Tag Archives: parenting education

Learning to Work Effectively with Parents

In anticipation of my upcoming workshop, I’m posting this short excerpt from our book: How to Listen so Parents will Talk and Talk so Parents will Listen.

Theory into Practice: The Three Attitudes in Action

In the following example, Cassandra is discussing her son’s “strong-willed” behaviors with a parenting professional.

Case: “Wanna Piece of Me?”

Cassandra: My son is so stubborn. Everything is fine one minute, but if I ask him to do something, he goes ballistic. And then I can’t get him to do anything.

Consultant: Some kids seem built to focus on getting what they want. It sounds like your boy is very strong-willed. [A simple initial reflection using common language is used to quickly formulate the problem in a way that empathically resonates with the parent’s experience.]

Cassandra: He’s way beyond strong-willed. The other day I asked him to go upstairs and clean his room and he said “No!” [The mom wants the consultant to know that her son is not your ordinary strong-willed boy.]

Consultant: He just refused? What happened then? [The consultant shows appropriate interest and curiosity, which honors the parent’s perspective and helps build the collaborative relationship.]

Cassandra: I asked him again and then, while standing at the bottom of the stairs, he put his hands on his hips and yelled, “I said no! You wanna piece of me??!”

Consultant: Wow. You’re right. He is in the advanced class on how to be strong-willed. What did you do next? [The consultant accepts and validates the parent’s perception of having an exceptionally strong-willed child and continues with collaborative curiosity.]

Cassandra: I carried him upstairs and spanked his butt because, at that point, I did want a piece of him! [Mom discloses becoming angry and acting on her anger.]

Consultant: It’s funny how often when our kids challenge our authority so directly, like your son did, it really does make us want a piece of them. [The consultant is universalizing, validating, and accepting the mom’s anger as normal, but does not use the word anger.]

Cassandra: It sure gets me! [Mom acknowledges that her son can really get to her, but there’s still no mention of anger.]

Consultant: I know my next question is a cliché counseling question, but I can’t help but wonder how you feel about what happened in that situation. [This is a gentle and self-effacing effort to have the parent focus on herself and perhaps reflect on her behavior.]

Cassandra: I believe he got what he deserved. [Mom does not explore her feelings or question her behavior, but instead, shows a defensive side; this suggests the consultant may have been premature in trying to get the mom to critique her own behavior.]

Consultant: It sounds like you were pretty mad. You were thinking something like, “He’s being defiant and so I’m giving him what he deserves.” [The consultant provides a corrective empathic response and uses radical acceptance; there is no effort to judge or question whether the son “deserved” physical punishment, which might be a good question, but would be premature and would likely close down exploration; the consultant also uses the personal pronoun I when reflecting the mom’s perspective, which is an example of the Rogerian technique of “walking within.”]

Cassandra: Yes, I did. But I’m also here because I need to find other ways of dealing with him. I can’t keep hauling him up the stairs and spanking him forever. It’s unacceptable for him to be disrespectful to me, but I need other options. [Mom responds to radical acceptance and empathy by opening up and expressing her interest in exploring alternatives; Miller and Rollnick (2002) might classify the therapist’s strategy as a “coming alongside” response.]

Consultant: That’s a great reason for you to be here. Of course, he shouldn’t be disrespectful to you. You don’t deserve that. But I hear you saying that you want options beyond spanking and that’s exactly one of the things we can talk about today. [The consultant accepts and validates the mom’s perspective—both her reason for seeking a consultation and the fact that she doesn’t deserve disrespect; resonating with parents about their hurt over being disrespected can be very powerful.]

Cassandra: Thank you. It feels good to talk about this, but I do need other ideas for how to handle my wonderful little monster. [Mom expresses appreciation for the validation and continues to show interest in change.]

As noted previously, parents who come for professional help are often very ambivalent about their parenting behaviors. Although they feel insecure and want to do a better job, if parenting consultants  are initially judgmental, parents can quickly become defensive and may sometimes make rather absurd declarations like, “This is a free country! I can parent any way I want!”

