Supporting Parents. Fostering Change.

Monthly Archives: January 2013

I can’t tell you how often I hear parents, teachers, counselors, and coaches alike complain about managing parents. We are constantly around other people’s children.  Whether we coach our child’s soccer team or lead a Girl Scout troop or chaperone on a field trip, we are interacting with children. We all know that parents love their children and want the best for them.  What we sometimes forget is that parents express concern for their child’s welfare in many different ways.  Some parents seem overbearing, telling you what to do.  Others seem dismissive and uninvolved, even when you want them to be. And still others become defensive at the very mention of an “issue” with their child.

Parents play an integral role in their child’s life.  Because they are experts on their own child, they can be a great resource for you.  If you are a teacher, for example, parents are able to reinforce concepts, skills, and lessons at home.  When they are included, they can be your greatest ally.  Unfortunately, sometimes, parents can be stress inducers rather than the stress relievers you’d like them to be.

Many of you know how to successfully engage parents as allies, however many of you struggle to talk to parents in a constructive, positive way about their child.  When a parent himself behaves badly, you may have even more difficulty communicating effectively.  For instance, if a parent yells directions from the sidelines while you are trying to coach, you may become frustrated and not know how to approach this type of situation without fear of offending the parent and causing an angry scene.

Similarly, talking to parents about a child’s misbehavior can be very challenging for you.  How can you successfully offer productive feedback to a parent without worrying about a negative reaction?  You may be apprehensive that Mom or Dad may not respond well to your observations and questions.  In your past experience, you might expect a parent to react in any of the following ways:

  • Become defensive
  • Be intrusive or demanding with their needs
  • Blame you or make excuses for their child’s challenging behavior
  • Be dismissive and minimize their child’s actions
  • Threaten and punish their child for his behavior

There are steps you can take to increase the odds that parents will be open to your feedback about their child.  There are no guarantees, of course.  When it comes to their own children, even pragmatic parents can be emotional, even irrational in their reactions. But for most situations, the following methods will increase the likelihood that parents will be your allies rather than your foes.

Step One:   Give a parent the benefit of the doubt

If you believe that all parents love their children and want the best for them in life, you will be much more likely to communicate effectively with them.  Keep these beliefs in mind at all times when you communicate to parents.

Being a parent is an enormous responsibility.  Raising children is not only difficult, but it is pretty darn scary.  I know.  I have three of them.  As much as I love and enjoy my kids, there is not a day that goes by that I don’t worry about them.  In working with parents over the last 20 years, I know that most parents are just like me.  They are anxious about the welfare of their children, and they want them to grow up to be independent, happy adults.  When I’m working with a parent who is angry, frustrated, or demanding, I remember that.  Knowing what’s underneath the behavior helps me handle a parent in a much more caring and sensitive way.

Fundamental Beliefs about Parents

  • Parents love their children.
  • Families have their strengths. (You just need to find them.)
  • Parents want the best for their children.
  • Parents want you to like and appreciate their kids.
  • Parents are committed to nurturing and developing their children’s personal growth.
  • Parents want respect.

Step Two:  Listen!  Listen!  Listen!

Listen first, talk later.  You can’t fully understand and appreciate another person’s point of view until you listen.  Ask questions.  Most parents want to tell you their perception of their child.  As you listen, keep your mind open to new information.  Parents share their concerns, but they also share what makes them proud of their child.  Show parents through your body language and facial expressions that you are listening.

Ways to Show Parents You Are Listening

  • Look them in the eyes.
  • Nod your head in agreement.
  • Ask relevant questions.
  • Stay neutral and calm

Step Three:  Plan ahead.

Before you talk to a parent about anything of import, make sure you think ahead of time about what you want to say and what you’re hoping to accomplish with the conversation.  Let the parent know in advance what you’d like to talk about, and set a meeting time to discuss the subject.  It’s not a good idea to talk to a parent when you don’t have enough time and there are distractions.  For example, talking to a parent in the carpool line or just before or after a game are not good times for these types of discussions.  Instead, sit down with the parent, without their child present, so that you can calmly discuss a problem so that you are able to address any questions or concerns that might arise.

Step Four:  Accentuate the positive.

Before offering feedback, begin by making positive comments about their child whenever possible.  Try highlighting constructive behaviors that their child demonstrates.  For example, “Whenever Tyler comes over to play, he and Felipe play for hours together without fighting.  They have so much fun together.  There is something that happens between them that I’m not sure how to handle.  I’m wondering if you can help.”

Step Five:  Communicate your thoughts directly.

State your thoughts clearly, calmly, and succinctly.  Whether you are giving feedback to parents about their child’s behavior or about their own behavior, make sure you communicate directly what you observe and how you would like for it to be different. So what do you say to the spectator parent who is giving coaching directions to their child from the sidelines?  Try saying this: “I can see that you are out on the field every single game to support your son.  You are his biggest fan out there.  In your excitement, I’m not sure if you notice, but you are giving coaching directions to Sam at the same time that the coach is.  He is looking pretty confused out there.  I am asking that you stop coaching from the sidelines so that Sam and the other kids can hear the coach’s directions.”

Step Six:  Avoid defensiveness at all costs.

Even when you are the most positive communicator, you may make a parent angry.  When faced with inevitable criticism, maintain your sense of calmness and a willingness to hear a parent out.  Continue to watch your body language and facial expressions; your nonverbal behavior communicates just as loudly as your words.

Step Seven:  Be careful of technology as a means to communicate.

