Stop! Stop throwing that toy! Put it down. Put it down now! Don’t make me say it again. If you don’t stop that right now …” We all know how this story ends — with a frustrated parent and an upset child. But the story doesn’t have to end this way.
In Play Therapy: The Art of the Relationship, Garry Landreth asserts that to improve future adult populations, counselors must equip parents with counseling skills and help them become therapeutic agents in their children’s lives. This plan sounds simple, but how do counselors broach the topic of child discipline, especially when working with clients from cultural backgrounds that differ from their own?
Christa Phipps, a therapist and clinical supervisor at Hickory Grove Counseling Center in North Carolina, notes that parenting and discipline can be touchy subjects, and counselors often fear mentioning it. In fact, she says, the counselors she supervises are terrified to talk with parents about anything that may rupture the therapeutic relationship, so they often skirt around the issue of child discipline. Phipps has also noticed that the one African American counselor she supervises is apprehensive about discussing discipline with clients from other cultures, while her white supervisees are timid about approaching the issue with parents of all cultural groups, including their own.
Phyllis Post, a professor of counseling and director of the Multicultural Play Therapy Center at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (UNCC), advises counselors to address cultural differences outright rather than pretending that they don’t exist. Post, as an older white woman, acknowledges the cultural differences between her and her clients and asks clients directly how they feel about having her discuss child discipline and parenting with them.
Peggy Ceballos, an associate professor of counseling at the University of North Texas, says that parenting style and child discipline are both closely linked to one’s cultural background. “The main mistake I see is people avoiding those [cultural] conversations” in counseling, she says.
Carla Adkison-Johnson, a professor in the Department of Counselor Education and Counseling Psychology at Western Michigan University, agrees that counselors often avoid the topic of discipline because that is where the cultural aspects of raising a child come into play. Rather than neglecting the topic or making assumptions, counselors should ask clients about their child-rearing values and traditions, she advises. They can do this by asking questions about their parenting: What types of disciplinary methods are you using to prepare your child for adulthood? What behaviors warrant discipline? What are you struggling with right now? Do you feel comfortable with the boundaries between you and your child?
Adkison-Johnson, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and a member of the American Counseling Association, also points out that how people were disciplined themselves often plays a role in how they parent their own children. Thus, she says, counselors might ask clients how they were disciplined when they were children, whether they are using any of these methods with their own children, and what disciplinary methods their parents used that the clients found ineffective.
In the 2015 article “Child Discipline and African American Parents With Adolescent Children: A Psychoeducational Approach to Clinical Mental Health Counseling,” Adkison-Johnson described an activity that helps identify how parents define discipline and what child behaviors they consider problematic. In the activity, a counselor shows parents a video clip or a written example of a child displaying inappropriate behavior. The counselor then asks the parents what an appropriate behavior would be and how they would handle the problem.
Ceballos advises counselors to introduce the topic of child discipline in ways that are nonjudgmental and accepting. Parents are typically more receptive to learning new skills — including skills related to appropriate discipline methods — when counselors establish a relationship in which clients feel accepted.
Post, an LPC supervisor and registered play therapist, agrees. “I never tell a parent that what they are doing is wrong,” she says. Instead, she introduces alternative parenting techniques.
Counselors should assure clients that their role isn’t to tell parents what to do, Ceballos says. Instead, they are there to offer additional parenting skills, to process those skills with clients, and to see whether clients might want to try the skills because they think that the techniques might work for their families.
When clients feel there is a parenting skill that they can’t incorporate, Ceballos, an ACA member, talks about it with them. She says she wants clients to feel safe and comfortable having these difficult conversations with her rather than telling her that they will try a new skill and then not following through.
Putting discipline in (cultural) context
Ceballos and Adkison-Johnson agree that before discussing child discipline with clients, counselors need to be aware of their own biases and beliefs around parenting. For example, how does a counselor define “good” parenting? How does the counselor’s cultural background influence this definition?
