Working directly with parents can be either terribly frustrating or exceptionally gratifying. Many counselors initially feel both fear and frustration at the prospect of counseling parents. That was certainly the case for me. I not only felt intimidated, but I also held several negative beliefs about parents that adversely affected my ability to work with them effectively.
Fortunately, experience helps. I was able to develop more positive attitudes and expectations about parents. I hope the following tips will help you experience more gratification and less frustration as you provide professional counseling services to parents.
Tip 1: As is also true with multicultural counseling, developing self-awareness helps. Two self-awareness issues are crucial. First, self-reflection and collegial discussion can assist you in identifying negative, stereotypical or unhelpful attitudes or expectations that you might hold concerning parents. Second, it’s especially important to know your personal and professional parenting buttons … because parents will inadvertently or intentionally push them.
To borrow and twist the title of an old Art Linkletter and Bill Cosby TV show, sometimes parents say the darndest things. For example, parents have told me:
- “I got spanked as a kid and I turned out OK.”
- “I’ve taught my 6-month-old to speak in complete sentences and to defend himself using martial arts.”
- “You’re just a stupid-ass counselor who doesn’t know anything about living in the real world.”
Self-awareness can give you a better chance at managing potentially unhelpful reactions to these darn things parents say. Often the best response is to listen closely and respond with empathy to deeper meaning or feelings. Examples of how to respond to the preceding statements from parents include:
- You really want your child to turn out OK too.
- It’s important to you to prepare your child for the world.
- You’re not sure I’ll be able to relate to you and your situation.
Underneath their defensiveness and hostility, parents usually feel scrutinized and vulnerable. This is why empathic and active listening is essential.
Tip 2: Knowing the popular parenting literature can help establish your credibility. Most of us studied textbooks on child development, psychopathology and brain science as part of our professional training, but parents are more likely to ask about parenting books than textbooks on developmental theory. Parents will appreciate it if you know what terms like tiger parenting and the Ferber method mean. They’ll also notice and value your knowledge of popular or classic parenting books. For example, when sibling rivalry issues arise, if you can tell the opening story from Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish’s Siblings Without Rivalry, you’ll simultaneously be engaging with, showing empathy for, teaching and establishing credibility with parents.
Tip 3: Remember that empathy and acceptance should precede education. This is a big challenge because as counselors, we can be especially eager and excited about sharing positive parenting information with clients. To address this, you should try to practice — as much as possible — Marsha Linehan’s concept of radical acceptance. A radical acceptance mantra sounds something like this: “I accept you as you are and am committed to helping you change for the better.” Practicing radical acceptance can help because it emphasizes acceptance as a precursor to change. And if you don’t hold your tongue and demonstrate empathy and respect, parents are likely to tune out all the excellent information you have to share with them.
Tip 4: Be direct, honest and collaborative. If a parent asks whether you have children or whether you’ve worked with parents like them, always answer the question directly and honestly. There’s no need to rationalize, justify or equivocate to prove yourself. After you’ve answered the question directly and honestly, gently paraphrase the parent’s underlying concern. You might say something like: “No, I don’t have children. And I can totally see why you’d ask. Underneath your question I hear concern about whether I can really understand your situation and whether I can be of help. All I can say is that I hope you’ll give me a chance. Of course, you’ll be the best judge of whether I’m helpful or not.”
Handling parent questions directly and honestly will nearly always allay parent concerns about your competence — at least temporarily. If not, your best strategy is to offer a referral.
Similarly, if you don’t know the answer to a specific question posed by a parent, admit it. More often than not, children’s problems are at least partly mystery. Share your respect for this mystery with parents. Admit that what you have to offer is experimental. As a counselor, you need to be collaborative with parents because they’re the ones who will be trying out whatever ideas you share. In the end, they’ll determine what works and what doesn’t.
Tip 5: Ask parents for their best explanation for their child’s misbehavior. Parents are a treasure trove of important ideas. Often, they’ll have a secret or unstated fear or hypothesis about why their child is having a particular difficulty. This secret fear is often wrapped in guilt. Unfortunately, if the counselor doesn’t directly ask “What do you think is causing your child’s misbehavior?” the parent may never share his or her personal theory of what’s really wrong.
Tip 6: Focus on parent strengths using compliments and validation. Many parents are naturally insecure about their parenting, so the best counseling approach is one that is explicitly and repeatedly strength-based and affirming. However, as you might already know, it can be difficult to sort through a particular parent’s frustrations and pessimism to identify parent strengths.
From a constructive or solution-focused perspective, positive and affirming comments from practitioners should stimulate parent motivation toward self-improvement. Consequently, when working with parents, counselors should avoid criticism, focus on the positive and trust parents to lead them to where the work needs to be done.
Tip 7: Offer clear and prescriptive advice, then step back … and listen. When working with parents, I’ve made it a practice to say at the beginning of the session that at first I’ll be listening more, and then later I’ll be offering suggestions and advice. I then tell them it’s their “hour,” so if they want me to shut up and do more listening, they should say so; if they want more advice, they should tell me that as well. In response to this collaborative sharing of power, nearly every parent I’ve ever seen responds with something like, “Oh, I want advice!” This is a good thing because when parents give counselors permission to offer advice, they’re more likely to listen.
After giving advice, it’s very important for counselors to intentionally and systematically listen for the client’s reaction. Usually it works best if you ask directly for the parent’s response. For example: “What do you think of the idea of using an emotional time-out with your child?” or “How do you feel about trying out a mutual problem-solving approach to start a discussion with your child?”
This short list of tips focuses primarily on the process of working with parents. That’s because most parenting resources available to counselors focus much more on the content counselors should be teaching parents. However, if you focus on using the process presented in this brief article as a means of delivering high-quality parent education content, you’ll be more likely to have pleasant, positive and gratifying experiences as you work with parents — which is a very nice outcome.
John Sommers-Flanagan is a professor of counselor education at the University of Montana. Additional material for working with parents is available in his books Tough Kids, Cool Counseling (2007, American Counseling Association) and How to Listen so Parents Will Talk and Talk so Parents Will Listen” (2011, John Wiley & Sons). Free information and parenting tip sheets are also available on his blog at johnsommersflanagan.com.
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