May 22, 2022
Eve After Eden: Parenting with Understanding
By Jemi Lassiter
Marcela Collier, co-founder of The High Impact Club, is about the business of parenting. Not necessarily the dollars and cents, I’m talking about the impact of intentional parenting; the kind where parents remain emotionally connected to their child during the most difficult of circumstances and the most profound joys.
The High Impact Club is an online parenting education platform where Collier provides digital guides, workshops, and courses to help parents and guardians respond to children’s behaviors with exactly what they need.
Collier, a former foster parent and now a mother of twins, is a licensed therapeutic foster care provider in the Greater Phoenix Area. In between her podcast and preparing a parenting course for Yale University, she let “Eve After Eden” in on the moments that shaped her as a foster parent, mother, and parenting coach.
Marcela Collier is the co-founder of The High Impact Club, an online parenting education platform. In between her "Parenting with Understanding" podcast and preparations for a parenting course at Yale University, Collier spoke with Eve After Eden about where it all began.
BECOMING A FOSTER PARENT
In 2012, Collier and her husband decided to start a family. They battled infertility for seven years. In the interim, Collier became a foster parent.
“I was confident that I was going to have babies one day. I wasn’t that concerned about it,” said Collier. “However, I felt that, while I wait for God to answer me, I could provide a safe place for children who do not have the privilege to have a safe home. So that’s when I decided to start doing foster care.”
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families, the federal agency responsible for the nation’s foster care and adoption system, 631,832 children were served by the foster care system between October 1, 2020 and September 30, 2021.
Foster parents play a significant role in ensuring the safety and wellbeing of children who have entered foster care.
Collier became a licensed foster parent and welcomed children between nine and 17 years old into her home.
“I was very, very sure about how I wanted to raise children. I wanted to raise these children very differently to the things that they were coming from. They were coming from neglect, from abuse, from their voice not being heard. I didn’t want them to feel unsafe in my house. I wanted to provide a safe space. But soon enough I saw that even though that was my desire, the way that I knew how to address behavior wasn’t considerate. Wasn’t respectful. Wasn’t what I wanted to provide for these kids,” she said.
During our interview, Collier acknowledged that she had to learn what it meant to be a parent who provided not just a physically safe environment but an emotionally safe environment.
“You repeat cycles. You do what you know,” said Collier.
Seeing herself emotionally withdraw from the children she fostered in an effort to correct their behavior hit Collier hard. She was not being physically or verbally abusive but her emotional withdrawal was an unanticipated pattern she mimicked from her childhood. She never imagined she would repeat her parents methods.
“That hit me so hard,” said Collier. “I said wait a minute. I wanted to provide a safe space for these children and I am not. Even though I’m not abusive still the way I’m disciplining them, the way that I’m correcting their behavior, the way that I’m addressing their challenges is not respectful.”
Here’s the part that struck me. In Collier’s approach, respect was absolutely essential. Not a child’s respect for an adult because they are an adult and a guardian but an adult’s respect for a child because they are a person learning to manage emotions and circumstances.
Knowing she was better than the cycle she was perpetuating, Collier started searching for resources on parenting. She began Googling ways to handle tantrums and checking books out of her local library on how to parent respectfully. With every challenge over her nine year run as a foster parent, Collier looked for more resources until what she learned could be applied and what she applied could yield consistent results. Her research was her first encounter with the concept of gentle parenting.
“This is key: You don’t know what you don’t know and, as much desire as you have to break a cycle, if you don’t put in your mind a new perspective and new tools, you’re going to end up using the old broken tools that you don’t want to use,” said Collier.
Collier and her husband continued fostering children while learning gentle parenting techniques. With each child she adjusted her approach until she fostered a teenage boy with multiple diagnoses. His behavior and emotional needs challenged Collier to learn more.
“He had a lot of behavioral needs meaning that he had mood disorder, [post-traumatic stress disorder] and other diagnoses,” explained Collier.
His outburst would result in police visits to her home. On some rare occasions, Collier had to put her safety first. The disruptions prompted her local foster care agency to recommend the teen be placed in a therapeutic home.