Adkison-Johnson, who co-edited Counseling African American Families in ACA’s Family Psychology and Counseling Series, argues that counselors also need to understand the current and historical context when broaching the topic of child discipline. For example, African American parents are often viewed in society in a pejorative way, as incompetent parents, she says. Thus, counselors must be intentional about dismissing this false perception and reminding themselves that African American clients are competent parents who have goals, ideals and values for their children. Discussing child discipline also means addressing assumptions, she says, including the fact that most counselors may still determine what is in a family’s best interest on the basis of a widely white, middle-class, mainstream perspective.
Rather than waiting for clients to bring up these cultural contexts, counselors should take on the responsibility of learning more about what their clients experience, Adkison-Johnson stresses. For example, counselors should know that African American parents often engage in racial socialization practices as a part of their parenting activities, she says. This involves communicating messages and behaviors to children to bolster their sense of identity, especially given that their life experiences may include racially hostile encounters.
Parents who are undocumented immigrants may instruct their children to behave well at school because they fear being called in for a meeting or having someone look into their family if their child misbehaves, Ceballos adds. For these families, establishing trust in the counseling relationship is crucial because it may be difficult for them to openly discuss how their undocumented status affects their parenting, she explains.
Ceballos advises counselors to use cultural humility when learning about clients’ belief systems regarding parenting and what parenting means within their cultural context. She also recommends that counselors get involved in the community to build trust with parents. For instance, she finds that partnering with schools helps make Latinx parents more comfortable with getting counseling services because it allows counselors to meet these parents in a place that is familiar to them and where they may have already established a level of trust. In addition, schools often have people who know clients’ cultural backgrounds and speak their native languages, she adds.
Yung-Wei Dennis Lin, an assistant professor in the Counselor Education Department at New Jersey City University, points out that some cultures may not be familiar with the counseling profession. A Taiwanese family who immigrates to the United States may not be aware of the role that school counselors play, for example. So, he explains, if a school counselor suddenly contacts the parents in reference to their children, the parents may wonder who this person is and what the person’s role is with their children.
Adkison-Johnson and Lin, an ACA member who specializes in play therapy and filial therapy, say that counselors — including those who have been out in the field for a while — would benefit from interacting with different cultural groups under supervision.
Multicultural development is a lifetime commitment, not just one workshop, class or book, Ceballos adds. She challenges counselors to continue working on recognizing and addressing their unconscious biases. “We learn best through experiences, so … expose [yourself] to different cultural groups, to different cultural experiences … within the community,” she says.
Spanking and the discipline continuum
“When we think of child discipline, we only think of spanking, and I think that’s where we’ve missed the mark,” Adkison-Johnson says. “In general, across all racial groups, child discipline is a broad program of parenting. … It’s [parents] teaching children basically how they want their children to be, how they want to socialize their children within their family structure.”
Spanking generates a lot of heated opinions and often overshadows other aspects of child discipline. Counselors can be prone to taking a position on spanking and focusing exclusively on that aspect of discipline while ignoring all the other parenting tools that people may use along with spanking, Adkison-Johnson says. However, research indicates that “children are more impacted by the whole program of discipline than just the isolation of spanking in and of itself,” she argues.
Spanking also evokes stereotypes of minority cultures relying heavily on physical discipline. In fact, Ceballos did focus interviews with Latinx mothers and found they were cognizant of a pervading stereotype of Latinx parents spanking and abusing their children. The mothers discussed the distress this stereotype causes them and how it made them feel unsafe to discuss child discipline openly with just anyone.
Similarly, Adkison-Johnson acknowledges the stereotype of African American parents primarily using physical discipline to address inappropriate child behavior.
However, Post says, research indicates that parents in all cultural groups spank. “It is not just that some cultural groups spank more,” she adds. In fact, as recently as 2013, two-thirds of parents in a Harris Poll reported that they had spanked their children.
When parents ask Phipps her thoughts on spanking, she tells them that what she thinks is not important and turns the conversation back to what is working for them. “Usually they say that spanking is not working for them. They feel bad about it, but they don’t know what else to do,” she says. “They feel powerless.”
Lin, the recipient of an ACA Best Practices Research Award in 2016 for his work on child play therapy, says that spanking often hurts parents emotionally. Plus, parents often realize that spanking requires double the work. He explains that parents spank to stop the behavior, but then they must wait until the child calms down from crying — as a result of the spanking — to communicate why they spanked them.
