Wilton coach works to help parents find their 'power'

Vanessa Elias

Vanessa Elias

Contributed photo

WILTON — When it comes to parenting, Vanessa Elias has experienced a lot and has seen even more.

She is the mother of three children, one of whom she terms as “tricky.” She’s seen different parenting styles up close, having lived in other states and countries. She has volunteered with numerous organizations relating to children and mental health including the Wilton Youth Council and National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) — Child Action Network (CAN). She has led a support group for parents of children with emotional and behavioral issues.

Building on her bachelor’s degree in psychology, it only made sense to pull from that life experience to work as a parenting coach. She became certified this month through the Center for the Challenging Child in Minnesota and launched her business and website, Thrive with a Guide.

“Part of my mission has been to reduce stigma around mental illness,” she said as she was on the cusp of receiving certification. “My oldest was a tricky child. She was a challenging child,” Elias said. “Everyone blamed it on my parenting, that I was being manipulated.”

Her second child was very different, which prompted her to seek to understand why.

Add to that the stress of living in several European countries due to her husband’s career — she calculated she’s moved 18 times in her life — she felt very much alone. “Every day was hell,” she said.

“Part of moving back to the U.S. was to get help,” she said, explaining Americans tend to be more open about mental health issues, even though a great deal of stigmatization occurs.

Soon after they moved to Wilton, Elias went to a forum on mental illness at the Gilbert & Bennett Cultural Center.

“I had wished there was something like Al-Anon for mental illness,” she said, and through the G&B forum she discovered NAMI. She went to a support group in Stamford and thought, “we need this in Wilton.”

“The more I talked about it, the more others confessed. I realized there was so much going on we didn’t talk about.”

After a year of living in Wilton, she received training from NAMI and she took over the support group here. That was six years ago.

She also learned about the Wilton Youth Council and realized “a lot of kids were struggling and their families were struggling.” She and Genevieve Eason became co-leaders of the council as volunteers.

“You gain a lot by helping others,” Elias said of her volunteer work. “There was so much I couldn’t control.” Feeling she could make a difference this way, “that gave me hope and strength to keep doing what I was doing.

“I will never forget the moment people said to me, ‘I’ve been in darkness and you’ve been the light.’”

More personalization

Through her volunteer work with NAMI and the youth council, Elias realized people wanted more personalized parent education.

“I would get a few messages a week to 12 a week from people needing help,” she said. “There is a need.”

Working as a parent coach she looks forward to helping parents whose kids are “up the river” rather than at the cliff. She can help with bedtime routines, for example, rather than jumping in with a child threatening suicide.

“Parents are so relieved because they feel so powerless,” she said. “There is no guilt, you do the best with what you have.

“The strength is in asking for help,” she said, adding she knows now the things she did to make her own situation worse.

“What I have learned is the most important thing is when our kids are behaving a certain way, they are communicating with us. We think kids are misbehaving to be naughty or difficult. Something is going on and they are letting you know something is not OK.”

Sometimes a family’s lifestyle gets in the way of that. “We are so stressed as a culture. We have so much on our plates,” she said.

When parents and children are rushing to and from work and activities, “There isn’t that feeling of family belonging, the time to get to know one another.”

The loss of the extended family has also had an impact.

“When I get burned out, there’s no one to step in for me. No mom or sister to be there for my kids when I need a break. What we expect of ourselves is too much,” she said. “We need to redefine what it means to be a good parent.”

Work with a parent coach is about translating and understanding their children’s behavior. “Parents feel so powerless in so many ways,” she said. “You actually do have the power, it’s jut not where you thought it was.”