In Cassandra’s case, she needed to establish her right to be respected by her child (or at least not disrespected). Consequently, until the consultant demonstrated respect or unconditional positive regard or radical acceptance for Cassandra in the session, collaboration could not begin.

Another underlying principle in this example is that premature educational interventions can carry an inherently judgmental message. They convey, “I see you’re doing something wrong and, as an authority, I know what you should do instead.” Providing an educational intervention too early with parents violates the attitudes of empathy, radical acceptance, and collaboration. Even though parents usually say that educational information is exactly what they want, unless they first receive empathy and acceptance and perceive an attitude of collaboration, they will often resist the educational message.

To summarize, in Cassandra’s case, theory translates into practice in the following ways:

  • Nonjudgmental listening and empathy increase parent openness and parent–clinician collaboration.
  • Radical acceptance of undesirable parenting behaviors or attitudes strengthens the working relationship.
  • Premature efforts to provide educational information violate the core attitudes of empathy, radical acceptance, and collaboration and therefore are likely to increase defensiveness.
  • Without an adequate collaborative relationship built on empathy and acceptance, direct educational interventions with parents will be less effective.

Want to learn more? You can still sign up for the online (Zoom) 2-day professional workshop through the Families First Learning Lab: https://www.familiesfirstmt.org/umworkshops.html

Why You Need Special Training to Work Effectively with Parents

The following case example is excerpted from a chapter I wrote along with two colleagues at the University of Montana, Kirsten W. Murray and Christina G. Yoshimura. This chapter is titled, “Filial Play Therapy and Other Strategies for Working with Parents.” It’s published as Chapter 15 in Foundations of Couples, Marriage, and Family Counseling.

The first 750 words follow.

Parents constitute a complex and challenging population. When parents come to counseling or psychotherapy, they bring unique problems that can test the competence of even the most well-seasoned helping professionals (Holcomb-McCoy & Bryan, 2010; Slagt, Deković, de Haan, van den Akker, Alithe, & Prinzie, 2012). The nature, range, scope, and intensity of parenting problems are immense.

The following case example illustrates the complexity inherent in counseling parents:

Casey and Pat arrive in your office with the intent to discuss concerns about their 6-year-old daughter, Hazel. Initially, they describe their worries about a small behavioral or motor tic that Hazel has developed over the past year. Repeatedly throughout the day and particularly during novel social situations, Hazel cocks her head to the side, rolls her eyes backward, and then brings the knuckle of her right hand upward to her nose. She then presses her knuckle into the side of her nose while scrunching up her face. When Casey or Pat ask her about the purpose of her behavior, she usually reports that her nose “itches on the inside” and that she cannot resist scratching it.

As is often the case with children, Casey and Pat are worried about more than just Hazel’s nose-itching behavior. They’re also worried about how this behavior will affect Hazel’s social development. Hazel will be starting full-day kindergarten in less than a month and Casey and Pat are terrified that other kindergarten students will pick on her. In addition, as you explore their worries about Hazel’s social development, you also discover she’s having severe emotional outbursts (i.e., tantrums) and that neither Casey nor Pat seem to have skills for effectively dealing with their daughter’s anger.

Not long into your session both parents also tell you that their relationship is in crisis. Pat’s anger has been only marginally in control. Their couple conflicts have become more frequent and more intense. Two weeks prior to their counseling appointment they were fighting so intensely that their neighbors called the police. Pat was nearly cited for domestic abuse. Then, Pat quickly escalates in your session, claiming that Casey is too “easy” on Hazel and that Hazel just needs more firm and consistent discipline. Pat gives a short monologue on the effectiveness of spanking. Casey responds with tears, disclosing a personal history of physical abuse and adamant opposition to corporal punishment. Casey emphatically states: “I will not let Pat abuse my daughter.”

