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Avoiding the parent trap

Lynne Shallcross June 1, 2013

Parent_Trap_June-2013Parenting is often referred to as the hardest job in the world. Just how hard is it, then, to counsel someone who is struggling in that role?

Hard enough that John Sommers-Flanagan and Sara Polanchek teamed up to present a session titled “How to Listen So Parents Will Talk and Talk So Parents Will Listen” at the American Counseling Association 2013 Conference & Expo in Cincinnati in March. The session was based on the book of the same title that Sommers-Flanagan co-wrote with his wife, Rita Sommers-Flanagan, and which was published by Wiley in 2011.

“Parenting is a very challenging endeavor,” says Polanchek, who worked for 12 years as a parent educator and counselor at a nonprofit organization that provides education and support to parents in Missoula, Mont. Parents are hard on themselves, often evaluating themselves — and feeling judged by others — on the basis of their children’s behavior, says Polanchek, who is now a doctoral candidate in the Department of Counselor Education at the University of Montana but continues to supervise some of the nonprofit’s counselors and parent educators. In addition, she says, the United States has a kind of pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps mentality that suggests parents should be able to figure everything out on their own; if they seek any help, society seems to suggest they are failures as parents.

And although the Internet offers a plethora of information on the topic of parenting, that information can be as confusing as it is helpful. For any given problem, Polanchek says, parents can find a proposed “solution” online, but if they spend a few minutes digging deeper, they are likely to uncover an opposite solution being offered for the same problem. Parents who come to see a counselor for help have likely already exhausted the tips from their neighbors, their child’s school counselor and their co-workers, Polanchek says. In addition, they have probably read more than a few books on parenting.

“When I last checked, there were 107,000 parenting books available on Amazon,” Polanchek says. “That number is daunting, and when we consider that many of these resources are in conflict with each other, it is no wonder parents feel overwhelmed. By the time parents come to us [counselors], they’ve likely tried lots of techniques and believe they’ve failed.”

Regardless of whether parents decide on their own to seek advice from a counselor or are ordered to do so by a court, when they arrive at a counseling session, they are feeling vulnerable, Polanchek says. As a result, they are also often defensive and leery of the counselor.

Not surprisingly, approaching those vulnerable and sometimes defensive parents can be daunting for counselors. Sommers-Flanagan and Polanchek, both members of ACA, say it isn’t uncommon for counselors to feel afraid of or even angry at parent-clients. But those emotions interfere with a counselor’s effectiveness, they warn.

“Everyone I know needs some parental guidance, but there is so much out there that it’s overwhelming, so parents put up walls,” says Sommers-Flanagan, professor and acting chair of the Department of Counselor Education at the University of Montana. The first and best thing counselors can do to encourage parents to lower those walls, Sommers-Flanagan and Polanchek say, is to provide an accepting space, free of judgment and criticism, where the counselor’s job is to listen and be supportive rather than to offer well-meaning advice straight off the bat.

“Don’t start with, ‘Well, Julia, I have a few ideas I can share with you about how you can be a better mom,’” Sommers-Flanagan says. “If you offer advice too soon, you raise their defenses.” He suggests that counselors not offer any advice until parents confirm it is OK or ask for guidance themselves.

“I think the first few moments, sometimes before we’ve even sat down, are crucial because this is when parents are deciding whether or not they can trust me,” Polanchek says. “There is an attitude of acceptance that I hope to communicate when I greet parents and initiate the session.”

“Like many people, I have very protective feelings for children,” she continues, “and it is tricky to discuss parenting behaviors that might be perfectly acceptable but don’t necessarily line up with what I might consider ideal. This is where a lot of self-reflection about my values and triggers is necessary so that my wish to be accepting is authentic.”

Empathize, accept, collaborate

Sommers-Flanagan recalls leading a divorce education class in which one father made it blatantly obvious how much he did not want to be there. A judge had set attending the class as a condition the man had to meet so he could have unsupervised visits with his daughter.