Adkison-Johnson finds that physical discipline is often used as a last resort with children. People opposed to spanking typically equate it with violence, she says, and because they consider it a violent act, they feel it is inappropriate. “A blanket injunction with spanking when we have not provided empirical research to support that blanket injunction is problematic because that’s more of an opinion,” she argues.
She notes that parental use of physical discipline is a topic of much debate in the social science and legal literature. Several studies, including a meta-analysis by researchers Elizabeth Gershoff and Andrew Grogan-Kaylor (2016), associate physical punishment with negative childhood outcomes, which supports the premise that physical discipline is equated with violence. However, the most commonly cited studies on the consequences of spanking are correlational and do not show a direct causal link between physical punishment and long-term negative effects on children (see, for example, Robert Larzelere, Ronald Cox and Gail Smith, 2010).
“And from a culturally competent perspective, we’re actually still pushing our own [counseling or psychology profession] agenda because this is the way we want society to be regardless of whether it adequately addresses the child-rearing goals of parents,” she adds.
For this reason, Adkison-Johnson thinks that spanking, which is only one aspect of child discipline, has received too much attention. In fact, from her research with African American parents, she has found that child discipline happens on a continuum — one that is context and age specific. “That means … what the child does warrants the type of discipline that they will receive,” she says. “There’s no spanking randomly. There’s no discussion randomly. There’s no withdrawal of privilege [randomly]. Child discipline in African American homes is comprehensive and strategic and is dictated by the context [of the disciplinary situation] and age of the child.”
With the first behavioral offense, parents may explain what was wrong and tell the child not to do it again, she says. However, if the child has to be told repeatedly not to do something, then the parents may use a more severe form of discipline. As children age — roughly 6 to 11 years old — the discipline may become more restrictive (with physical discipline as a last resort) because the parents realize their children are interacting with the world, peers and the school system, and they want their children to behave a certain way regardless of what others do or say, Adkison-Johnson continues. When children become adolescents, parents typically use less physical discipline and more withdrawal of privilege unless the child commits a serious offense such as disrespecting the parent, she adds.
Several studies (such as one published in 2012 by Jennifer Lansford, Laura Wager, John Bates, Kenneth Dodge and Gregory Pettit) reveal that the negative effects of spanking often seen with white American children aren’t mirrored with African American children, probably because of how and when spanking is used, Adkison-Johnson says.
ACT, don’t react
Post, Lin, Phipps and Ceballos all use child–parent relationship therapy (CPRT), a play-based treatment for children with behavioral, emotional, social or attachment disorders. The aim of CPRT is to teach parents how to use play therapeutically to strengthen the child–parent relationship and to reduce child behavioral problems and parent stress. CPRT skills include responsive listening, reflecting feelings and limit setting.
One CPRT rule of thumb is for adults to act as thermostats, not thermometers. This saying reminds adults that they control the situation (i.e., the “temperature” in the room) even when a child engages in negative behavior. If the adult is not in charge or not in control of his or her own emotions, then things can turn into a power struggle between the adult and child, further escalating the situation, Ceballos explains.
Because CPRT’s aim is to build a stronger relationship with one’s child, the approach is culturally congruent with Latinx culture and familismo (a Latinx cultural value of dedication, commitment and loyalty to the family), Ceballos says. Thus, when Latinx parents are exposed to CPRT, they are often receptive to learning the associated skills, she adds.
Once when Post was teaching child-centered play therapy skills, an African American student told her that he didn’t see how the child-centered approach would work for his culture, which preferred a more authoritarian or directive parenting style. By the end of the class, however, the student had a new appreciation for the approach. Because African American children grow up in environments that can be racially hostile to them, African American parents often see a need to engage in racial socialization practices — for example, teaching their children to be compliant for their own safety. However, the student eventually recognized the value of also providing these children with a safe space in the playroom where they could freely communicate who they were and what they were feeling. He reasoned that this would help them to grow more confident and competent.
