What Do You Say When…

Not all parents are cooperative, enthusiastic partners. Some parents have misconceptions, fears, guilt, or denials which must be addressed before any steps can be taken in helping them help their child. Following are some examples of common parent agendas, and suggestions on what you can say.

1. Parents deny their child has a problem.

Your response: ask parents to describe what their child does at home. What you perceive as a problem may not be the same behavior they think of as a problem. Help them understand how behaviors which they see as no problem at home could create a disturbance at school, nonstop energy, and a short attention span, for instance.

2. Parents blame themselves. It’s easy for parents to take on responsibility for their child’s problems, especially if they don’t seem to have a definite physiological origin.

Response: try to ease parents’ guilt by asking them questions like, “Did you try the most you could?”; “Would anyone else have done a better job?”; “Did you purposefully go out of your way to hurt your child?”; and “Was your child always an angel?” Questions like these help parents realize that although they may not have done everything perfectly, nobody else would have either. What matters is that they tried their best, which is all anybody, including themselves, could ask of them.

3. Parents blame you. “It’s not my child’s fault you don’t know how to teach!” It’s hard not to get defensive when parents hurl a comment like this at you, but your best strategy is to remain cool.

Response: acknowledge in a neutral manner what the parent is saying, for instance, “I’m sorry you don’t think I know how to teach.” Simply reflecting back what parents say helps them realize the unfairness of their remarks. It also leads them into lowering their defences, perhaps to the point where they can take some responsibility for their child’s problems. As well, it gives you an opportunity to turn the tables and say, “Do you have any ideas on how I can teach your son better?” This moves the conversation into more constructive problem-solving, rather than pinning blame on someone.

4. Parents falling into the “I give up” syndrome. It’s tough to raise a difficult child. When parents don’t see any progress or they see their child getting worse, it’s natural for them to question whether all their efforts are going down the drain.

Response: let parents say what they want to say. Resist telling them they are blowing things out of proportion or being pessimistic, because they may surmise you don’t understand their problems. It may also stop parents from telling you everything they want to. When they’re finished ask parents to write down all the reasons they feel like giving up. Once they’re satisfied with their list, ask parents to write down another list of all the good things they have going in their lives. This is when it’s handy to have progress charts, samples of their child’s improved work, certificates, examples of how they effectively coped with their child’s misbehaviour–anything concrete to help them see their positive steps. Discuss each accomplishment. This process helps parents come to a more realistic appraisal of themselves and their child.

Take care in how you explain alternatives and test results to parents. Try to present results in positive terms, at the same time be careful not to smooth over or delete information parents should know.

Always keep in the forefront of your mind that children are parents’ dreams and hopes for the future. Their gut reaction will always be disappointment or anger at anything you say which mars the vision they have of what they want their child and family to be. Be truthful, but be kind in what you say and how you say it.

Consider these two examples: (a) “Stewart is in the bottom five per cent of his class in reading”; (b) “Stewart is within the average range in his reading ability.” Which would you rather know, if Stewart was your child? Try to keep your conversation on a positive track. Avoid delving into past faults and look rather towards future improvements. This gives parents direction and hope.

Another point to bear in mind is to avoid jargon. We don’t think of words like intelligence, ability, and deficit as jargon, specific to psychology and education, but they are–ask any accountant. For instance, the above example could also say, “Stewart can read one page from his reader without getting stuck on any words, but he has problems remembering what he reads.” This style boils down the information into simpler terms, and also describes to parents exactly what their child does. Also remember to steer away from labels when you are describing a child’s behavior. A good way of keeping your language comprehensible is to pretend you’re talking to a Grade 10 student. This way you won’t put some parents in the uncomfortable position of not knowing what you’re talking about, or having to dig to the bottom of what you’re trying to say.

5. Parents wanting to help, but not knowing how. “What is “new math’?” “How do I help my child learn his three-times table?” “How can I stop her from seeing b’s instead of d’s?” Most parents know what their children’s learning problems are. What they don’t know is how they can help their children overcome them. With your guidance, parents can learn effective ways of helping their children at home, feel good about being able to help their children, and let their children know that they care about them.

The danger is that parents may go overboard in burdening their children with too much homework, in the hope of stamping out their learning problems. This can turn a fun cooperative learning experience into a painful nightmare for both parents and their children. Parents should ensure the time they spend helping their children with homework is reinforcing. Their children already think enough about their learning problems while they’re at school. They don’t need their memories refreshed when they get home. You can help by giving children fun learning activities to take home, like puzzles and word games. Also, encourage parents to balance schoolwork with sports and fun activities both they and their children like doing. Throwing a football around or teaching their children how to ride a bike can be just as, or even more, beneficial to their children’s development as doing homework.

6. Parents resist getting help. “Us, need help. You must be joking!” Persuading parents who don’t think they need help, to get help is frustrating and often not successful. There are many reasons at the bottom of why parents don’t get help:

o loving your children is all it takes to be an effective parent

o their problems are not serious enough to warrant help

o poor and uneducated people need help more than them; their children are more likely to drop out of school and become delinquents

o troubled kids come from broken homes

o there’s plenty of time to get help–our kids are still young. What some parents don’t realize is that the young years are the most crucial to children’s personality development. This is when parent need skills, not five years down the road when the damage is already done.

o we don’t have problems. Some parents think the whole neighbourhood will be talking about them if they take a parent training course. To them it carries the same stigma as seeing a psychiatrist.

o raising their children is their job, nobody else’s.

Timing is important. The longer parents wait to get help, the more roadblocks they put up. As well, problems generally do not get smaller they get bigger. If their problems seem insurmountable parents will give up before even trying.