How to Talk so Parents will Listen: Strategies for Influencing Parents


Last June I had a chance to go to Chicago to be filmed doing three professional THERAPY TALKS. It was a challenging situation; just me and a camera and a few production folks. One of the TALK topics focused on how to work effectively with parents. As it turns out, this video and others I’ve done with Microtraining are now available at their website: https://www.academicvideostore.com/publishers/microtraining (you have to search for Sommers-Flanagan).

Here’s the text, more or less, from the “How to Talk so Parents will Listen” TALK.

When I talk with large groups about parenting, I like to begin with a survey. I ask: “How many of you ARE parents?” Of course, nearly everyone raises his or her hand. Then I ask a follow up: “How many of you WERE children.” At this question some participants laugh and a few raise their hands and others joke that they’re still immature.

This reason I start with this survey is because if you’re a parent, you know that being a parent is an amazing and gratifying challenge. You also know that it’s 24-7; and you know it doesn’t end when your child turns 18. You’re a parent for life. And if you WERE a child, and all of you were, then you know how important it is to have a parent or caretaker who makes it perfectly clear that YOU ARE LOVED. But there’s more. If you were a child, then you also know how important it is to have a parent who not only loves you, but who is skillful . . . a parent who is dedicated to being the best parent possible.

Plain and simple: PARENTS NEED SKILLS FOR DEALING WITH THEIR CHILDREN IN THE 21ST CENTURY. And learning to be a better parent never stops.

Once upon a time I had a mom come consult with me about her five year old son. She said: “I have a strong-willed son.” My response was to acknowledge that lots of parents have strong-willed children. She said, “No, no, you don’t get it. I have a very strong-willed son, let me tell you about it. Just the other night, I asked him to go upstairs and clean his room and he put his hands on his hips and said, “NO.” So I said in response, “Yeah, yeah. He sounds very strong willed.” And she said, “Wait. There’s more. I asked him to clean his room a second time and he glared and me, and said “NO. YOU WANT A PIECE OF ME?” Then she told me the real problem. The problem was that, in fact, she did want a piece of him at that particular point in time and so she grabbed him and hauled him up the stairs in a way that was inconsistent with the kind of parent she wanted to be.

This is one of the mysteries of parenting. How can you get so angry at a small child whom you love more than anything else in the world?

Parents are a unique population and deserve an approach to counseling that’s designed to address their particular needs. In this talk I’ll mostly be using stories to talk about:

a. what parents want for their children
b. what parents need in counseling
c. and how professionals can be effective helpers.

Most parents want some version of the same thing: To raise healthy and happy children who are relatively well-adjusted. But what do parents need in counseling. WHAT WILL HELP THEM GET WHAT THEY WANT?

First, parents need empathic listening. They need this big time. Our American culture puts lots of social pressure on parents . . . It’s implied that parenting should be easy and all parents should want to spend 24-7 with their child in an altered state of parental bliss. But this isn’t reality and so we need empathy for the general scrutiny parents feel in the grocery store, at church, on the playground, and everywhere else.

But they also need listening and specific empathy: like in the situation where the mom wanted to tell me about her 5-year-old son. She had specific information to share and it was really important for me to take time to listen to her unique story about her son who, unfortunately, may have seen too many Clint Eastwood movies.

Parents come to counseling or parent education feeling simultaneously insecure and indignant. They feel insecure because of the scrutiny they feel from their parents and in-laws and society, but they also feel indignant over the possibility that anyone might have the audacity to tell them how to parent their children. As professionals, we need to be ready to handle both sides of this complex equation.
Another thing parents have taught me over the years is to never start a parenting session by sharing educational information. You should always wait to offer educational advice, even when parents ask you directly for it. When they do ask, let them know that your ideas will be more helpful later once you get to know what’s happening in their family.

This leads us to the second crucial part of what parents need in counseling. They need collaboration. We can’t be experts who tell parents what to do, instead we have to recognize that parents are the experts in the room. They’re the experts on their children, on their family dynamics, and on themselves. If we don’t engage and collaborate with parents, very little of what we offer has any chance of being helpful.

