what you tell me, I’m going to do the opposite intentionally.” I remember meeting this mom and she was just like “I don’t know what to do with this kid! He’s been in therapy and I try, I’ve tried everything: I’ve taking stuff away, I’ve tried thinking, I’ve tried grounding him, yadda, yadda,”. It was at another school, and the therapist had referred them for Triple P and I said, “I’ll take it on! That sounds fine, you know whatever.” When I tell you, it was so amazing to interact with this parent.

The first couple sessions [of Triple P], I really go into what can you expect from Triple P, right? So, I always say the first two sessions are all background. “What has happened? What could be the influences?” And as we’re talking about it, you can see the parent’s shoulders just “(sigh) This has happened.  This is why.” and blah, blah, blah.  You kind of see a lot of this defeating attitude and just a mood just kind of like “Ugh, I don’t really want to talk about this, but it is what it is.”

And then I call the third section, since there’s ten, the third one, I call it ‘The Feel Good Session’.  It’s all the great things that you do with your kid! So, you know, “What’s all the fun stuff that you do? What do you talk about? What kind of ideas can we come up with that you like? That your child likes?” That kind of perks parents up a little bit, I’ve noticed, because it is so affirming, as a parent, when you’re dealing with difficulties at home and you’re saying, “Well I am doing this right.” So, you kind of see that switch of the parents saying “Oh! So, I do spend time with my kids!” and “I don’t have to spend 6 hours a day with my kid for it to be quality time.” and “This is how I find moments!”, right? You kind of start to see this mood of the parent just kind of increase slightly.

Then, the session every parent waits for is the fourth session, which is ‘How Do We Even Deal with This? What Do I Do? What Are the Strategies?’. By the time we get to that session, the parents are like “Yes! I’ve got answers! I have all this stuff I want to try!” and then I have to tell my parents “Pump the brakes”. They’re like “What?!” Then I say, “Well, let’s pick two things. You have a list of twenty. Let’s pick two things. When we get to those two things, those are going to be the two most important. I just want you to focus on that. Then when those two things get mastered, we’re going to focus on another two things. We’re going to slowly build upon it and you’re going to find that, you know, maybe the top five of difficult behaviors that you’re having issues with, actually ends up resolving the other twenty.” Because the big ones, they slowly start to form into these certain behaviors, and you start to get used to, and comfortable with, how you’re parenting in a new way, that your mood starts to change, your outlook starts to change as a parent, and your child’s outlook and behavior starts to change.

So [sessions] five, six and seven, all it is is repetition and practice. What’s going well? What do we need to improve on? What are you going to work on? (Sara repeats) What’s going well? What do we need to improve on? What are you going to work on? It’s just this tug and pull of just “This is what we’re doing”. The thing that I love about being the practitioner, is I get to go back and say “You did do that well. OK! You said you need to work on this!” I might have this specific parent tell me “Well, he’s still not wanting to get up in the morning.” Great. So, what could you do differently? So, she was picking and choosing certain things and by the time- I mean honestly, most of my families, by the time we get to session six or seven, they’re ready to start wrapping up Triple P because they have already seen “Oh these are the couple little things I need to change.” and they see this big difference. With this specific parent with the ODD child, by the time we actually got to session seven, she was telling me all these great things that were happening at school and at home. He was going to bed when he was supposed to, he was picking up after himself, they weren’t having to yell, she could talk to him, he was coming to her and talking to her, she could ask for her space. There’s all these things happening!

So, when we get to sessions eight, nine and ten, all about planning ahead, we’re talking about “OK! We’re getting ready to wrap up our sessions. I want you to know that you’ve got this.” When we got to session ten, mom was so happy to see the difference! She kind of made me cry a little bit because she was sharing how the symptoms he had when we first started Triple P- they were no longer there- and now we’re questioning is he even oppositional defiant? If you can just change a couple of things about your parenting skills and learn to be consistent and follow up and feel supported…

NS: (softly, in agreement) Yeah.

SM: …what a world of difference it really does make. Maybe your child really doesn’t have this diagnosis. Maybe it was just a change of environment so that this child is comfortable enough to open up and be able to communicate properly.

NS: (softly) Wow!