Not surprisingly, all this talk about discipline and abuse may raise emotional issues within the helping professional. You may begin to feel like supporting Casey and chastising Pat—at least up until the point that Pat bursts into tears. Pat then begins detailing their financial stressors and the fact that neither of them has had a full-time job over the past year. They’re living in run-down, low-income apartments within a neighborhood that both Pat and Casey find frightening. Eventually, Pat discloses that he has a 13-year-old son from a previous relationship. In an effort to escape the tension between himself and his stepfather, Pat’s teenage son is intermittently showing up at the apartment late at night after a round of drinking with his buddies. When the appointment ends, you end up with more questions than answers.

This case illustrates how working directly with parents is a unique process that requires special knowledge and skills. Pat and Casey present a profoundly complex scenario—even without adding dimensions related to their sexuality or culture. For example, how might Casey and Pat’s parenting and family issues shift if they were a lesbian or gay couple? And how would potential cultural matches or mismatches between the parental dyad and the therapist—or within the parental dyad—affect the therapeutic process and potential outcomes? Obviously, working with Rosa and Miguel or Minkyong and Liang (and all the stereotypes linked to these client names) instead of Casey and Pat might add complexity to the counseling process. Our main point is that you should try not to fool yourself into thinking you can work effectively with parents unless you’ve obtained specific training for working effectively with parents.

This chapter [published in Foundations of Couples, Marriage, and Family Counseling, which is edited by David Capuzzi and Mark Stauffer] describes principles, methods, and techniques for counseling parents. It’s organized into three parts: (1) parenting problems and theoretical models; (2) general knowledge and skills for working directly with parents; and (3) the history, knowledge, and skills associated with Filial Therapy, a specific play therapy approach to working with parents and children.


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

Check Out Our Latest Parenting Journal Article

While working with Families First several years ago, I collaborated with several graduate students and we collected data on the effectiveness of parenting consultations–from the perspective of the parents who participated in the consultations. It was a very small and uncontrolled study, but the results were positive and we just got word that the publication–in The Family Journal–is available. And so, if you’re interested in this sort of thing, the abstract is below and you can link to the whole article right about here:   http://tfj.sagepub.com/content/early/2014/10/25/1066480714555696

Effectiveness of Solution-Focused Consultations on Parent Stress and Competence

John Sommers-Flanagan, Sara Polanchek, Waganesh A. Zeleke, Meredith H. E. Hood, and Sidney L. Shaw


Parenting is a challenging activity and many parents report high stress and feelings of
incompetence. Both of these factors (a) stress and (b) feelings of incompetence are associated with
a variety of negative parenting outcomes. This study evaluated the effectiveness of a
community-based, solution-focused, 2-session parent consultation intervention on parent
perceptions of stress and competence. A pre-post quasi-experimental design was employed.
Forty-five consecutive parents who sought consultation services were administered three
preintervention questionnaires. Results included positive outcomes across all three outcome
measures as well as high ratings on a satisfaction questionnaire. Although significant reductions
in parenting stress and increased parenting self-efficacy were obtained, the study design and small
and homogeneous sample limit generalization of these findings. Nevertheless, this study highlights
the possibility that a straightforward, positive, brief, and community-based
intervention may have the potential to decrease parental stress and increase parenting sense of

Parenting, NPEN, Portland, a Parenting Philosophy, and Smell Check

Yesterday and today it’s been excellent being back in Portland and taking in the fabulous spring showers. To make things even better,  I’ve been at the National Parenting Education Network (NPEN) annual meeting along with an interesting mix of people who are immensely dedicated to helping and supporting parents. It’s hard to get any better than that, but to add even more frosting to the cake (I use this only metaphorically because I’m not really a frosting fan), I got to be here with Chelsea and Nora and Rita and . . . even Waganesh!