“A therapeutic home is a home that is able to provide therapeutic care. So, people who are trained in knowing how to care for children who have these kinds of behavioral challenges. I knew that meant that he was going to leave my house and I refused. I didn’t want him to leave my house like that. If he leaves my house it’s because he’s going back to his family not because he’s going to another foster care home. I didn’t want that,” said Collier.
She went back to her intention of being a safe place for children of all ages, particularly those children who are not preferred by foster parents. The older children, The teenagers. But, Collier did not have the credentials to foster him as a therapeutic foster care provider. She also was not one to give up easily.
“If somebody else has the tools, I’m sure I could get them,” said Collier
Indeed, she did!
She was allowed to continue his care while she trained as a therapeutic foster care provider. She earned her therapeutic license and had her foster care permit upgraded to therapeutic foster care.
“Therapeutic providers, they’re not foster parents. Even though the child is in care with us, they’re not foster parents. They do more than that. We provide behavior coaching. We provide social-emotional development. Of course, we provide supervision. We do behavior intervention. We do de-escalation. We fulfill a therapeutic service plan,” she explained. “I started providing therapeutic care and I saw this child go from tantrums and hitting walls to communicating his needs.”
Her neighbors also noticed the change in his behavior. They had to know why. What had changed? Instead of concerned looks from her neighbors, Collier started getting questions.
In the beginning, the police would have to come to Collier’s house to diffuse situations. After her training, she could de-escalate situations and coach the teen she fostered into behaviors that communicated his needs and respected his personal boundaries. She shared her tips with her neighbors and they experienced quick wins that lasted.
Collier did not stop with just the neighbors, she also shared information with the program her husband had been running in local schools since 2012. He had named it The High Impact Club.
“I’m a Latina. I grew up in Colombia. I always say I grew up in a loving yet uncaring home meaning that my parents did the best they could for me with what they had,” Collier said of her upbringing.
She minced no words about her childhood. (And, if you follow her on social media, then you have seen the conversations with her mother and grandmother. If you don’t, follow her now @HighImpactClub on Instagram.)
According to Collier, her parents were very traditional. Her mother was the caregiver and her father was the provider for the family. Like most parents, hers emulated their examples of parenthood from their parents and their culture. In this case: Children were to be seen and not heard.
The youngest of two, Collier felt especially silenced. Her older brother had Down Syndrome and was non-verbal. His needs were the priority. Collier not only came second but also became a pseudo-caregiver to her brother.
“Because [my mother] had a son who had special needs, he’s non-verbal, he cannot do many things on his own, my emotional needs were neglected in many ways because she felt alone. She felt like she had a lot with my brother and it was kind of, ‘Okay, you can figure it out. You can overcome easier than your brother’. So, in many ways, I was left alone to figure out life and at the same time, I felt this responsibility to help my mom carry this burden as well. Really, I was parentified but it wasn’t that [my mother] wanted to. It was the circumstance,” said Collier.
Parentification is a fairly new term with longstanding examples. Children become parentified, or experience parentification, when their parents reverse the roles. The child has the responsibilities of their parent to provide emotional and/or instrumental support to their parent or siblings. It is far more than watching a younger sibling from time to time. It is the expectation that a child act as a parent.
In a 2021 interview with Parents Magazine, Aude Henin, PhD, co-director of the Child Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy Program at Massachusetts General Hospital, explained the concept.
”In a healthy parent-child relationship, the parent cares for the child and offers both instrumental support (food, shelter, daily structure) and unconditional emotional support (love, affection, guidance, rules),” said Henin. “When a parent is unable to consistently offer these things, a child may become parentified, and be in a position of having to care for the parent."
As a child, Collier was very aware of others needs. She credits her brother for her sixth sense of empathy. She is also acutely aware that her empathy is both a strength and a reminder that she experienced a consistent lack of emotional support.
“Definitely, I could tell my empathy was a little stronger because, compared to kids my age, I cared about people who had different needs more than other kids,” she said.
