The Foundational Building Blocks of a Family

Tetreault, Donna.headshot

Written by: Where Parents Talk Staff

Published: Jan 11, 2024

by Katherine Martinko

When she first became a mom more than a decade ago, Donna Tetreault quickly found herself pursuing a particular path along that parenting journey. “I was very interested in learning how to be the best version of a parent that I could be not the perfect parent,” she says.

Tetreault is a bestselling author, resident parenting expert on Dr. Phil, and mother of two teenage boys.

Her latest book, The C.A.S.T.L.E. Method, is all about seven foundational, evidence-based principles that can help any parent build the family environment that feels right for them.

Click for video transcription

Welcome to where parents talk. My name is Lianne Castelino. Our guest today is a parenting journalist, best selling author, and resonant parenting expert on Dr. Phil. Donna Tetro is also a former TV reporter, a former school teacher, and a mother of two teens. She is the author of a book called The Castle method. Donna joins us today from Los Angeles. Thank you so much for being here.
Thank you so much for having me. Lianne.
This book of yours, the castle method really represents several years worth of time effort research on your part, can you take us through what that looked like?
Yeah, of course, I was a general assignment reporter for many years. And when I had my two sons who are now 14 and 15 years old, I switched into this parenting niche at the time, it has grown and exploded since then. But I was very interested in learning how to be the best version of a parent that I could be not the perfect parent. But so that really led me to take that reporter skill set, and just start interviewing hundreds of experts in the field in psychology and education and research, to come up with an idea of foundation of how I could best parent, my kids knowing that every family is unique and different every parent is every kid is. But it was fascinating to me. And I literally asked 1000s of questions, and got all kinds of different answers and really learned a lot about this parenting field.
So then what led you as you’re on that journey to coming up with the theme of the book, which is really about the foundational building blocks of a family?
Yeah, great question. I, my background is as a teacher. And so when I was thinking about how to gather all this information together and make it concise, and succinct, succinct for people to really understand, I thought, you know, acronyms used as a metaphor, could be a really good way to just build in these foundational building blocks. And from what I found, Castle is an acronym used as a metaphor to build the castle or the family of your dreams, not the perfect family, but the best version of your unique family. And so these building blocks can be utilized in all families across the board, even if you know, you’ve got one family this way, you’ve got another family this way, we’re all so different. But these are concepts that I learned from experts that you can build into the foundation of a family that can really help and benefit families, kids and parents.
When you talk about taking years and doing all those hundreds of interviews, I’m curious as to what struck you most and what you heard through those interviews.
You know, I think what was interesting to me is that I lost my mother very early on when I had kids and parenting at that time, I know that my mom and dad did a great job and loved us unconditionally. And I felt that from them. But parenting has evolved. And there is a lot of evidence out there now that can provide us opportunities to really work on ourselves as people as parents, and to provide best practices in the home based on this evidence. So I figured that looking at this research asking all these experts, what they have found, is a good way to kind of encapsulate a way that we can parent with confidence. That was the other thing. I’m an anxious Mom, I’m an anxious person by nature. And I think that my goal was to ease my anxiety. And to just know that I was doing the best that I could, and then to disseminate that information to others if they wanted to accept it.
Really interesting because where you landed was, Thor is a symbol which is Castle, as you mentioned, an acronym and a metaphor. Can you take us through the seven evidence based elements that comprise the castle method?
Absolutely. So Castle is an acronym, and C is for compassion. A is for acceptance. S is for security. t trust l love and then I added two E’s to the end of Castle xspec quotations and education. And these are really all science based. So I just felt like if people could remember Cassell, and they could remember, Oh, maybe I should start with compassion in this scenario, that it is easier for parents, I’ve read a lot of parenting books, many are very good. But I also really want it to just give this like solution where I can change my mindset and think, with these foundational pieces. And parent my way through that.
Now, starting with compassion, why is compassion, such a foundational block of the foundational blocks for a family, in your view?
Absolutely. So compassion really is the foundation and everything behind it, acceptance, security, etc, is built upon compassion. And so what we want to think about when we’re thinking about compassion is it takes empathy one step further. So when you look at empathy, you are putting yourself in another shoes. So you are putting yourself in your child’s shoes. Compassion, though, takes that to the next step where you are empathetic, but then with compassion, you are trying to alleviate the suffering another VIA solutions. So we’re trying to empower ourselves, our child, our teen, to come up with their own solutions, but taking that empathy to another level. And so not only giving compassion, but then also practicing. And teaching. Self Compassion is really a big part of the book where I want parents to feel that self compassion, and to model it, and then teach their children how to be self compassionate.
Before we get into the rest of the castle method, though, I do want to ask you that the book is positioned as a book for the family, a family book, why is that?
