This is an email I sent to a colleague today who is organizing a training for clinicians on teaching parenting skills and techniques:

My experience working with families and parent education is that there is often a lot of disconnect, parallel process, and ineffective interventions.  Let’s start with parallel process.  Parents are frustrated that children don’t problem solve, i.e. they don’t cope with challenges, externalizing and being reactive instead.  Therapists are frustrated with parents who don’t problem solve, i.e. they don’t cope with parenting challenges, externalizing (to the child) and being reactive instead.  Trainers of clinicians are frustrated that trainees don’t problem solve, i.e. externalizing (to the parents) and being reactive instead.

When children misbehave, we know fairly easily that simply giving them ideas about how to change their behavior is largely useless.  The problem isn’t that they don’t know how to problem solve.  It’s that they are not motivated to or interested in problem solving.  We try to target what’s getting in the way of the problem solving.  Why, then, when parents aren’t problem solving the issues in their ability to manage their children, are we so focused on giving them ideas for how to do so?  Why would we assume that giving them these ideas will be effective if they themselves are not in the place of problem solving?

Of course, part of why we are tripped up by this is that parents often SOUND as if they are ready to problem solve.  They may even demand it, saying “tell me what to do when Johnny does…”  The reality, however, is that, very, very often, they are not nearly as ready to problem solve as they sound.  So we give them lots of great ideas, they come back to us and report that they largely ignored our advice, and we get frustrated.  Again, we are in the parallel process of being frustrated that others aren’t problem solving, and we often just double down on what isn’t working, which, of course, is exactly what parents often do to their misbehaving children.

 We should be looking to break this cycle.  As clinicians, we need guidance about how to help move parents from reactivity to problem solving.  Once a parent is really ready to problem solve, then the specific techniques are not that complicated or difficult. 

 Again, just giving them techniques for what to do AFTER they are ready to problem solve isn’t addressing the core problem that they aren’t yet there.  That’s what we need help with.  How to move them there.

 Indeed, the more we focus on these techniques, the more we perpetuate the cycle, and the more we cultivate frustration, on everyone’s part.  It’s as if we have a fantasy that if we teach REALLY GOOD techniques, then maybe, magically, parents will start problem solving.  I think we need to move away from this fantasy.