The Parent’s Job
They say it takes a village to raise a child, but there should really be a qualifying asterisk at the end of that sentence that reads:
The most crucial person in that village is the parent.
Parent counseling is very different from other forms of therapy. Instead of exploring the psyche, here, the approach has to be both practical and educational. The counselor’s job is to figure out the motivation behind a child’s behaviour and offer new strategies or introduce new skills so the parent can become more effective with their child.
The most important thing for a counselor to remember is that parents have a complex job to do – and there are no “best practices” to tell them how they should do it.
There is no formal education or training program that they can take to prepare themselves. The only preparation they get is an 8-week pre-natal course about childbirth. Once the baby is delivered, parents are congratulated and sent home to deal with the rest on their own – and as we know, there are many challenges in store for them. Every day brings new questions and situations that parents must make decisions about. Adding to the challenge is the fact that we are consciously raising children differently than they were raised in the past. Spanking, punishments and rewards were the standard tools of our parents, but today they are rejected (rightly so) as outdated methods. Since parents can’t rely on these tools, they must learn new ones. This means they rarely have firsthand experiences on which to model their approach.
Parents are hard-wired biologically to love and nurture their child— but loving and nurturing is easy in comparison to the actual job.
The parent is the one who must teach their child that they are an equal in the group, neither better nor worse than anyone else. They must convince them that cooperation is the best path to choose—not opposition. They must find a way to encourage their child so that life’s difficulties won’t overwhelm them. They must teach their child to have an optimistic outlook, so that they have hopes and dreams for their future. They must hand over responsibility as soon as their child is ready to handle it so they can learn to solve problems and acquire real-life skills. And they must teach their child to have empathy for others and find love in the world. These difficult tasks must be handled in addition to all their other responsibilities – career, home, relationship, and their personal needs.
My seventeen years in practice have taught me that when it comes to behavior problems, the earlier they’re addressed, the easier they are to correct.
If they aren’t dealt with in the early stages, children and parents can become discouraged and the difficulties can, and often do, affect their relationship. The child’s self-esteem can be impacted. Problems may even carry over into the classroom.
So, when should a parent seek parent counseling? Here are some guidelines:
• Parent or child are yelling, angry, or feeling frustrated a lot of the time
• Parent describes their day as a “constant battle”
• Child is getting into trouble at school, with frequent letters from the teacher
• Child is anxious or exhibiting signs of low self-esteem
• Child hits, kicks, or says mean things
• Child has frequent, intense tantrums
• Sleep issues are a problem
• Sibling fights are frequent and mean-spirited
• Parent has significant difficulty with daily routines like meals, bedtime, etc.
• There is a unique problem that is worrying the parent
Most behavior problems, once they’re understood psychologically and the parent has an effective course of action to take, will improve quickly.
You can expect better cooperation, an improved family atmosphere, and less anger. These things are very doable. Parents should always be encouraged to take the first step of learning what they can do differently. It’s important to de-stigmatize parent counseling. I like to joke that there’s a peculiar, but reassuring law of physics which applies only to parents: When a parent changes their approach, their child’s behavior must change too – it cannot remain the same.
Parenting books and TV shows can be helpful but in many situations they aren’t adequate on their own.
Counselors explore the unique dynamics of a particular family and try to determine how a child is responding to the influences that have played a role in shaping their behavior: their position in the family, temperament, the parent’s values and parenting style – particularly if they’re not in agreement with each other. When the family, the child, and the approach the parent’s have tried, are understood, then, and only then, can a counselor make useful suggestions. They can explain corrective strategies clearly so the parent uses them in the correct spirit, and have an opportunity to follow up to make sure things are moving in a positive direction. Parents often tell me they have tried to implement something they learned in a workshop or read in a book but have had disappointing results.
Parent counseling is the bridge that’s needed to help them put these new ideas into practice, and as therapists we should encourage parents to seek out this kind of support whenever they encounter difficulty with their job.
The views expressed in these blogs are the author’s own and not necessarily reflective of those of Psychotherapy Matters. Copyright © 2015 PsychotherapyMatters.com