One of the first things the man announced to Sommers-Flanagan and the rest of the group was that he didn’t “need a stupid-ass parenting class.” Sommers-Flanagan says that as a counselor, it was important for him to ignore a natural reaction to bristle at the comment and to find instead empathy for the man and understand how difficult it was for him to be going through a divorce. “Thank you for sharing that,” Sommers-Flanagan told the father. “You must really love your daughter to be here.”

At the end of the class, Sommers-Flanagan gave the man his certificate of completion and tried to joke with him, saying he probably would really want to put the certificate up on a wall at home. The man gave Sommers-Flanagan a funny look, took the certificate and left.

But about a week later, the same client called Sommers-Flanagan to apologize for his behavior in class. He told Sommers-Flanagan he had indeed hung the certificate on the wall of his trailer, and when his daughter had come for a visit, she saw the certificate, hugged him and told him she was proud of him.

The story illustrates two of the main principles Sommers-Flanagan recommends when working with parents: empathic understanding and radical acceptance.

Offering empathic understanding means seeing through any negativity the client presents and understanding that, underneath it all, parents really just want to love their children, says Sommers-Flanagan, who has an independent practice that includes parenting consultations in collaboration with a local nonprofit agency. The idea behind radical acceptance, he says, is that counselors should receive and accept anything and everything a parent says in session without judgment. “Obviously, that’s basically impossible, because being judgmental is a natural human tendency,” he says. “Nevertheless, we make an effort to be nonjudgmental [as counselors].”

Sommers-Flanagan offers an example he used in the book How to Listen So Parents Will Talk and Talk So Parents Will Listen. A parent might say, “I believe in limiting my children’s exposure to gay people. Parents need to keep children away from evil influences.” The counselor might respond with, “Thanks for sharing your perspective with me. I’m glad you brought up your worries about this. Many parents have similar beliefs but won’t say them in here. So I especially appreciate you being honest with me about your beliefs.”

A key point about radical acceptance is that it doesn’t involve agreeing with the client, Sommers-Flanagan says. At the same time, he says, radical acceptance is especially helpful in situations when parents say something extreme that might push a counselor’s emotional buttons.Polanchek says collaboration, the third important principle when working with parents, means striking a balance between respecting parents as the best experts of their child, taking the necessary time to truly understand the situation and offering enough of what parents are looking for in terms of “answers” to make the counseling session worthwhile for them.

Polanchek acknowledges that when she first started working with parents, she was nervous and often overcompensated by letting her clients know up front how much knowledge she possessed and how many tips she could offer. In a well-meaning effort to help parents, Polanchek says, she rushed too quickly to provide solutions. “Sometimes the first instinct is wrong,” she says. “But even if the counselor’s first instinct is right, the counselor will then have denied parents the process and ability to get to the solution on their own.”

One of Polanchek’s favorite couples came to her office via court order. “They were clearly not happy about being forced into a parenting session, and when they came into my office, they said something like, ‘Don’t even tell us not to spank. We know our rights, and we know we can legally spank our kids,’” Polanchek remembers. “I acknowledged that I understood their concerns, and I made an agreement with them on the spot that I would not tell them what to do. It was rewarding to see how they made a shift from feeling angry about being with me to feeling relief in being able to tell their story.”

Ironically, Polanchek says, one of the couple’s biggest concerns was that their children were getting into trouble for hitting others at school. “I’m afraid that in my neo-counselor days, I may have drawn the connection for them between being spanked at home and then hitting at school. Luckily, I resisted this impulse. Two sessions later, they came to me and proudly announced, ‘We are no longer a hitting family.’ In the process of sharing their struggles, they came to their own conclusions about the message their spankings were sending to their children.”

