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Parentcoach

Some parents are hesitant to come into therapy when their child is struggling with depression, anxiety or behavioral problems. They may tell me “my kid has something wrong with him, why would you need to have sessions with me?” I’d like this blog post to look closely at this belief as well as the purpose of parent coaching.

First, let’s get something out of the way up front: parent coaching does not mean that the parent is causing the problem. Most parents I see are incredibly caring and want the absolute best for their children. I never suggest coaching because I see the parents as “the problem” or to blame them. Rather, it is often the case that regardless of who “caused” the problem, parental responses can help to resolve it.

While our minds have a tendency to want to know whose at fault, I don’t find this information terribly useful. Rather, I think about the situation like this: “Ericka is having problems with anxiety. What are all the methods I can use to ensure that she overcomes these problems as rapidly as possible?”

Parents have a very powerful impact on their child. When working with adults, I have very little control over their environment. They determine how they spend their time and what they do or don’t do. But with children, parents influence every activity a child does. By working with parents, I am able to rapidly address problems that could take years without seeing the parents.

Let’s consider a few common issues we see in the center.

I often see children hitting or swearing at their parents. Parents come in feeling exhausted, beaten down and sometimes hopeless. They tell me the awful things they’ve gone through and the multitude of techniques they have already tried. While parents have several things they want addressed, there is almost always a request that I speak to the child and help the child understand “why what their doing is wrong.” There is a sense, that we need to get the child’s moral compass recalibrated. This may in fact be true. Often times, when I speak to the child, I get a slightly different story. They sometimes feel bad about the swearing or hitting and may say, “I don’t know why I do it.” But when we look closer, it turns out that these behaviors can often times get them things they want. They may ask for a Playstation 4 (an expensive gaming console), and the parents refuse. Then the teen may kick and scream and swear at their parents until their parents, exhausted and out of ideas, give in and get the child the Playstation 4. Now we have a very complex issue at hand. A teen has to choose between screaming and swearing (something they know is wrong) which may result in getting a Playstation 4 (something they deeply desire) or they may choose not to swear, but will definitely not result in getting a Playstation 4. This is no longer a purely moral issue.

Consider the situation for yourself. Let’s say you go into work 10 minutes late this morning and learned that the company started a new incentive today. For all employees who were on time, they will be entered into a raffle to win $1,000. The odds of winning are 1/10. Entering the raffle is done on the honor system. Even though you know that lying is wrong, might you do it anyways to get the $1,000? I think if we are being honest, you might take the chance. In this case, the problem isn’t your own lack of morality per se, but rather the environment is influencing you to do something you might not otherwise do.

You are responding to incentives in the environment. Your child is often doing the exact same thing. Therefore, when I meet with parents, my goal is to identify any possible incentives your child has for their problematic behavior and ensure that we remove it. Likewise, we want to add consequences for problematic behaviors. Consider what you would do if the company told you “The $1,000 raffle entry is on the honor system, but if anyone is found to be lying, they will be terminated immediately.” Now, you’re probably thinking, “it’s not worth the risk. Jenkins saw me come in late, what if they say something?” See how your behavior is changing based on consequences and incentives rather than solely based on your sense of morality? Your child is no different.

Parents will often say that they do punish their children by yelling at them or by giving Time-outs. In this case, there may be some other incentive that isn’t readily apparent. Sometimes a child likes getting yelled at because it may be one-on-one time with a parent. Maybe Time-outs are good for the child because it’s time away from siblings who tease him. We need to take a very careful look at the environment to better understand how it may be influencing the child.

Let’s take a look at a different kind of problem, like anxiety. Consider you have a child that is fearful of social situations. You do your best to encourage him to go, but given how much he seems to suffer, you decide it’s better to let him miss the party because it will be so awful for him. You have now, unintentionally, increased his likelihood of missing future parties. This is because he was rewarded by escaping the anxiety he had about the party; when we are rewarded, we are likely to continue our behavior.

Now again, you didn’t make your child swear at you and you didn’t make them anxious. But you can strongly influence their behavior and anxiety going forward. Even parents who have excellent discipline plans and read up on parenting strategies can use coaching to understand how to respond to their individual child. There are many things to consider: “What kind of challenge is appropriate for my child? What will be too hard, and what will be too easy? My kid has tantrums once a month, is that normal? How do I know if I have the right reward or consequence? I try to put him in Time-Out but he just runs away.” These kinds of concerns all can be addressed and resolved relatively quickly with a trained psychologist.

Consider this, when you were growing up did you ever have a class on how to parent an anxious child? Did anyone ever teach you behavioral principles and what to do when they don’t seem to work? How about a college class called “How to parent your depressed and irritable teen?” It didn’t happen, so there is nothing to feel ashamed about regarding getting some help. You wouldn’t beat yourself up if you sat down in front of a computer and struggled to write software code because no one ever taught you this. So why beat yourself up for not knowing every possible thing there is to know about dealing with anxious, angry or depressed children?

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I hope you enjoy!