Parent Coach: An Emerging Profession

by Val Mullally

Mrs M was keen to share her concerns regarding her teenage son.

‘He’s just not the good boy he used to be,’ she complained, the tension obvious in her voice.

‘You’re feeling frustrated with his behaviour.’ I reflected.

This first meeting was typical of many Parent Coaching sessions. Many parents seem to initially approach a Parent Coach out of a sense of anxiety or dissatisfaction with how things are at present in the home or at school. The underlying message seems to be, ‘Please fix my child.’ The parent is aware of the need for change and usually initially perceives that it is the child who must change. Mrs M knows that things are not going as she had hoped and is turning to me as Parent Coach for help.

Many parents come to Parent Coaching without having a clear idea of what coaching is or how it works. A decade ago very few people would have known what Life Coaching was –now it’s so popular that we have not only Life Coaches but coaches for specific aspects, such as Career Coaches, Life Coaches, Business and Executive Coaches. In fact it makes sense that it would be only a matter of time before we recognised the need for Parent Coaches. No matter what the particular line of expertise, a Coach is trained to support and encourage the client to align his effort with his intention. In particular, a Parent Coach needs not only non-directive Coaching skills but also a solid foundation of understanding of what children need to flourish.

Unlike a Therapist, who addresses issues when something is seriously wrong, a Parent Coach supports parents in creating the positive family life they desire in the ‘here and now’ and in the future. A Parent Coach is there to support the parent to meet the needs and challenges of effective Parenting.  Parent Coaching helps parents get in touch with what really matters for them and to let go of those things that don’t. Perhaps the first and foremost challenge of Parent Coaching is to guide the parents to their own realisation that the family is ecological. It needs to be seen in the context of family and community and systemic – that is, there is always a ‘knock on effect’ between family members. So one of my first tasks with Mrs M is to help her realise that I am not there to ‘fix the child’ – in fact it is not usual for the Parent Coach to even meet the child.

Parent Coaching works very much from the paradigm that the only person you can change is yourself.  So my role as Parent Coach is not to sort out the problem. My role is to support Mrs M to fulfil her own goals. If I take responsibility for the situation then I leave Mrs M powerless to deal with the next challenge, which inevitably comes along. However, when as Parent Coach, I leave the ownership and responsibility of the problem with Mrs M, I allow her to define her goals, solve her own problems and develop her own plan. During this process, she recognises her role in creating the current family dynamics and this helps her visualise and to move, one do-able step at a time, towards creating the sort of family that she wants.

And of course, a second almost equally important credo in Parent Coaching is that all behaviour makes sense.  So whatever behaviour is currently of concern is actually the child’s message to the parent, even if at a subconscious level. Mrs M’s child’s behaviour is not seen as in need of some sort of Nanny 911 type of ‘time-out’ intervention, but as a serious cry to be listened to. Mrs M has recognised the need for change. As Parent Coach I help her to recognise that if ‘we keep doing what we’ve been doing we’ll keep getting what we’ve been getting.’ My aim is to help Mrs M recognise that if she wants different results then she will have to change what she is doing. By shifting one grain of sand then all the grains have to move to find their new place. So Mrs. M will begin to recognise just how powerful she is as an agent of change in her family. By making even the smallest of changes in her behaviour, she will effect change that will affect her whole family. She will begin to understand the systemic nature of families.

Often parents who come for Parent Coaching are distressed and just want the situation to improve immediately. Part of the awareness created in the Parent Coaching sessions is that change is a process. It occurs over a period of time and at different rates and pace. An ‘instant fix’ is like to putting a band-aid over the cracks. They are still there when you remove the band-aid.  It is usual for a client like Mrs M to agree to a period of time working together, of at least six weeks and then a review to ascertain if her initial goals have been achieved.

The Craft of Parent Coaching

So what are the tools and training which the Parent Coach uses as she or he is faced by an anxious parent, like Mrs M? In Ireland’s first diploma course in Parent Coaching, coaches-in-training are encouraged to view themselves as professionals with a specific tool-box. Just as a builder has a kit of tools which he uses in building a house, the Parent Coach is trained to be able to choose and effectively use the tools to help the parent create the home they desire. Early on in the Coaching relationship, I encourage Mrs M to describe her  ‘dream home’– not the bricks and the mortar but the values, qualities and behaviours that she imagines it could be. It’s a coaching principle that we cannot create what we cannot visualise. If you can see it you can achieve it! In this way, the coach is a little like an architect – helping to create the blueprint of what the client wants – a picture view of what the construct will be like. Working out what materials and skills are needed can only be dome after we have a mind-s eye view of what we are hoping to achieve.