Letting the client lead 

Parents come to counseling with a variety of concerns and issues. Among the most common, Sommers-Flanagan says, are strong-willed children; children who are angry, irritable or distressed; children who are impulsive; and teenagers who are engaging in potentially destructive behaviors. Parents may also seek a counselor because of how angry or upset they are feeling about their child or their own behavior toward the child, says Sommers-Flanagan, who with his wife Rita co-authored the bookTough Kids, Cool Counseling: User-Friendly Approaches With Challenging Youth, published by ACA.

Also common are parents who are concerned about managing their child’s emotions, Polanchek says. “I think this comes up a lot because, as adults, we are often surprised by how demonstrative our children can be when they have big feelings,” she says.

When he begins working with parents, Sommers-Flanagan says he communicates openly about his counseling approach. For instance, he says, he might tell them, “I want to listen as much as possible to you and ask you a few questions because you’re the best expert on your child. And halfway through the session, I might begin sharing some ideas with you about what might be helpful. And yet, I want you to know that this is your hour. If I am listening too much and not offering enough ideas, just ask me. Please tell me if you want more suggestions and ideas, but also please tell me if you want me to be quiet and listen.”

After sharing that with parents, Sommers-Flanagan says they almost always say to him, “Oh, I want advice.” And that means they’re inviting him — and his advice — in. “Then when I do offer something, it’s not a surprise,” he says. “We’ve already agreed on it.”

If a counselor listens well, validates, summarizes and shows empathy, parents will typically ask for advice eventually, Sommers-Flanagan says. “If not, then after listening well, validating, summarizing and showing empathy, the counselor can ask for permission to offer up parenting ideas or solutions, and usually the parent will be receptive,” he says. “If not, then it’s generally advisable to keep on listening.”

The model that John and Rita Sommers-Flanagan emphasize in their book on listening and talking to parents is a combination of person-centered principles and solution-focused approaches. “This is a challenging integration,” John Sommers-Flanagan says, “but I think it’s helpful because parents want and need empathy, but they also want quick solutions.”

Counselors must gently pursue as many details as possible, Sommers-Flanagan says. If a parent comes in and says her children are playing video games in the morning and don’t listen to her when it is time to get ready for school, Sommers-Flanagan will dig for more details. For instance, when do they start playing the games? What does she do when the kids don’t pay attention to her? Was there a time when this problem didn’t exist?

During the process of talking with the mother, Sommers-Flanagan might tell her it sounds like she knows her kids very well and that it is obvious how much she loves them. He also might listen for things she would like to see happen and then ask her if he can write those items down as goals.

Backward behavior modification is one common issue among parent-clients, Sommers-Flanagan says. He explains that parents tend to reinforce negative behaviors by paying too much attention to them, while essentially ignoring positive behaviors. “This is the opposite of what we should all be doing,” he says. “When working with parents, we often emphasize they should switch to using boring punishment/consequences and exciting rewards. In one case, after only one session, the parents returned and said their household had completely turned around and become more pleasant just by using boring consequences and exciting rewards.”

Polanchek likens the idea of backward behavior modification to growing plants in a garden. “What we pay attention to will grow,” she says. “We want to be watering the flowers instead of the weeds.”

Although the counselor may transition into problem-solving at some point during the session, Polanchek says the key components of empathy, radical acceptance and collaboration should continue throughout. “For example, I have a lot of empathy for parents who are trying something new, and as a parent myself, I’m able to be very genuine in my appreciation for how hard it can be,” she says. “Also, I always ask permission before moving into problem-solving strategies. Communicating respect to parents in this way goes a long way in helping parents feel like the process is collaborative and that they aren’t being told what to do.”

Polanchek says she tries to use the same language the parents use when talking with them about their child. “I also do a lot of checking in to see if what I’m saying feels right to them,” she says. “In this, I’m trying to let them know that I understand their child is not just a cookie-cutter version of every other child — their child is unique and only they, the parents, know what might work for their child.”

Do’s and don’ts

Working with parents can be a challenge, but Sommers-Flanagan and Polanchek offer some basic do’s and don’ts that counselors can follow to strengthen the working relationship and achieve better outcomes.