Phipps, an LPC supervisor and a registered play therapist supervisor, recommends an IDEAL response for discipline — one that is:
- Immediate (within three seconds)
- Direct (be within 3 feet and make eye contact with the child)
- Efficient (be measured and use the least amount of firmness possible)
- Action-based (have the child model appropriate behavior to create motor memory for making future choices)
- Leveled (aim the response at the behavior, not the child)
Phipps, a member of ACA, also teaches parents how to listen, acknowledge and accept children’s feelings even if they don’t agree with those feelings. For instance, she will often hear a child say, “I feel anxious,” and the parent’s response is, “There is nothing for you to feel anxious about.” That statement is not helpful, Phipps says.
Parents often need help discerning the difference between children’s behaviors and their feelings, she continues. She explains the distinction with the following example. It is OK for a child to feel angry at his or her parents, but it is not OK for the child to hit the parents. Many parents do not recognize the difference between the two, and they discipline the child if he or she gets angry, Phipps says.
Fussing at children because they are not behaving at home or school will not make them feel safe or secure, notes Post, a member of ACA. She advises adults to use the 30-second burst-of-attention technique. For example, when a parent is on the phone and a child is tugging on his or her shirt, the parent should stop for 30 seconds and attend to the child. After the parent gets on the child’s level and listens, then the parent can say, “I’m going back to my phone call now.”
Post, who currently trains teachers to use these skills, recently witnessed the power of listening to children rather than simply reacting to bad behavior. A young boy was being disruptive — throwing things and yelling — in a classroom. Instead of yelling for him to stop or threatening to call his parents, the teacher used CPRT skills. She got down on his level and in a calm voice said, “You feel sad.” The boy was silent for a time, and then he told her that the night before, someone had broken into his home while he was sleeping, and it was chaotic. After the teacher listened to his story, the boy calmed down and returned to the classroom.
Acknowledging feelings is the first step of the ACT model of limit setting. The subsequent steps are communicating the limit and targeting an alternative. Post and Phipps presented on this topic at the ACA 2018 Conference in Atlanta.
Post provides an example of using ACT to correct a child’s behavior. If a child is walking around when the family is eating dinner, the parent would say, “I know you want to get up from the table while we are having dinner, but now is the time to stay at the table and eat with the family. But you can walk around after dinner is over.” In this instance, the parent is providing the child with a way to meet his or her need at another time, Post explains.
Phipps, an adjunct professor at UNCC, practices the skills of the ACT model of limit setting with her counseling students, her counseling supervisees and her clients. With parents, she provides a scenario of a child misbehaving (e.g., throwing a toy), and then they discuss how to respond to the child using ACT. Sometimes, parents even write down the wording to practice later. Next, Phipps brings parents into the playroom so they can watch her execute these skills or even do them along with her. This helps parents feel more comfortable using the skills on their own later.
Although limit setting can be a difficult skill to learn, it is one of the most powerful tools that counselors have, according to Phipps, whose dissertation revealed its effectiveness. She worked with a child who was displaying aggressive behavior at preschool. After two sessions that involved limit setting, the child’s behavior improved at school. Phipps’ study also showed that as the child’s behaviors improved, so did the behaviors of his classmates.
Letting children take control
What happens when setting limits isn’t enough and the child continues to misbehave? Counselors and caregivers can turn toward choice giving. Landreth explains the skill of choice giving in his Choices, Cookies & Kids DVD, which Post says is a great resource for parents because it is humorous and contains relevant examples. When Post was in private practice, she would let parents watch the video while she worked with their child.
Phipps knows from personal experience that setting limits may not always be enough, and she says that choice giving is an easy skill for parents to use. She once had a young client who decided to throw sand in her office rather than play with it. First, Phipps tried setting limits: “I know you want to throw the sand, but the sand is not for … ” The boy threw sand in her face before she could finish her sentence. So, Phipps tried again, getting out the entire sentence this time before he threw sand in her hair. The third time that he picked the sand up, she set the limit again, and he decided to drop it. But when he picked the sand up for the fourth time, Phipps had had enough. She decided to use choice giving: “If you choose to throw the sand again, you are choosing to lose the sand.” The boy decided not to throw the sand.
“When you get to choice giving,” Post says, “do it once and be sure that you can follow through on your choices. [Also] be absolutely sure that you’re ready for this.”