Oh, it’s, it’s so important to me. Because when I look at parenting, and through that lens of the books that we’re seeing out there, it’s really highlighting what parents need to do. And what I wanted to focus on is that we’re all growing and evolving within the family. I’m growing and becoming a new mother to teenagers, I was a mom to toddlers, and you know, elementary school kids, so we’re all evolving. And so as our kids are evolving, so are we as parents, and so is our family. And so to kind of take that pressure off that we have to be these perfect parents. And to look at it as we’re in this family together, we are this unique family. And we’re going to grow and evolve together and learn together to be the best versions of ourself and the best version of our family.
It’s a refreshing approach, because so many parenting books tend to be about the kids are for the kids, and not necessarily for the parent, parenting that child.
Absolutely. And that’s what I think drove me when I was trying to figure out, you know, how to parent my two boys who are very different people, right? All of our kids are very, so it’s not just one approach. So I think these fundamental, foundational tools, you can look at them, and then put them into any approach that you’re dealing with any scenario. And so it’s just a way to kind of take the pressure off of parents, and to really say we are evolving to. So it was something that I, you know, one of my earliest blog, I was doing blogging when I started and the blog was called Super mommy not because there’s this, there’s just this pressure that I think a lot of us feel and we kind of got to release it and just give up and know that we’ve got to kind of trust the process just as we tell our kids to trust their process, whether it’s an education or athletics or the arts. So kind of just trust that process, that we’re doing the best that we can.
It’s an important point as well, when you talk about compassion, right? And the idea that it’s not just about having compassion for your children. It’s also about compassion for ourselves as parents. Let’s move on to the A and castle. Talk to us about acceptance and why that is a foundational building block.
Yeah, acceptance was really interesting to me because I interviewed a doctor out of the University of Connecticut Dr. Ronald Rhona, and he He has been doing decades of research on acceptance and the brain. And even perceived rejection changes the brain. So rejection, he has found changes how our kids learn, love and grow in life. And so I think that in this generation of parenting and have that helicoptering still continuing, acceptance is not true to our kids. So it’s not what we want for them. It’s what they want for themselves. And that is a part of that acceptance. And so I think having that knowledge, just that evidence, that research that says, rejection, changes the brain. And what he was trying to explain this doctor was that when when, when parents become aware of this, they’re better able to change the direction of the way they parent, and it’s not always going to be perfect, you know, that rejection seeps in. But to have that awareness is really, really key.
When you talk about acceptance, I guess, these days, the buzzword that we’re, you know, a comparator phrase that we hear a lot is that sense of belonging. Right? Yes, yeah. And so moving on now to the Essent. Castle, which stands for security, can you take us through the significance of security in a family as as a foundational element?
Absolutely. So when I talk about security, it’s not really about the physical, physical security, I’m talking about the emotional security, and the families that most of us parents who are parenting now did not, we were not provided necessarily, knowingly. emotional security. And so what that looks like, what I try to talk about in the chapter is how to really allow for all emotions, really trying, since the pandemic, you know, I think it was highlighted that mental health, even though that that was rising, the trajectory of what was going on with our youth was rising before the pandemic, the issues with bullying, etc. The emotions are something within the family system that we have to help not only regulate ourselves, and manage and model, but to teach that skill set. And so this is kind of, you know, as former educators, this is, has been kind of built into some of our school systems, but really not at the level we need. And so what I’m saying is that we really need to build it into our family systems, so that parents understand how to help kids regulate and manage their emotions.
So when we talk about emotions, there will be many parents watching or listening to this interview, who say to themselves, you know, what, I didn’t grow up like this. And I did was never asked by my parents about my emotional state. So what would be your advice to that parent in terms of trying to rewrite that script for their own children now?
Love this question. Look, it’s it’s, it takes time and practice. This is a working, we’re working in progress, and we’re trying to figure out what to do. But one way that you can build this skill set in is to understand how to recognize and manage emotions. And so here’s an example. kid comes home from school. They’re really upset. You don’t know why. You can ask what’s going on? Most parents would ask that kid might say, I don’t want to talk about it. Maybe giving kids space. Okay, I’m open for when you want to talk about it come to me. Then child comes to parent and says, you know, I’m feeling really upset about this situation that happened at school. So parent can then say, so how do you feel? What is that emotion identify that emotion. So maybe child might say angry, frustrated, sad, okay, that’s a fair emotion to have. Allowing then the next step is allowing that uncomfortable emotion, not trying to squash it, not trying to fix it, but allowing for that emotion. Then moving on to how do you think that you can move on to feeling better what might work for you? So we’re identifying the emotion then we’re feeling the emotion allow parent allowing for that uncomfortable emotion not trying to fix it and then asking Child How do you think you know What can you do to better, feel better? And what might that look like child’s not going to go from angry to happy all of a sudden, knowing that emotional scale, they’ll move up, but just that practice in daily life, and then parents modeling when they’re upset. So I get home from work, I’m upset, I can articulate, you know what I need a couple of minutes, I had a really rough day at work, that then allows our child to have compassion for us. So we’re building in all of these skills. And they can be simple skills, but it’s just working and working and practicing and practicing.