Parents also need validation to counter their possible insecurity. We call this radical acceptance or validation and it involves explicitly and specifically giving parents positive feedback. We do this by affirming, “You sure seem to know your daughter well.” And by saying, “When I listen to how committed you are to helping your son be successful in life, I can’t help but think that he’s lucky to have you as a parent.”

And so we begin with empathic listening and we move to collaboration and we make sure that we offer radical acceptance or validation and we do all this so we can get to the main point: providing parents with specific parenting tips or guidance.
And there are literally TONS of specific parenting tips that professionals can offer parents. Most of the good ones include four basic principles:

First, getting a new attitude – because developing parenting skills requires a courageous attitude to try things out.

The second one involves making a new and improved plan. Because a courageous attitude combined with a poor plan won’t get you much.

Third is to get support when you need it. Parenting in isolation is almost always a bad idea.

Fourth, underlying all tips there should be the foundation of being consistently loving.

I’d like to tell two parenting stories to illustrate all of the preceding ideas.

This first story is about a parenting struggle I had. I share it for two reasons: One is that it’s a great example of the need for parents to make a new plan to handle an old problem. And two, often it’s good to self-disclose—but not too much—when working with parents.
When my youngest child was 5-years-old, she ALSO was a strong-willed child. I vividly recall one particular ugly scene on the porch. It was time for us to leave the house. But we lived in Montana and there was snow and my daughter needed to put her boots on. Funny thing, she was on a different schedule than I was. This created tension and anger in me. And so I got down into her face and I yelled GET YOUR BOOTS ON! And her eyes got big and she did. Later that evening I was talking with my wife and she saw the scene and she said to me, “I know John, that’s not the kind of parent you want to be.” And even though it’s not easy to take feedback from our romantic partners, she was right and so obviously so, that I had no argument” which led me to tell her, “I’m not going to yell at our daughter any more. I am, instead going to whisper, because I learned in a parenting book, that sometimes when you’re angry it’s more effective to whisper than it is to yell. That was my new plan. Of course, like new plans everywhere, it needed tweaking. But it didn’t take long for me to have an opportunity to test it because if there’s anything on the planet that’s predictable, it’s that we’ll all soon have another chance to manage our anger toward our children more constructively.

It was the next day or week and my daughter did not get her boots on and she was not on the same schedule as me and I got down in her face, once again, but I remembered the plan to whisper and I did my best to transform my anger from the historical yell to the contemporary whisper and what happened was that what came out was sort of like the exorcist and I said to my daughter: “GET YOUR BOOTS ON!”

Now. I wasn’t especially proud of that, but she got her boots on.

It was the beginning of a big change for me because I learned I could play the exorcist instead of yelling; then I learned to growl and then I learned to count to three and then I learned a cool technique called Grandma’s rule where you use the formula, WHEN YOU, THEN YOU to set a limit and build in a positive outcome. Like . . . “Honey, when you get your boots on, then you can have your cell phone back.” Very cool.

What I learned from this experience is that I could be more than a one-trick parenting pony. I became the kind of parent who, although far from perfect, was able to set limits that were in my daughter’s best interest.

And what I like the best about this particular story is that daughter is now 26 years-old and she still says the same thing she used to say to me when she was 15 . . . that is, “Dad, one thing I really love about you is you never yell.” What’s cool is that I did yell, but I worked on it, I made a new plan, and now she doesn’t even remember the yelling.

I’d like to finish with one last story about how much parents need people like you to have empathy, collaborate, validate, and offer concrete parenting ideas.

I was working with a 15-year-old boy. His mom was bringing him to counseling because he and his dad weren’t speaking anymore. I hadn’t met the dad, but one day, when I went to the boy’s IEP meeting at school the dad was there. I saw this as a chance to make a connection and get him to come to counseling.