  • Do trust the process of collaboration, empathy and radical acceptance.
  • Do notice and appreciate the strengths that parents possess, even when those strengths aren’t readily apparent at first.
  • Do be respectful because parents, much like teenagers, can sense disrespect a mile away.
  • Don’t offer information or advice before you have listened.
  • Don’t give too much advice.
  • Do comment on some of the strengths you hear in parents’ descriptions of their children. Too often, parents hear very little that is positive about their kids.

Sommers-Flanagan also says counselors need to let parent-clients know the limits of confidentiality up front as part of the profession’s ethical mandate. “I like to say something like, ‘What you say here stays here. It’s private. However, in cases where there may be danger or abuse, I will need to make a report to the police or Child Protective Services. Not that I suspect this is the case with you — I’m just required to tell you up front about the limits to your privacy or confidentiality in here.”

Counselors also would be smart to stay abreast of the currently popular parenting literature so they will be familiar with what their clients might be reading, Sommers-Flanagan says. And, he says, prepare to respond to questions about your credentials. “Clients might ask, ‘Do you have children?’ Don’t say, ‘I don’t have kids, but I do have a dog.’ Instead, capture the essence of the message: Can you help me? Reflect back to [the client], ‘I don’t have children, and what I understand from what you’re saying is that maybe you’re concerned about whether I can understand your situation and if I can help,’” Sommers-Flanagan says.

Oftentimes, the parent will speak up at that point, Sommers-Flanagan says. If not, he says, the counselor might continue on to say, “If by chance you’re worried about that, I hope you’ll let me know, but I also hope you’ll give me a chance to help you. But in the end, you’ll be the one to decide that.” It is critical that the counselor not be defensive about this questioning, Sommers-Flanagan says.

Sommers-Flanagan suggests that counselors just starting out spend some spare time outside of the office with children and parents. This will help fledgling counselors to become more comfortable with children and child development, with parents, and with the ways that children and parents tend to interact. “Work on understanding the types of interactions that happen between parents and children that are problematic and those that are helpful,” he says. Close supervision is also recommended. Sommers-Flanagan suggests sitting in on parent counseling sessions to get a feel for them in person.

Polanchek says she would talk to new counselors about this topic in much the same way she works with parents. “I would empathize with their anxieties, and I would probably throw in a bit of self-disclosure regarding my own anxieties from when I first started,” she says. “After asking permission to offer some tips, I’d tell them to trust the process. It can be very powerful for parents to hear their struggles reflected back to them in a safe environment. It is easy to feel nervous about not having the right solutions, but the real magic is in the process.”

Sommers-Flanagan advises more experienced counselors to “use their basic listening and validation skills and avoid providing education or advice even though their advice might be excellent. We need to exercise our patience and use good timing even when we immediately think we know what’s best for parents.”

Recently, Polanchek met with two counselors whom she characterizes as “outstanding.” Even so, they were feeling frustrated and down because some of their sessions with parents and their children seemed overwhelming and ineffective. “I told them — after they asked for advice, of course — that sometimes we need to simply focus on the very micro ways in which we are helpful,” Polanchek says. “Maybe because we were empathic, a parent was able to use a softer voice with his or her child that day. Maybe because we noticed a strength, the parent was able to notice a new strength in a child. It can be daunting to work with some parents whose values are so different from our own, but I think keeping focused on the small ways we are effective is helpful.”

To contact John Sommers-Flanagan, email john.sf@mso.umt.edu. To contact Sara Polanchek, email sara.polanchek@umontana.edu. For a variety of tip sheets for parents, visit johnsommersflanagan.com. For parenting education resources and an electronic mailing list, Sommers-Flanagan recommends visiting the National Parenting Education Network at npen.org

Lynne Shallcross is the associate editor and senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at lshallcross@counseling.org.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

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