Post advises using the word choose or choosing four times and leading with the positive choice first. She provides the following example: A child is walking around the classroom and won’t sit in a seat. First, the teacher sets a limit: “I know you want to walk around, but now is the time to sit in your seat. You can walk around at recess.” If that doesn’t work, the teacher gives the child a choice: “If you choose to sit in your seat right now, you are choosing to use the iPad for five minutes this afternoon. If you choose not to sit down in your seat, you are choosing not to have your iPad this afternoon.”
“Then that’s it,” Post says. “Then that child has to decide.” If the child is still walking around, the teacher says, “Oh, I see you’ve chosen not to have your iPad this afternoon.” The language should always emphasize that the child, not the adult, is the one choosing, Post explains. If the child gets upset, the teacher can say, “Oh, I am sorry you chose not to have your iPad. I would have chosen for you to have your iPad.”
The decisions the child is allowed to have control over will differ based on the developmental age of the child, Post continues. For example, a 3-year-old shouldn’t be allowed to decide if riding a bike alone around the block is a good idea, but the parents could let the child pick out his or her clothes for preschool.
With both limit setting and choice giving, children learn to control their behavior, begin to think of themselves as choice makers, and assume responsibility for their decisions, Post explains.
Phipps agrees. In her example of the boy throwing sand, the aim was not just to get him to stop throwing it and making a mess. It was for him to learn how to make decisions that would work for him in the real world.
Similarly, counselors can help parents view discipline from a completely different perspective — as a means to help children learn how to make decisions for themselves and control their own behavior, Post says. “It’s not to stop a child from doing something in the grocery store right this minute,” she explains. “It is to help a child learn that they make decisions for themselves and that their decisions count.”
Dealing with resistance
Parents who have been court ordered to attend counseling or whose children have been removed from the home because of the parents’ discipline practices are likely to be resistant to therapy, Adkison-Johnson notes. In such situations, counselors first need to confirm that the parents have a right to be angry, she advises. Counselors must also remember that their duty is to the client (the parent or parents), not the agency that made the referral, she says. (See sidebar, below, on the counselor’s role as a witness in court on physical discipline.)
When working with issues related to child discipline in such cases, counselors should prepare themselves to experience the full brunt of clients’ emotions, Adkison-Johnson says. Sometimes, white counselors feel uneasy with African Americans’ emotions, especially when those emotions involve anger, she adds.
“Be comfortable with the resistance. Be comfortable with the anger. Be comfortable with the fact that the client may not want to talk to you,” Adkison-Johnson advises. “They may have short responses at first. Sometimes they may not want to come back [to] the next session, but [they] come back anyway because they have to.”
Adkison-Johnson stresses the importance of counselors addressing these clients formally (unless they indicate otherwise), shaking the parents’ hands, and using their child’s name. These simple actions show respect for the family dynamic of authority, she explains.
The mental health field has a checkered past when it comes to its treatment of racial minorities, so African American families may also have a healthy paranoia that the clinician isn’t really operating in their favor. As a result, counselors must take baby steps to establish trust, Adkison-Johnson says. She advises doing this by acknowledging the parents’ fears and anger and by showing that the counselor is knowledgeable on the topic and understands the depths of the situation. Another important step toward establishing trust, she adds, is clearly explaining informed consent, limits to confidentiality, and clients’ right to remain silent.
Lin’s counseling students conduct free parenting training, and they post flyers to find parents who are interested. Although the parents are participating voluntarily, the training is sometimes recommended to them by their children’s teachers, and this can cause parents to have a bad attitude initially. Sometimes, parents also complain that they are too busy and don’t have time to complete the homework assignments, such as having uninterrupted playtime with their children for 30 minutes once per week. When parents come in with a negative attitude, Lin reminds his students that they must listen and avoid blaming the parents. One of the first skills counselors teach to parents is how to reflect children’s feelings, so counselors must model this behavior themselves, he stresses.
Sometimes, parents’ resistance to counseling stems from personal or cultural differences. When working with immigrant Taiwanese parents who identified as Christian, Lin’s counseling students voiced frustration that the parents were arguing with them about spanking, including quoting Bible verses on why it was appropriate to discipline their children this way. Lin’s advice in such situations is simple: “Never argue with parents. They have their own value system. They have their own beliefs.”