SM: I would say that was like the biggest eye-opener for me; to be able to see that and to have that and to meet the child as well and for him to say, “I now like spending time with my mom!”

NS: (softly) Aww!

SM: And have mom say, “I now like doing certain things with my son!” I hear that often: a lot of parents saying, “I’m sick of this.” and by the end they’re saying, “I actually want to spend time with my kid.” Like that’s a big deal! That is a huge deal!

NS: Sara, that is enormous! And kudos to mom and kudos to the guidance that you provided her. I mean even just having, you know, I just keep thinking of a beacon of hope. Sometimes just having a little bit of hope and knowing things are not hopeless, they’re not helpless, and there’s someone who cares, who you have established rapport with, who eventually introduced you to this child, and that they want to spend time with, that’s really huge! That’s very touching. It just again goes to show the great work that mom and you did. Kudos to her as well.

SM: Yeah, she did awesome.

NS: Absolutely! Would you give advice to a parent or caregiver right now, specific advice, about someone that’d like to learn more about Triple P who might be hesitant to start services?

SM: If I had to choose a piece of advice for someone who is more hesitant, I would probably say that anything that you’re willing to put forth, is going to come back to you. So, if you have the energy and the time and you honestly really want this change, you’ll see it.  You will see it. The only time I’ve ever seen things not work out as well is when someone is like “I don’t have the time to dedicate to this.” But when I see a parent saying “When’s our next session? I have more questions. I want to do more. I want to show up. I want to engage. I want to be present.” it’s usually… a lot of times they won’t even take ten sessions. Sometimes I’m doing the ten sessions just because… just because! I like spending time with them! (Sara laughs)

NS: That’s great!

SM: But a lot of the parents, they see things happen so much more quickly when they’re able to be consistent and have that practice.

NS: (softly) Yeah.

SM: I think the biggest thing is, if you have that hesitation, please know that-what I call them- it’s like the pains and the woes of parenting, right? It only happens in the beginning. At first, this is really, really hard!  Don’t expect that you’re going to like, get a tip and then you’re going to do it, and then all of a sudden, it’s going to be good for the rest of their remaining of their 18 years with you. It really is about patience and having grace with yourself and saying, “You know what? I might have not been able to do everything right, but it’s not about being a perfect parent. It’s about being a graceful parent.” It’s about having grace with yourself and patience with yourself to say, “I don’t expect perfection, but I do expect to learn. And to grow.” and to say, “How can I be better? For myself? For my kid? For others?”

NS: It sounds like you’re saying or being a better parent or being a better caregiver, that can make you a better person.

SM: Oh absolutely, absolutely.

NS: If you could give one piece of advice, let’s say for instance, we brought a new practitioner on board, what piece of advice would you give to that new practitioner?

SM: So kind of tying back to grace, as a parent, grace as a practitioner. Understand that if a family doesn’t want it, they’re not going to put in the time. You know, being honest with yourself to understand you’re not a savior, you’re not there to change every single thing. You’re there to just be a beacon, and be a guide, and to say “You know what? It’s OK!”

NS: Right, yeah.

SM: (continuing words from practitioner to caregiver) “If something came up and you can’t do this right now, that’s OK! Guess what? We’re not going anywhere!” There’s always going to be someone that’s doing Triple P Parenting skills. There’s always going to be someone that’s willing to help. So not adding that pressure to yourself to say, “Oh they’re not coming. They’re not doing this. They’re not doing that.”  Just breathe. Guess what? There’s so many people to help. There will always be someone else new. And if you are having difficulty with people showing up or following through understand that everybody has their time. Some people only need two sessions. Some people need all ten. Some people need more than ten! Some people need a simple conversation to open up the light and say, “Oh, that’s what I need to do. OK, I got it.”  

But also, reach out! There are other practitioners, there are other people that have tried different things, k them what they’re doing. I’ve even had to do that with some fellow coworkers and say, “What do I do with this? I don’t know what to do?” But, it all ties back into asking for help: normalizing asking that, and knowing that, if you don’t know what’s going on or you forget a form or whatever, just email somebody! Contact someone. Somebody will help you in the end. That’s what I have found to be the most helpful because my brain goes everywhere! So, I always know I can count on Greenville First Steps to let me know if I’m missing something. (Sara laughs)

NS: (Nicole laughs) Wow, wow, you’re doing you’re doing a great job, and that was a great response, and it isn’t often that I have to tell you that you’re missing anything!

