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Why I don’t like parent education:

By Evan Steele

As a clinical social worker, psychotherapist, parent educator, and parent, I have had the opportunity to be on “both sides of the couch,” and observe the current state of parent education. The following are some thoughts about what help is available, especially as it relates to difficult (ADHD, ODD, etc) children.

Parents aren’t teachers. The function of a teacher is to promote skills, competence, and growth. While a teacher may help a child emotionally or psychologically, their fundamental function is not to tend to emotional or psychological health. The most important tools therefore that a teacher utilizes are fairness, consistency, and competence. A parent, on the other hand, is responsible for emotional and psychological health. While a parent also promotes skills and competence, the psychological component is vital. Many parent training courses attempt to turn parents into teachers. They teach behavior modification and other limit setting interventions which are effective for promoting skills and competence, but do not address emotional and psychological health. When a teacher makes a behavior chart, s/he is addressing her primary function to promote skills and competence. When a parent does this, however, something is missing. I believe that many parents resist doing behavior charts because they instinctively feel that behavior charts do nothing to address the relational problem that their child is not connected to them sufficiently to be moved by the parental directive. Behavior charts are certainly good ideas and do improve behavior, but no parent dreams for their child that they will get 5 smiley faces and a candy. We do not hope and dream that our children will be compliant. We hope and dream that they will be psychologically well rounded and healthy. If I ignore, withdraw from power struggles, do behavior charts, send them to time outs, etc., I have withdrawn from my child. This may promote compliance, but I don’t want to withdraw from my child. I want solutions that are not just about withdrawing.

Difficult children are different. Any parent of a difficult child has heard an earful from well meaning friends, relatives, and professionals. “If you’d only do x, y, or z, your problem would be solved.” To put it bluntly, they just don’t get it. What’s sad to say about many parent training courses is that they also just don’t get it. Oftentimes, the skills such courses focus on are basic parenting skills. The underlying message in teaching basic parenting skills to parents of difficult children is that if you would only have basic parenting skills, you wouldn’t have this problem. I believe that this is 100% (or close to it) wrong. To repeat myself, difficult children are different, and parenting them requires something other than basic parenting. The skills to parent a difficult child may not be fundamentally different skills, but they often need to be applied in a highly skilled, and therefore very difficult, manner. For example, a parent may find himself in a power struggle with his child, and the parent may realize quickly that it was a mistake to enter into the struggle. The parent may feel that to back down would be sending a message of weakness, so he may push the struggle and force the child to comply. With a “normal” child, this interaction may be unpleasant and cause bad feelings, but the child will likely give in and it will pass. With a difficult child, pushing the struggle will likely meet with more and more resistance, and it will end in a full scale blow up. The parent of a difficult child who has found himself in a power struggle therefore needs, in a matter of seconds or less, to be able to 1) calm his anger to be able to consider a skillful intervention, 2) think of how to walk away from the conflict without appearing to give in, 3) manage other family members who may have been dragged in, 4) attend to everyone’s safety (i.e. hitting or throwing objects), 5) think of a consequence that will be effective but not escalate the situation, 6) allow the child space to walk away with some ego/pride intact, and, not doubt, other things that I am forgetting. That requires more than the kind of clichéd advice that parents often get about active listening or spending more time with their children.

No one hit wonders please. One therapist’s thing was time out. Another was play therapy. One book is all about compromise and conflict resolution. Another is about behavior modification. I’m smart enough to be able to learn from many sources, but when I pay a professional to help me with my family, I expect them to have more than one trick up their sleeve. The above interventions/approaches can all be effective, but they are never, by themselves, effective all the time in every situation. Parenting classes need to teach multiple approaches and interventions so that parents have different tools to use when one doesn’t work or seem appropriate. I appreciate that we live in a world of specialization, but families are complex, and they call for varied and complex solutions.

They make it sound so easy. When parent educators speak about discipline and consequences, it all sounds so logical and simple. When parents get home, however, they often find that it just doesn’t work. This often leaves parents feeling badly about themselves and their parenting. Parents feel that the educators must be smarter and better suited to parenting than they. There’s a reason for this, and it’s not the fault of the parents. A basic principal in parenting is that logical consequences are more effective and produce better outcomes than illogical consequences. A logical consequence is one that flows directly from the (mis)behavior. For example, Johnny throws a toy at his sister. The logical consequence is that the toy is taken away. Johnny exceeds his time allotted for his desired activity (video game, TV, outside play, etc.), so he loses that amount of time (or more) next time he is allowed this activity. Illogical consequences are consequences that have nothing to do with the actual behavior. Johnny throws a toy at his sister, and he loses 15 minutes of computer time. One has nothing to do with the other. Johnny exceeds his allotted time on the computer, and he loses 50 cents off his allowance, etc. Of course, illogical consequences have to be utilized at times, but logical consequences are always preferable. The problem is that logical consequences work best when you have something that they want. They want the toy, the computer, the video game, the freedom to play outside etc. When they misuse these items, you take them away. Much more difficult is the situation where they have something that you want. You want them to make the bus to go to school. You want them to eat breakfast before they leave. You want them to go to bed at a reasonable hour. You want them to do their homework. They don’t want any of these things. In these situations, it is nearly impossible to construct logical consequences. We usually resort to illogical consequences, i.e. “if you don’t go to bed by 8, you lose 15 minutes of video game tomorrow.” These sometimes work, but not always. The point here is that parent educators invariably give scenarios that involve the you have something that they want situation. As the educator suggests, the effective response here is not difficult. It seems simple because, for the most part, it is simple. What they don’t teach is how to deal with the they have something you want scenario (i.e. getting up, going to bed, eating, doing homework, etc), which is infinitely more difficult. Thus, parents end up feeling like bad parents because it’s not as easy as it seemed during the parenting class.

Too practical, not practical enough. Parents often express that they want very specific techniques for how to handle situations. They want to know “what to do when…” This desire is both genuine and disingenuous at the same time. Parenting takes a combination of psychological fortitude and skill competence. Asking for specific techniques addresses the need for parenting skills, but does not address the psychological challenge of parenting. The most effective intervention in the world, for example, is rendered completely useless when conveyed with anger. Thus, until the parent deals with his anger, the skills are useless. Many times, parent education misses both marks. Parent education is often too practical by focusing purely on techniques and interventions, and thereby missing the psychological piece. Conversely, parent education can be all about philosophy, and not about skills and techniques. Do I really need to hear again what a special gift my child is, and how important it is to make him feel special? At the same time, if you give me a laundry list of techniques outside of the context of me as an individual and the uniqueness of my family, how helpful will it be?

As parents, educators, professionals and community members, we can do better. It is my sincere hope that parents and educators will demand more sophisticated and useful services to address the real need for parenting education in our community.

Authors Bio:

Evan Steele, Licensed Clinical Social Worker in Brooklyn, New York working for the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services outpatient mental health clinic in Boro Park. I am a clinician and supervisor of clinicians. I completed an Advanced Training Institute at JBFCS, and presented a ground rounds in “A Relational Approach to Treating Families with ADHD.” I work with many families, and currently run a group for parents of difficult children. I am a father of 5, and ADHD runs in my family.
Evan Steele, LCSW – lszenes@gmail.com

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