Instead, he advises counselors to focus on providing parents with additional parenting skills such as limit setting. “The more skills [parents] have, the better,” he says. “They don’t want to hold that stick in their hands all the time.”
Raising an adult
While reading Michelle Obama’s book Becoming, Post found herself nodding in agreement with the parenting philosophy of the former first lady’s mother, who said she was raising adults, not children. According to the former first lady, “Every move she made, I realize now, was buttressed by the quiet confidence that she’d raised us to be adults. Our decisions were on us. It was our life, not hers, and always would be.”
Today, however, parents often assume their children’s responsibilities rather than viewing their role to be raising future adults. This is a tendency that crosses cultures. Lin recounts a saying in Taiwan: “If I give birth to a child and I don’t teach, then it’s my fault as a father.” This saying relies on the inaccurate belief that parents are responsible for their kids’ behavior, he says.
“When [parents] are so out of control in their own emotions when their kids are throwing a fit, usually it’s because they don’t have a clear boundary between themselves and their kids,” Lin says. With CPRT and filial therapy techniques, counselors can teach parents that children need to learn to be responsible for their own actions. This perspective will help parents remain calm and not become so upset if they misbehave, he adds.
Phipps’ belief is that parents are doing the best they can — whether she agrees with all of their parenting decisions or not. “We need to have a humbler approach to parents. … I have to walk humbly with a parent because I’m not walking in their shoes. I don’t experience that [child’s] behavior every single day,” she says. “I am the expert in the skills, but parents are the experts on their children.”
Being a witness in court on physical discipline
According to a 2013 Harris Poll, nearly 8 in 10 Americans believe that spanking children is sometimes appropriate. The question is when does corporal punishment become abuse?
That answer is complicated because it varies by state. The most common approach, used in more than half of states, says that parents may use reasonable force if necessary to maintain discipline.
Counselors may be asked to inform the courts on this distinction. Being an expert witness on child discipline is a pressing issue right now, notes Carla Adkison-Johnson, a licensed professional counselor and a professor in the Department of Counselor Education and Counseling Psychology at Western Michigan University. In fact, much of her work has moved into expert testimony, which involves discussing her research to inform the court whether a parent should be brought up on criminal charges just for spanking their child. She works to inform court judges on how to distinguish between child discipline and child abuse when dealing with families.
As anti-spanking groups gain more political clout, they put pressure on child protective services to carry out their perspective, and this puts families of color at risk, Adkison-Johnson contends. She says that because of racial bias in our society, African American parents are disproportionately brought up on charges of physical abuse related to the child discipline practices they follow. The large majority of her cases as an expert witness have involved African American parents who have had their children removed from the home and who face potential jail time or a felony because they spanked their child.
Adkison-Johnson says that clinicians might also be called to serve in court as “witnesses of fact” (which differs from the role of an expert witness), particularly if they are working with families that have been mandated to attend counseling. In this role, counselors are working directly with the parents to help them but are also being asked to inform the court about the facts of the case. Thus, the questions that counselors ask these parents and the approach they take in counseling the parents are crucial, she stresses. Counselors must find out what parents have done, and they should ask specific questions about the goals and aspirations parents have for their children. This information will help address the “why” and “how” questions when evaluating parents’ disciplinary approach, she explains.
Adkison-Johnson points out that today’s parents often wrestle with establishing healthy boundaries and may have become more lenient in terms of discipline. The current parenting generation has been told not to spank or to use strict discipline with children and has been directed to instead negotiate with children on what the rules will be, she adds.
Counselors may also be asked to write letters on the progress they are making with clients. Adkison-Johnson advises counselors to let clients read these letters before sending them to the outside agency. “See if the client feels comfortable [that it is] an accurate portrayal of how they parent and what they believe took place in the counseling session, and be open to that discussion,” she says. She finds that clients will sometimes remember a detail that the counselor forgot or overlooked.
“Also, let them know that you are their counselor and not an agent for the court or child protective services and that you are committed to them and the success of their family,” she adds.
— Lindsey Phillips
Lindsey Phillips is a contributing writer to Counseling Today and a UX content strategist living in Northern Virginia. Contact her at email@example.com or through her website at lindseynphillips.com.
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