Although text messages and emails can be a wonderful way to keep in touch, they can also be used in a way that promotes hostility rather than discussion.  It’s easy to hide behind technology in communicating.  At the click of the “Send” button, a powerful feeling is off your chest. Frequently, the reason we say things in texts that we would never say in person is because what we are saying is not meant to be said.  We have the tendency to shoot out emails and texts so quickly that we don’t think about the consequences of our messages.  If you are going to use technology as a means of communicating, make sure you read through all of your texts and emails carefully BEFORE you send them.  If you have strong feelings, it may be wise to wait until morning before rereading a message you are planning to send off.  If a parent begins a dialogue in an email that is unproductive or hostile, tell the parent you would feel more comfortable discussing the issue in person when you can gauge your tone and words more carefully.

In my experience, parents want to hear honest feedback about their child and are able to respond productively to it, even when the message is difficult to hear. It’s not what you say, but how you say it that counts.

Cathi Cohen, LCSW, CGPIn Step Director


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Dear Cathi,

Before I had children, I didn’t understand what the big deal was about sibling rivalry. I myself have an older brother and a younger sister, and I don’t remember us fighting all that much. Sure, we would argue and bicker sometimes, but I never saw it as anything besides normal. So, when I had two children, John (11) and Colleen (6), I wasn’t at all concerned about them getting along. I figured they’d fuss at each other every once in a while. I would ignore them, and we’d all go about our business as a family.

How could I be so wrong about their relationship? They are constantly fighting. From sunrise to sunset, they try to find every possible way to make each other miserable. John teases and criticizes Colleen incessantly. And Colleen vacillates between provoking and crying and screaming in response to him. I’ve tried not to let it get to me, but I find myself yelling at them both to stop continuously. The stress level in the family is getting so high that it’s almost impossible to actually enjoy any time together. What can I do? I’m really at my wit’s end.


Amy G. (A parent who’s pulling her hair out!)

Dear Amy,
You’ve heard it all from the experts. “Through sibling rivalry, children practice and hone their conflict resolution skills.”  “When kids fight, they learn necessary social skills.” “Don’t worry. They outgrow it and will become best of friends.” May be true. Doesn’t really help in the here and now though, does it?

When my kids bicker and argue, I can ignore them for a while, distracting myself with housework or cooking, even humming old show tunes. As the sibling wars continue, however, my resolve begins to melt as my tried-and-true thought-blocking skills wane. Screaming thoughts creep into my brain. “Why don’t you leave your sister alone?” “How can you be so mean?” “Both of you, go to time-out for the rest of the week!” The internal dialogue grows increasingly loud until the sounds of their cries, shrieks, and wails reach nails on a chalkboard dimension. Need I say more? I feel your pain.

Sibling rivalry is one of parenting’s toughest challenges. We all know from our own experiences that our siblings can have a profound effect on our early lives, and these feelings about ourselves can well persist into adulthood. As parents, we want the impact our children have on each other to be only positive. We hope with all our hearts that our children will become trusted, supportive, loving allies on the road of life.

Sometimes I’m successful on the sibling rivalry front; sometimes not. Here are some strategies that I use that help:

1. Stay cool (on the outside). As difficult as it may be, you must remain calm. If you begin shouting when your children are screaming at each other, the tense atmosphere at home escalates exponentially. If you feel like you might lose your cool, take a self-imposed time-out in another room until you can react to the fighting in a more pragmatic manner. (Sometimes I hide in the bathroom. The door locks.)

2. Accept your child’s feelings. Sometimes children say hurtful things in the heat of the moment: “I wish he was never born!” “I hate you!” “Why can’t we get rid of her?” It’s tempting for a parent to want to squash these unpleasantries. “That’s ridiculous!” “Oh, just ignore him.” “Don’t be silly. We can’t get rid of her!” Try instead to acknowledge your child’s feelings. When a child feels heard, he/she is more likely to calm down. “I know you get very angry with him sometimes.” “When she did that, you must have been mad!” “You must be so frustrated!”

3. Avoid comparisons and labels. Although they can be fertile ground for learning many lessons, sibling relationships can also be prime ground for hurtful comparisons. Don’t compare siblings, even if your children want to. Refrain from using the words “always” and “never.” These labels pigeonhole children into rigid unhealthy roles that are hard to escape from.

4. Treat your children as individuals. One of the hardest myths for children (and parents) to overcome is that siblings can be treated equally. Instead of falling into the trap of trying to make everything equal between your children, focus on each of your children’s unique needs. If your child says, “You bought her a coat, but you didn’t buy me one.” Try asking, “Do you need a new coat? I thought your coat still fits you.”

5. Pay attention to the injured party. Children want attention from their parents in any way they can get it. They don’t care if it’s positive or negative. When one sibling appears outright mean to another, it is tempting to reproach the offender. Try instead to focus on the child who is hurt (physically or emotionally). You will be surprised how quickly paying attention to the injured party extinguishes bad behavior on the other sibling’s part.

6. Spend more time focusing on positives than negatives. Make your disciplinary statements short and sweet. Focus on the positive interactions between siblings whenever possible. “I am so happy when I see the two of you getting along so nicely.”

7. Have confidence that your children can work it out together. Unless one of your children is in danger of getting physically hurt, allow your children to figure it out. Give yourself permission to go into another room to distance yourself from the commotion.

8. Schedule family meetings. Family meetings are a wonderful way to help your child learn conflict- resolution skills. Choose a consistent time each week to meet as a family. Have each person say something encouraging about each family member. After all the positive feelings have been shared, allow each person to gripe about one family member. Encourage positive language and tone of voice. Brainstorm solutions to each problem as a family.

Amy, I hope these suggestions have been helpful to you. Remember: There is no such thing as a “perfect” parent. We all strive to understand and care for our children in the best way that we know how.



Posted in Dear Cathi, Sibling Rivalry | Comments off