Despite her parents prioritizing her brother’s needs over hers, she credits them with instilling strong values like dedication to family, love, providing, and doing the necessary work to improve yourself. They were the most influential people in her life. Her parents taught Collier she could learn anything, she could do anything as long as she had the information. She carried that strong will into The High Impact Club in 2020.
THE HIGH IMPACT CLUB
“I actually started my [side of the] business on April 1, 2020. It was the middle of the pandemic. I really lucked out when I started my business. We were in lock down,” laughed Collier at the unexpected set of circumstances that thrust her work forward.
Stay-at-Home orders for the continental U.S. went into effect in March 2020. Her husband’s program, The High Impact Club, could no longer offer its in-person trainings at schools. However, Collier was bursting with new information to share and a proven curriculum for parents.
“My husband started [The High Impact Club] because he’s a school counselor. He’s a behavior modification trainer. He’s a therapeutic provider. He’s a bully prevention trainer. He started High Impact Club as the way to teach schools bully prevention, anger management, behavior modification. He was going to schools to train staff, psychologists, principals. I was doing the parent piece [in schools]. When the pandemic hit, we could not do it in school anymore. I had the idea of coaching parents online,” she said.
Although launched in 2012 by Collier’s husband, the couple agreed that Collier’s parenting resources would be a great online extension. Between Stay-at-Home orders and a growing number of parents reaching out to her for advice and ideas, the couple brought Collier’s proven curriculum, “Parenting with Understanding”, online.
The curriculum was developed after a mother called Collier for parenting advice on an almost weekly basis several years before the pandemic hit. Collier packaged all the relevant information she had into a do-it-yourself style program that the mother could read through and practice at her leisure. Then, the calls stopped.
Collier did not know what happened until a month later when she received a video from the mother saying that the curriculum saved her life.
“I cried,” said Collier.
She knew she was on to something. Fast forward two years after putting “Parenting with Understanding” on The High Impact Club, 283 parents from all over the world have taken the course.
“Many of them have children with autism or ADHD. Now, they all report that they [spend] less time correcting and more time connecting because they’re not putting out fires so much. They’re responding to their children with what they exactly need,” explained Collier.
With her first large scale win under her belt, Collier faced another set of parenting questions related to the pandemic.
“People started asking me questions about things I didn’t know like about other things. Sleep disorders. Education. I didn’t know,” said Collier.
To meet their needs, she expanded her network to other professionals and shared her platform. They shared resources and joined her on her podcast to provide insight into areas of childhood development, sleep consulting, education, homeschooling, and more.
For Collier, there was no ego involved. Her goal was to provide resources to parents.
Today, the 35-year-old mother of two teaches positive discipline, “Parenting with Understanding” and is a full-time parenting coach.
“When people have deep rooted beliefs, it’s really, really hard,” said Collier of breaking disruptive parenting cycles.
Before we parted ways, she left me with new information that was old news to her but enlightened me. I had been moving too fast through parenting to see what she told me sooner and then… POOF! Clarity.
According to Collier, triggers are the underlying or unmet need that starts the behavior. (Not reminders of traumatic experiences as I assumed.) The trigger is not the thing that happened. It is the need that happened.
“That’s how parents miss the need, when they just see the last thing that happened and they don’t see the need that drove the behavior,” she said.
In truth, I had noticed and responded to the outburst. I also noticed the need and sometimes diminished its importance to my child which made responding to the need optional to me when it was essential to my child. After Collier’s micro-lesson, that changed in the best way.
Yes, in just an hour of meeting with her, my approach to parenting was modified. Now, I try to speak to their need, gauge where they are emotionally, practice ways to respond to their specific need and teach positive skills.
At times, it is awkward. I have never seen this parenting style done.
Sometimes, it is as scary for me to try to understand a small person who has more emotion than words as it must be for a child to try to communicate when they don’t have enough words. But, most of the time, it is calming. I notice the subtle queues of my youngest children who are learning new words to match the flurry of feelings with which they were born. I cannot imagine how hard that must have been for a foster parent to learn the queues of child they have just met and act as their temporary counter balance; teaching and demonstrating how to emotionally regulate but Collier has done it several times over.