The other element that comes to mind when we talk about emotions is certainly the difference between boys and girls, male and female emotions. And so what can you offer in terms of tangible tips and strategies for parents, who may either have boys or girls have both, and are trying to help support their children with their emotions.
So I wrote a book called Dear me letters to myself for all of my emotions, and it is evidence based, and it is a strategy and this the main character is a boy. Because what I wanted parents kids to know that even though we have this kind of toxic masculinity, inside of our society, we do have to reverse it, we have to allow our boys to feel the emotions that we allow our girls to feel right now, boys are really only able to express the anger or frustration, we want to allow all emotions for our boys. And so one way to do that is to write about our feelings. And this is something that young kids can do, even if they’re not writing yet, they can draw about their emotions. And this is evidence based, we want them to find ways to express their emotions. So say, a young kid comes home, very upset from school, ask them to draw about how they feel. We want to ask our kids, how do you feel, in scenarios where things are going on? Instead of how can I fix it? How do you feel we really want to embed in the family system that all feelings are okay. And then when we have positive emotions, it’s really important to recognize those positive emotions. So when a child is happy and joyful parent, just saying, Wow, that really makes you happy, doesn’t it? And we know from positive psychology, that that builds the momentum for kids to identify more and more positive emotions. So they kind of have that in the background to know when I have negative emotions, or really uncomfortable emotions, that I can go to those positive emotions.
Moving along with the castle method, we are at TI and trust and trust is certainly foundational to any relationship and the success of any relationship. How does that look? And what does that look like in a family foundation?
Yeah, so trust is really important in that we have to learn to trust our child’s path, our child’s journey, or teens path. And so that looks like allowing them to make the decisions that they can, in the particular scenario that they’re in, of course, parents have to step in and guide and support. But when you know that a child can make a decision on their own, trusting it, allowing it and even knowing that if there’s going to be a fail in it, that that’s okay. So trust is really imperative in that we are telling our kid when we trust them, I trust you. And guess what that means that you can trust you. Because the goal is to get them into adulthood to be able to trust themselves. And to not wonder, What does mom think, what does dad think? What does employer think I trust my decision, I trust my inner person. And so that’s that trust factor that I really liked to talk about.
When we talk about trust, and you had mentioned helicopter parents, that is a huge leap for parents who are in that category. Certainly the hovering the, you know, always wanting to sort of fix the problems for their kids. What can you suggest in terms of tangible steps that helicopter parents or parents who Maybe don’t call themselves helicopter don’t even realize that that’s what they’re doing, get to a place where they can trust their child to make their own decisions.
Well, I think it’s really important for parents to kind of think about what the end goal is. And the end goal is to bring in healthy, competent, courageous adults into the world. And it’s a matter of practicing, as a child, as an elementary school person, as a team to get into adulthood. And so if you look at it, that I’m just practicing how to be a human, I’m practicing how to get to the next level in my life. So it might look like for a teenager, you know, parents are really concerned about college and where kids are going to go to college, allowing the teen the path, to decide what classes they should take, that are intrinsic to how they want to learn instead of, well, I think I know better, I think that you should do X, Y, and Z to check these boxes, because it’s going to help you get into maybe this college, who knows. But allowing them, you know, to pick their own classes and to have a voice in their world in their life. And so it can look a lot of different ways. But I think that when parents understand the end goal, that all of this is just practice this trust is practice to get our kids to where they need to be.
You know, one of the really fascinating things about your book and your body of expertise is the multi layered lens that you bring to these parenting questions. So when you talk about trust, for example, you were an elementary school teacher for a number of years, and you dealt with parents, and you dealt with children that weren’t your own. And so I wonder, What did those experiences that you’ve had in your different professions? How did they add to this castle method book of yours in terms of, of how you wrote it, and how it sort of turned out?
I think the teacher part of me is stronger than the journalist part in me. I really enjoy being a journalist, but the teaching aspect is really interesting to me, because you can really look through this different lens. And I think that when I was a teacher, and in particular, at parent teacher conferences, you know, parents kind of just wanted to know the information from me, you know, what, what, what are you doing? What can you do? And I think that it’s really important for parents to know that being a part of your child’s education all the way through is really, really important. And even in those teen years, when you think you can pull back? Yes, you’re gonna allow for that interdependence. But what I found was, I wanted to know more about the kids, minus the academics. What’s missing in education right now is this connection between teachers and their students. And it’s, there’s an array of of reasons. They’re trying to catch up, teachers are trying to catch up, kids are trying to catch up. And I think that when parents can help with that connection, by telling teachers who your kid is, you know, this is what my kid enjoys. This is how I see my kid learning. This is, you know, who they show themselves to be at home? How are they at school? So it’s, it’s building connections that I think are really important in the educational process, that I think a lot of parents feel like, well, I’m just going to let my kids go to school and the teachers are going to handle it. But what I like to say is that it’s parent, teacher, student, you’re a team, you’re working together. And that’s how you’re going to get best results.