SM: (Sara laughs)

NS: Ever, if ever.

SM: I appreciate that!

NS: Absolutely! And I loved that you reminded everyone just to breathe sometimes. And you used the word grace a lot. That’s so applicable in all, in the world right now; just that we sometimes just have to slow down, stop and think, and remind ourselves just to breathe and give grace. And parenting is the hardest job in the entire world, hands down.

SM: (softly, in agreement) Hands down.

NS: I’m completely convinced. You know normalizing, the word that you used was normalized, and I liked that a lot because that is truly what we’re attempting to do. Just let people know that the free support is available and that we’re normalizing it. We’ll talk to them individually if need be. You’ll talk to them individually, the parents that you have at your schools or in the community, just to let them know that we’re there to support them when they’re ready.

SM: Yes!

NS: When they’re ready, it’s all on them

SM: When they’re ready, it’s all on them. Yeah, absolutely.

NS: Well, is there anything that you want to add? Or is there a question that you wish I had asked you?

SM: So, I really like being asked “How do I apply it at home?” (Sara laughs)

NS: Wonderful!

SM: Because like I said, this is not just about me being a practitioner and all of these things. I love Triple P, like I love Triple P. I love the fact that there’s different levels to it depending on what’s going on. I love the fact that people have access to it depending on intensity. They can come to a Level Four person for ten sessions. They can go to a Level 3 person and do four sessions to focus on the specific thing. You have Level Two that’s just general Lunch and Learn type deals. You have seminars. You have flyers. You just have so many things that we can do! And we’re so used to going to Google and Googling things and sometimes we find very good answers and we have some things that are like (Sara makes a questioning noise) questionable.

So, at home I find myself often, because I have two children; one is eight, going on nine, and one just turned one year old. Big age gap. One is a boy, and one is a girl. Each of them are very, very different. They have their own personalities and I find that as I’ve been learning with my older child, there have been certain things where I’ve kind of questioned. I’m like, “Did I talk to him properly? Did I actually come to him or did I yell across the house? Did I lose my patience which then impacted him? And how do I develop that conversation to say ‘Look man, I don’t feel I need to be rude in order for you to listen. I want to respect you. What do we need to do as a team to make this happen? I am your parent. There are going to be consequences and there will be boundaries. But there’s also this reward. We get to interact, and we get to do things together based off of what you’re doing and how the world is working.’”

It helps me to have a more conscious and intentional time with my child, too. I get to say, “This is what you’re into. This is what you want to do.” and so I get to be very creative! Then I look at my youngest one and I find myself already in my head like “Well if I do this with her, this could lead to this. So, let me try this strategy while she’s young, so I don’t have to worry about it when she’s older!”

NS: (Nicole chuckles) Right.

SM: (Sara laughs) I can’t predict everything, and I can’t stop everything from happening, but surely I can have this discussion and be introverted with myself and really just dive into my own mind on how I am being as a parent. Because I do feel like I am modelling for my children what they should be looking out for themselves. Sometimes, you know, these things work, sometimes people agree with the way that things are done, and sometimes people don’t. But really, it’s all about do you have the drive and the energy to apply it to all areas?

I wish that anyone who is certified in any level of Triple P engage in other Triple P type of things based off of their unique circumstance. I know that I do with my son in school. I will attend Lunch and Learns and all of these things because I like to know what’s happening! How best to help my child. Because I believe in karma, and I believe that when I do something for someone, it will pass along. Whether it comes back to me or it comes back to my child, it all comes full circle. I honestly believe that, in my home, anytime I can apply a Triple P principle at home and I can see it at work, it also helps my families because I can tell them, “Well this is what I did with my kid. Do you think that would apply to you? Yes or no? If not, what could apply? If yes, let’s try and see what happens!”  It’s just a big old guinea pig experiment! You know? That’s what parenting is! I shouldn’t say that, but I did! (Sara laughs)

NS: Well great job, Sara. Great job! We are more than fortunate to have you on this team. I really appreciate you taking part in this first podcast and the first installment of this podcast. And thank you for all that you do for the families in our community.

SM: Absolutely, thank you so much, Nicole