And how do I support her to create the dream into her reality? This is where my Parent Coaching tools come into use. One of the very first tools that I consciously use is rapport. Rapport is like the oil in relationships, it eases things along and loosens up aspects that are stiff and inflexible. Having good rapport with another person creates the right conditions for an effective and safe dialogue on thoughts, ideas, beliefs, dreams and hopes. Building good rapport creates trust, harmony and cooperation in a Parent Coaching relationship. Now most of us can put a definition on rapport. And we know it when we see it but very few of us have stopped to consider that rapport is a learnable skill.  Try ‘people watching’ – it’s pretty easy to spot who has good rapport and when it’s missing. But the challenge is to know what creates it and how to build it. It is important that Mrs M needs to views me – her Parent Coach, – as someone who is firmly in her corner – cheering her on, coaching and most importantly believing in her capability. Like the ‘good bedside manner’ of the family doctor – it’s a vital ingredient to a successful relationship. Effective Parent Coaches know how to establish and maintain good rapport.  Mrs M is not going to trust me unless she feels comfortable with me.

Now I have the challenge of helping her to carefully view her current reality. She can’t think about where she is heading to, unless she has a clear picture of her present position. It’s time to start laying the foundation of the Coaching relationship. Like the builder’s hammer, questions are a key tool in the Parent Coach’s toolkit. My father is a skilled handyman. He uses different hammers, and even different nails for different jobs. Likewise, the Parent Coach uses questions to help the parent recognise their current reality and what it is they wish to change.  Of all the tools the Parent Coach has, carefully crafted questions are most probably the most effective and must used tool. Coaches talk about ‘powerful questions’ – the ones that bring their clients to that life changing ‘aha’ moment. As Parent Coach I know that it is Mrs M herself who has the ability to find the solution, even if she doesn’t yet know it herself yet. Skilful, well-aimed questions, at the appropriate time, are going to help her to surface her own inner wisdom.

Part of using questions effectively as a Parent Coach is knowing when they are the most helpful tool for the job, or when to use a different tool, that will most effectively achieve the desired result. You can try using a hammer to re-model, but a chisel makes a much cleaner cut! To answer questions one is relying on the brain’s outer cortex, the ‘thinking’ part of the brain.  As an effective Parent Coach, I know that when Mrs M begins talking about upsetting circumstances at home she may become emotionally flooded, when the ‘old brain’ is in control. The deep-seated ‘fight, flight, freeze or appease’ response is still alive and well in each one if us. We wouldn’t have survived if it wasn’t. The warm compassionate, thinking human we are can become temporarily overwhelmed by our reptilian survival instinct. And very often when we have reacted at a time of feeling overwhelmed by an emotion, our reactive response can cause deep pain to others. I love the cartoon of the judge looking sternly at the smartly dressed crocodile standing in the dock who says, “Of course I killed him in cold blood, I’m a reptile aren’t I?” When we are emotionally overwhelmed the ‘crocodile’ is in the driving seat!

When Mrs M’s emotions threaten to overwhelm her, it’s important that I can support her and create safety for her  – allowing her the de-stress of crying if she needs to. (Apparently the tears we cry when we are emotionally upset are chemically different to the tears we cry when we peel an onion. The old expressions ‘Have a good cry’ and ‘Cry it all out’ make sense because these tears contain stress hormones). As Parent Coach, whist giving her opportunity to be in touch with her emotions, helping her to be aware of and to name her feelings, I also work at the appropriate point to help her to ‘shallow her emotions’.

Whilst therapists may work to ‘deepen’ the emotion, this is not the task of the coach, who uses skills to calm the client’s reactivity and help her to re-engage in the ‘thinking’ process. As Mrs M begins to feel emotionally calm again, she can re-connect with the thinking part of her brain, so that she can make sense of her own situation. This is a typical scenario where, at this point, questions will not be helpful. We use our outer cortex to respond to questions, and that aspect of her brain is not operating when she is emotionally flooded.  Perhaps this is the time when my ‘mop, sponge and bucket ’ are the most effective tools – mirroring, empathising and validating reassures Mrs M that her story ‘makes sense’. I also want her to be compassionate to herself. She needs to believe in herself and her capability if she wants change. It is important for her to understand that she is doing her best at this time. It’s easier for her to do that if she can make sense of her own behaviour. It is also important that I, as coach, understand that she is capable of achieving much greater results than she is currently achieving (Starr 2003). At time like this when a client seems flooded by his or her sense of inadequacy, I am often reminded of my colleague’s favourite expressions, ‘Imagine if we judged people not be their past performance but by their potential.’

With my support, Mrs M unfolds the story of her interactions with her son. Over the next few sessions I become aware that, despite her attempts to try to so something new we seem to be ‘stuck’ at a particular point. I start recognising that there is an unresolved practical issue here. Mrs M’s own anger thwarts her progress. I have the challenge of helping her to recognise this dynamic and to choose values and constructive new behaviours that will help her and the family move in the direction she desires. There’s a time in the coaching process when the Parent Coach respectfully asks permission to share some practical insight with the parent that she judges might be helpful for the parent in the challenge that s/he is facing. I perceive that Mrs M will find it helpful to recognise that at times when she ‘flips the lid’ she is temporarily unable to make rational decisions that will serve the best interests of the family. Information like this, gleaned from neuroscience, can be invaluable for her, as the parent, to ‘make sense’ of her own behaviour (as well her son’s outbursts). Not only can she begin to realise that her own reactive behaviours are not helpful, but she can also begin to be compassionate towards herself at times when she reflects on her own behaviour after she has  ‘lost it’. This is not about condoning out-of-control behaviour but recognising that she’s doing the best she knows right now and, as Oprah says, when she knows better she’ll do better.  To get to where we want to be, we can only start from where we’re at.