Here’s NPEN’s Vision Statement: The vision of the National Parenting Education Network (NPEN) is that all parents/families will have the information, resources and support needed to provide a nurturing relationship and an optimal environment that will encourage their children’s healthy growth and development.

What still surprises me is that very few people seem to understand the deep importance of parenting and even fewer seem to know about NPEN. Just in case you don’t know about NPEN, here’s the website address: http://npen.org/

In this coming year, NPEN will be turning the corner and beginning to incorporate and post original content on it’s website. You can become a member (it’s cheap, only $25) and join the listserv. Additionally, at some point in late summer or early fall, Sara Polanchek and I, along with the many experts and parents associated with NPEN, will be launching a series of parenting podcasts underwritten by the fabulous Engelhard Foundation. So . . . be watching for that.

In the meantime, tomorrow night Families First Missoula is having a fundraiser. Check it out here: https://www.childrensmuseummissoula.org/events/go-mad-spring-soiree/

And FF Missoula asked me to write a short parenting philosophy. . . and so here’s that: Parenting is a balance of many things; it includes balancing joy and disappointment and love as well as anger. This makes consistently parenting well an immense challenge. Perhaps the biggest parenting challenge of all involves being able to simultaneously set limits while communicating empathy. This is difficult because often children need (but don’t want) their parents to be an authority—and it’s easy for parents to become too authoritarian and consequently lose the ability to respond empathically to their children’s developing emotional struggles.

And finally, here’s a photo of my two daughters engaging in the balance of conducting some sort of smell check with each other. Don’t ask me why.

Pit Smell

Building a Therapeutic Relationship with Parents: Part II – Using Radical Acceptance

Building a Therapeutic Relationship with Parents: Part II – Using Radical Acceptance

Radical acceptance is a central therapeutic attitude held by practitioners who work effectively with parents. Radical acceptance is both an attitude and a clinical technique. This concept was originally articulated by Marsha Linehan (1993) and is a foundational component of dialectical behavior therapy. It involves a particular attitude that builds on Carl Rogers’s core therapeutic condition of unconditional positive regard as well as Eastern (Buddhist) philosophy.

Radical acceptance enables helping professionals to approach each client or parent with an overarching, pervasive dialectic belief, which we translate as, “I completely accept you just as you are and I am committed to helping you change for the better.” When working with parents, consultants strive to simultaneously hold both of these beliefs or attitudes. On the surface, these attitudes may seem contradictory, thus the term dialectic. At a deeper level, in a helping relationship, each attitude is necessary to complete the other.

As a technique, radical acceptance serves two main functions. First, it can help you refrain from expressing negative personal reactions to statements by parents that inadvertently push your buttons (we’ll focus more on button-pushing in Chapter 2). If you hear a statement that pushes an emotional button for you, having a radical acceptance attitude would help remind you that your job is to fully accept the person in the room with you—as is. In this situation, you don’t have to say anything as you simply quiet your roiling reactions. You can just be present and nonreactive.

Second, beyond momentary silence, radical acceptance allows parenting professionals to actively embrace whatever attitudes or beliefs parents bring into the consulting room. As we’ve stated previously (J. Sommers-Flanagan & Sommers-Flanagan, 2007):

The generic version or statement of radical acceptance is to graciously welcome even the most absurd or offensive . . . [parent] . . . statements with a response like, “I’m very glad you brought that [topic] up.” (p. 275)

Radical acceptance is especially warranted when parents say something you find disagreeable. This may include racist, sexist, or insensitive comments. For example:

Parent: I believe in limiting my children’s exposure to gay people. Parents need to keep children away from evil influences.

Consultant: Thanks for sharing your perspective with me. I’m glad you brought up your worries about this. Some parents have similar beliefs but won’t say them in here. So I especially appreciate you being honest with me about your beliefs. [Adapted from Sommers-Flanagan & Sommers-Flanagan, 2007, p. 276.]