Now, the L in the castle method stands for love. What would you like to say in terms of how love is foundational to a family foundation?
Yeah, I really talk about love and unconditional love. But I think for these purposes, it’s really about self love. We have a lot of adults walking around who did not have good self esteem and are practicing that inside of their homes and don’t show themselves love. And so I think teaching Self Love is a way to level up on self esteem. So self esteem comes from outside sources from the environment and other people, but self love comes from our inner being. And so it’s really trying to focus on there was one study that It was done where a doctor was looking at, you know, how do you promote this self love. And it’s basically like showing a kid, you know, you may not like something about your physical self. But knowing what that is, and just accepting it for what it is, can provide self love. But we’re building in this, this idea that mom and dad have to show themselves self love. And modeling, again, that for our kids, and, and really trying to get our kids to understand that their inner world is their guiding world, not the outside world. And that’s, you know, we’ve got social media that’s coming into play, we have all these different things. So it’s really self love, just leveling up on self esteem,
expectations and education, the final part of the castle method, what would you like to say about that?
Yeah, expectations are really important. And we know this from science that, in particular, you know, when it comes to underage drinking, we know that if you set expectations for your kids, that you hope that they will not be drinking, but again, if they do, you know, you’re their safe zone. But the expectation is, is that you don’t, that kids will rise to those expectations, not to say that they’re not going to make mistakes and have bumpy roads here and there. But expectations are important. chores, those expectations are saying to our family system, that you are a participant in this family, I’m not going to necessarily pay you for your chores, but being a part of this family. That is an expectation. So and you build an expectations for your particular family that and your value system. And then education, I kind of did touch on it. But I think that the education part that I didn’t was just educating ourselves as parents as we go along. There is so much evidence out there, there’s so much research that we can pull from that we weren’t our parents generation wasn’t really able to. So I think just being open to it not having this study at like a parenting journalist or a researcher or a psychologist, but being aware of, you know, there are different ways to approach things in your family. It’s going to work for one family this way, it’s not going to work for one family. So just being open to all these different possibilities and and what works for your unique family.
Speaking of unique, one of the unique challenges of parenting parenting today, certainly is the amount of trauma that both parents and children are exposed to in the world. In what ways does the castle method address and actively addressed mental health?
Such a good question. Yeah, I did mention that I’m a bit of an anxious parent and I can be, but that emotions, that that emotional security, I’m really working on ourselves as parents to understand why we’re feeling a certain way. What emotions those bring out, and then asking ourselves getting really curious, am I parenting through that fear, that anxiety? Or is this just an emotion that of course, is impermanent and will fade? And can I check myself on that? And so we want to be able to really practice managing those emotions and being really aware, and then that allows for better mental health and well being we know that emotional regulation allows for better mental health, as well as resilience. So we want to build that resilience in with that emotional security.
Not in the course of writing and researching this book. I’m curious as to how did that collective experience impact how you parent back then, you know, a few years ago when you were doing all that work, and since then, as a mother of two teenage boys,
I have to say that I use the castle method, because I would not be talking about it if I did it. And I think that the fact that I have learned self compassion as an adult has been such a guiding light for me, because I you know, wanted to create this beautiful family, not this perfect family. But I think that being hard on myself. You know, I’ve kind of learned how to practice this self compassion and Did you know quickly I was in a kind of a battle with one of my teens. And he said to me, you know, after we had kind of went our separate ways to give ourselves a breath, and then come back, and the first thing he said is I want to talk to your mom. And I want to ask you for more compassion. So to have my 15 year old, say that, to me, gives me this awareness that yeah, I wasn’t perfect in that moment. But he knows how to ask for that compassion. And he’s able to talk about his emotions. And so I think it’s just this practice and it’s become embedded, and we’re not perfect, we’ve got all our stuff going on. But it’s, it’s just having these moments that we know that you know, we are trying to protect each other and and feel each other’s emotions to work toward helping each other and creating the best version of our family.
Donna, Teatro parenting journalist, author of the castle method, really appreciate your time and your insight today.
Thank you so much for having me.