One of the tools that I find very useful is the audio CD’s which I have developed. I recommend to Mrs M to listen to ‘Managing Anger in the Home’ (see www.pacerparenting.com).  Not only does she find this gives her practical tools to deal with her own anger, but she has her husband, who refuses to read anything other than golf magazines, listening to it whilst he drives to work – so that she finds him becoming a stronger support for her in their parenting.

In the Parent Coaching process, it’s also a matter of timing. A strong foundation has to be laid before building can proceed. Sometimes the Parent Coach has to help the parent determine where there might need to be some serious repair work before new work can commence. Parent Coach’s work is not one of dealing with past wounding, and part of the job is to know when expert help in this area is needed. Parent Coaching is not therapy – so the Coach needs to be well aware of what lies beyond his scope and when to refer a client. Sometimes this may be for a period, until issues are resolved, and then the client may choose to recommence the Parent Coaching relationship. Certainly I perceive the therapist as my ally, who supports me in my role, as I hope to do for him.

Parent Coaching is also different from Parent Mentoring in that to be a mentor one must have experience and expertise in that area. One must have walked this path. In order to train as Parent Coach it is not necessary to be a parent. The skills of Parent Coaching also differ from Consultancy. Parent Coaches do not assume to be experts with all the answers. Rather, they are experts in facilitating parents to access their own solutions. Effective Parent Coaching creates for the parent a sense of achievement, focusing on one–step-at-a-time, bite-sized realistic goals, fulfilment and joy. These come from the satisfaction of achievement and creating the type of relationships with loved ones that you truly desire; and perhaps most significantly – reconnecting with oneself and what one truly desires. In the housing industry they say it’s all about ‘location, location, location’. In family matters, my favourite saying is ‘Connection, Connection, Connection’.

You may be wondering why Mrs M would choose to come to a Parent Coach for support, rather then turning to the many excellent reading and internet resources that are readily available. Parents can feel overwhelmed – there is so much material, some of it from widely differing viewpoints – how do they know where to begin or what to choose? Whilst there are many good materials on the subject of parenting, the key with Parent Coaching is that the feedback is tailor made to suit the individual client’s needs. Parents themselves are the ones who are viewed as the experts of their own unique situations.  The Parent Coach emphasizes that the parents themselves are the ones who know their history, they know each personality within the family, they know the challenges and their strengths, and they know their own family’s dreams for their future. Whilst I may be able to help Mrs M with some specific information piece of information, it is always clear in my mind that Mrs M is the expert in her own situation. As I work with Mrs M, I use my Parent Coaching skills to support her to develop her own solutions and responses to her own unique situation. She is far more likely to follow through on her own decisions than on anything that I or anyone else might prescribe for her. It’s a core Coaching principle that the agenda for the session is always determined by the parent herself. While the Parent Coaching is responsible for the process, the Parent is always responsible for the content.

Over the weeks I see Mrs M begin to realise her part in the current situation and as she chooses to make changes for herself the ‘knock on effect’ is evident and satisfying, motivating her to continue to recognise her part in creating the home environment she wants. The small changes she has chosen are naturally having a ‘knock on’ effect at home. A key aspect of this has also been to encourage Mrs M to look at the language she uses to describe situations. So often she had judged herself as being a ‘bad parent’ or him as a ‘bad son’ or a ‘bold boy’, if he was acting out.  Now she is able to reflect on her own behaviour in the situation as being more or less helpful, and within her power to change,  rather than being judgemental upon herself, or him, as a person. Whenever she uses the word ‘should’ I encourage her to try using ‘could’ instead, creating a mindset that she always has a choice.

As Mrs M chooses more helpful ways of interacting within the home, that are respectful to both her and the other family members, the communication in the home begins to improve and her son’s acting out behaviour naturally dissipates (problems are not solved – they dissolve). I feel privileged to be part of this journey, recognising the ever-increasing ripple effect of successful Parent Coaching.  The family is the building block of society. Societal change we so desperately need is going to come when we support parents to create happy, healthy families.

Val Mullally MA. trains Parent Coaches, with her colleague, Elizabeth Garry Brosnan MA. See www.pacerparenting.com or www.coachacademyplus.com.  Val is also a certified Imago Educator.

References:

Downey, M. (2003) Effective Coaching, USA: Thompson, Texere

Mullally, V.  audio CDs on Parenting, available on www.pacerparenting.com;

‘Meeting Your Child’s Deepest Emotional Needs’
‘Managing Anger in the Home’
‘Dealing with Discipline’
‘Helping Your Child Cope in the Real World’

Starr, J. (2003) The Coaching Manual, London: Pearson

Siegel, D. and Hartzell, M. (2004)  Parenting from the Inside Out – How a Deeper Understanding Can Help You Raise Children Who Thrive, New York: Penguin