Rest assured, radical acceptance does not mean agreeing with the content of whatever parents say. Instead, it means moving beyond feeling threatened, angry, or judgmental about parents’ comments and authentically welcoming whatever comes up during the session. The main purpose of welcoming disagreeable or challenging parent comments is to communicate your commitment to openness. If you don’t communicate and value openness by welcoming all remarks, parents or caregivers may never admit their core underlying beliefs. And if parents cover up their true beliefs—especially disagreeable or embarrassing beliefs—there will be no opportunity for insight or change because the underlying beliefs will never be exposed to the light of personal and professional inspection.

Similar to person-centered therapy, one key to using radical acceptance effectively is genuineness or congruence. This means you should never falsely welcome parents’ racist, sexist, insensitive, or outrageous comments. Instead, you should welcome such comments only if you really believe that hearing them is a good thing that can benefit the counseling or consultation process.

Radical acceptance also involves letting go of the immediate need to teach parents a new and better way. We must confess that we haven’t always maintained an attitude of radical acceptance ourselves. During one memorable session, upon hearing the classic line, “I got spanked and I turned out just fine!” John, being in an impatient and surly mood, barely managed to suppress an extremely destructive impulse (he wanted to say, “Are you really so sure you turned out fine?”). Nevertheless, a judgmental and dismissive comment still slipped out and he said: “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard parents say what you just said.” Not surprisingly, that particular session didn’t proceed with the spirit of empathy, acceptance, and collaboration we generally recommend.

This leads us to some obvious advice: Although you cannot be radically accepting all the time, you should always avoid radical judgment. There’s no need to test the “How about I treat parents in a judgmental, dismissive manner?” technique. Outcomes associated with judgmental and disrespectful counselor behavior are quite undesirable.

Stay Tuned for Part III on Building a Therapeutic Relationship with Parents tomorrow.

Building a Therapeutic Relationship with Parents: Part I

Every parent is unique. But as a group, most parents have similar interests and goals. What this means for consultants and counselors and psychotherapists is that parents constitutea unique population and therefore to work effectively with parents requires a specifically tailored treatment approach and training in how to provide educational and therapeutic services for parents.

The following is an adapted excerpt from the book, “How to Listen so Parents will Talk and Talk so Parents will listen. For more info, go to: http://www.amazon.com/How-Listen-Parents-Will-Talk/dp/1118012968/ref=la_B0030LK6NM_1_4?ie=UTF8&qid=1366501670&sr=1-4

To work effectively with parents, consultants or practitioners should use an approach that, similar to person-centered therapy, is characterized by three core attitudes: (1) empathic understanding; (2) radical acceptance; and (3) collaboration.

Empathy for Parents and Parenting

As is well-known, empathic understanding is one of the three core conditions for psychotherapy originally identified by Carl Rogers (1942; 1961; 1980). Over the years, research has left no doubt that therapist empathy facilitates positive therapy outcomes (Goldfried, 2007; Greenberg, Watson, Elliot, & Bohart, 2001; Mullis & Edwards, 2001). As applied to parents, empathy involves:

The therapist’s ability and willingness to understand the parent’s thoughts, feelings, and struggles from the parent’s point of view and an ability to see, more or less completely, through the parent’s eyes and adopt the parent’s frame of reference . . . . It means entering the private perceptual world of a parent. (adapted from Rogers, 1980, pp. 85, 142)

When working with parents, counselors, psychologists, and other human services professionals must learn to sensitively enter into the parent’s unique perceptual world. The practitioner needs to demonstrate empathy and sensitivity for specific parenting challenges. A person-centered perspective also implies that professionals who work with parents show empathy for the barrage of criticism, scrutiny, and associated insecurity that parents experience due to their exposure to social and media sources. Brazelton and Sparrow (2006) capture one way in which socially driven parental insecurity can manifest itself:

When Mrs. McCormick held Tim in her lap at the playground, she sat alone on a bench across from the other mothers as if she were ashamed of Tim’s clinging. She knew that if she sat by other mothers, they would all give her advice: “Just put him down and let him cry—he’ll get over it.” “MY little girl was just like that before she finally got used to other kids.” “Get him a play date. He can learn about other children that way.” (p. 8)

This example illustrates how parents anticipate criticism and work hard to avoid it. If you’ve been a parent or you work with parents, you know how easy it is for them to feel defensive about their children’s behaviors and their parenting choices. This is partly because, like Mrs. McCormick, they’re unable to measure up to narrowly defined parenting standards and cannot face the cascade of criticism or advice they’re likely to receive when their child doesn’t behave perfectly in social settings. To provide an optimally empathic environment, practitioners should have and show empathy or attunement with parents’ sensitivity to perceived or actual criticism and counter this sensitivity by amplifying their support and acceptance (we’ll cover therapeutic methods for amplifying support and acceptance in greater detail in Chapter 4).

Similar to the empathic attitude associated with person-centered therapy, it’s crucial for professionals who work with parents to hold the attitude that parenting is naturally difficult and that making mistakes or having a child who publicly misbehaves is nothing to feel shameful about. By maintaining this attitude, practitioners provide a nonjudgmental and empathic space for parents to explore their personal doubts and fears. This is the way the theory works: By being nonjudgmental, compassionate, and openly supportive, parenting professionals provide an environment free from societal conditions of worth, which then stimulates parents to become more open and collaborative when examining their weaknesses with a trusted professional.

Part II of this three part blog post continues tomorrow.

Who Needs Parenting Education Anyway?

Today and tomorrow I’m in Minneapolis at the annual work meeting for the National Parenting Education Network (NPEN). The room at the Search Institute (our host for the two days) is filled with very nice and very intelligent people—all of whom are deeply dedicated to making high quality parenting education a norm in the United States. Being with these fabulous people gave me a 15-year-old flashback.

I transported back in time and saw myself as the executive director of Families First Missoula, making a routine appearance on a local television news show. The vintage female newscaster was interviewing me about the upcoming Missoula “Parents’ Convention.” The Parents’ Convention was a full-day—including  a keynote speaker and 75 minute break-out sessions—all designed specifically for parents. It was pretty darn cool.

The newscaster nodded attentively. I explained how the event was created for parents because parents often didn’t get respect for all the knowledge required to fulfill their parenting commitments. This Parents’ Convention was about treating parents as professionals. As I finished talking, the newscaster turned to the camera, exclaiming, “Do go!”

I was pretty happy.

But moments later she scrunched up her face and muttered: “If you need that sort of thing.”

I wish I’d been ready for this negation of my message. But I wasn’t and so I just ignored her. Instead, I wish I’d explained that good, competent, and effective parenting is NOT NATURAL. I wish I’d emphasized that everyone needs parenting education and that everyone should want the sort of knowledge that just might make them a little better parent.

And this flashback takes me to another one.

This time I’m doing a short stint of in-home family therapy. There’s a mom with her 8-month pregnant teenage daughter and the room is filled with worries—worries about whether this teen mom is ready for what she’s facing. In a massive effort at denial, the soon-to-be grandmother turns to me with a strange and strained grin, stating, “Once she holds that new baby in her arms, she’ll know what to do . . . don’t you think?”

The answer then—and now—is the same. “No. She will not naturally and automatically know what to do. Parents need education. Parents need support. And parents need to know they need education and support. Rarely are parents really ready to face the enormity of their task. It’s hard to competently cope with sleep deprivation, mood swings, a wailing baby with poop somehow defying gravity and making its way up your child’s back, as well as the many other emotional, physical, and psychological demands of parenting.

And so this is why I invite you all to go to the National Parent Education Network’s website. For a mere $25 a year, you can join the movement to make high quality parenting education more accessible for to all parents. Somewhere inside, behind our strange and strained grins, we all know that parents need our help and that it’s the children who will benefit.

NPEN’s website: http://npen.org/