Tetreault, has worked as both a journalist and teacher and lives in Los Angeles. She spoke to Lianne Castelino, host of Where Parents Talk, about why this book matters.

“C.A.S.T.L.E. is an acronym used as a metaphor to build the castle, or the family, of your dreams—not the perfect family, but the best version of your unique family,” Tetreault explains. C stands for compassion, A for acceptance, S for security, T for truth, L for love, and E for expectations and education.

Both children and parents need all of these principles in their lives to varying degrees, which is why the book is directed at the entire family. “What I wanted to focus on is that we’re all growing and evolving within the family… and to take the pressure off that we have to be these perfect parents,” says Tetreault. We can “learn together to be the best versions of ourselves and the best version of our family.”

Tetreault talks about all seven principles individually, but trust is perhaps most relevant for anxious parents who struggle with wanting to overprotect their children.

She says it’s important for parents to remember what the end goal of parenting is: “To bring healthy, competent, courageous adults into the world.” This is achieved by practicing how to be a human and “how to get to the next level in life,” through trusting kids to navigate obstacles and make decisions on their own.

Book cover.Tetreault, Donna. The Castle MethodExpectations are also important, since children tend to rise to the bar that is set for them.

Mistakes can (and will) be made along the way, but expectations, in the form of behaviors and chores, convey a message to a child that they are valued and necessary participants in family life.

The C.A.S.T.L.E. method has something for everyone, no matter their family age, size, dynamic, or values, and Tetreault offers her authoritative guidance in a rational and approachable way.

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