I did a little chit-chatting and sat next to him in the group meeting. Then, at one point, I asked the boy a question: “If you got an A on a test, who would you show first?” He answered, “I’d show my dad, my mom, and my special ed teacher.” This inspired me to turn to his dad and say, “It’s obvious that you’re very important to your son and so I’d like to invite you to come join him and me in counseling.” Dad gave me a glare and pushed my shoulder and began a 2-minute rant about how the school had failed his son. Everyone was stunned and then he turned back to me and said, “I’ll come to counseling. I been to counseling before and I can do it again.”

At that point I wondered if I could take back my offer.

The day the dad drove to counseling he and his son weren’t speaking, so I met with them separately. The son was clear that he would never speak to the dad again, but the dad was open. When I asked if I could offer him some ideas, he said, “Well I tried MY best and that dog don’t hunt, so I can try something else.” I was wishing for subtitles.

I told the dad I wanted him to keep his high standards for his son, but to add three things. First, I asked, do you love your son? The dad said “Yes” and so I told him, “Okay then. I want you to tell him ‘I love you’ every day.” He said, “Usually I leave that to the wife, but I can do that.” Second, I said, “Everyday, I want you to touch your son in a kind and loving way.” He asked, “You mean like give him a hug?” I said, “that would be great” and he responded, “Usually I leave that to the wife too, but I’ll give it a shot.” Third, I said, “Once a week, you should do something fun with your son, but it has to be something that he thinks is fun.” He said back: “That’s no problem. We both like to go four-wheeling, so we’ll do that.”

And they left my office for an hour-long of what I imagine was a silent trip home.

The next afternoon, I got a call from the mom. She was ecstatic. She said, “I don’t know what you did or what you said, but they’re talking again.” And then she added, “This morning, when they were in the kitchen, I was in the other room and I thought I heard them hug and when I saw my son walking down the driveway to head to school, there were tears running down his cheeks.”
This was obviously a mom who was listening and watching very closely.

Things got much better for the 15-year-old after that. He didn’t get straight As, but he stopped getting straight Fs. And I learned two things: First, I learned just how much that boy needed to get reconnected with his father. And second, I learned that sometimes, no matter how gruff parents may seem, what they need is some clear and straightforward advice about how to reconnect with their son or daughter.

My final thoughts about this topic are very simple. I hope you’re inspired enough to acquire the knowledge and skills it takes to work effectively with parents. I know their children will deeply appreciate it.

Thanks for listening.

John and Nora

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6 thoughts on “How to Talk so Parents will Listen: Strategies for Influencing Parents”

  1. Wonderful blog piece, John! Two things really stood out for me: expert status and collaboration. I sometimes mention to clients that professionals have an “alphabet soup” behind their names. Don’t be shy about taking advantage of the training and experience all those initials represent. But YOU are the expert about you, your life and experience. They know exactly what they’re talking about when they tell us about their lives.

    On the collaboration idea: I haven’t researched this methodically, but my suspicion is that at no time in human history has so much been expected of parents with so little help. My guess is this started around the time of the Industrial Revolution and the move of the nuclear family to the city, often far away from family and community, both of which helped in varying degrees with the job of parenting. That collaboration and support is often difficult for parents to find now. I see part of my role as providing some of that.

    1. Hi John.

      Thanks for your affirming message. Over the years I’ve come to think about the relationship between expertise and collaboration as a sort of dialectic and so it’s cool that message came through to you. It’s like we have to move back and forth from a place of being an expert to being a non-expert collaborator and back again.

      It does seem like an extra difficult time for parents. I’m consistently struck by the way the media portrays parenting as either super easy (your babies shouldn’t even smell bad) or impossible because teens are incorrigible.

      Thanks again and I hope life is good in Cincy.

      John

  2. It is never too late to catch up on emails 🙂 After maybe too few years I do find myself short with parents at times, but giving them what they need is a much better avenue to doing good work. This made me laugh, tear up, and rejuvenate 🙂

    1. Thanks Melissa. You’re always so positive and supportive. But hey, I’d like to use your comments on the “Straight Talk about Cleavage” section in CI6 and so if you could send me a “Yes, you can include my comments” email to john.sf@mso.umt.edu, that would be excellent.

      I hope you’re doing well.

      John

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