As a family therapist working with children with behavioral issues, many parents are surprised or even resistant to the idea of working directly with a therapist, expecting, instead, that the therapist should be working exclusively with their child. Phrases such as “Please fix my child” or “I will see you in an hour” have been used during the introductory session.
As you might already know, it is not that simple.
Positive parenting built on a strengths-based, relational approach requires working with both child and parent, where collaboration is a key element to successful engagement and positive results for the family (Rodrigo, 2010). Working with parents is especially important because parents are the most influential people in a child’s life. More often than not, to create positive change in a child’s behavior, a parent has to change the way he/she interacts with the child and responds to his behaviors. And in most cases, a parent has to take the first step in the therapeutic process and lead by example.
The treatment process for the positive parenting model begins with an assessment that determines where behaviors are originating. Therapists and families then develop a strategy that matches an appropriate set of techniques best suited for the behavior. Therapists work with families to implement the strategy, with the longer-term goal of remediating behaviors and maintaining positive and expected results through commitment, effort and follow-through.
What may seem to be an obvious and straightforward process has a lot of nuance and requires an investment of time and effort with each step. In assessing the family, with our role as neutral and bias-free processor, we must incorporate all perspectives, including those of the parent and child. Taking into account one side or perspective, glossing over minute details, and using preconceived notions, labels and heuristics may reduce potential opportunities for engagement and joining – a known, proven and critical step in psychotherapy. This step is critical in developing a strategy while making certain not to limit and rule out possible techniques in our approach.
Sometimes, the assessment process encounters diagnoses, preexisting or new, and the resulting action may be to cope with these behaviors (Rodrigo & Byrne, 2011). In truth, when it comes to parenting, it’s a full time, inherently challenging job, and coping is a quick and easy solution. Parents end up accepting and adapting to their child’s actions and use statements such as “He has a lot of anger” or “She has ADHD” to rationalize behaviors rather than continuing to explore the root of these behaviors. The families we work with often have a high amount of needs, and while coping may ease their life at the moment, finding the underlying cause of the behavior is essential, as it may be easily overlooked.
Although behaviors are notoriously difficult to change and require a number of systematic steps, implementation of tactics is a hands-on process and requires commitment and patience from all parties involved. Addressing immediate needs and concerns to gather “small wins” helps show that change is possible and puts clients on a path to success, further encouraging both parents and children to commit and maintain their effort to achieve their long-term goals.
The positive parenting model supports both parents and children through education, empowers each in the therapeutic process, and encourages children to participate and be heard. (Kumpfer & Alvardo, 2003). The approach focuses on reducing stress caused by parent-child conflict by bringing structure and consistency to the home, setting rules and boundaries, and providing a balance of rewards and consequences. A systemic approach to family therapy encourages parents to be involved and be the pioneers of change within their own household, while addressing underlying issues of communication, development, and life changes which may affect the behavior of children and the responses of parents alike.
Kumpfer, K.L., Alvarado, R. (2003). Family-strengthening approaches for the prevention of youth problem behaviors. American Psychologist, 58, pp. 457–465.
Rodrigo, M.J. (2010). Promoting positive parenting in Europe: New challenges for the European Society for Developmental Psychology, European Journal of Developmental Psychology, 7, pp. 281–294.
Rodrigo. M.J and Byrne, S. (2011). Social support and personal agency in at-risk mothers, Psychosocial Intervention, 20, pp. 13–24.
Anna Svetchnikov, LMFT, specializes in working with high-need families with a focus on trauma and parenting. She has launched the Positive Parenting Initiative through her Boston-area non-profit, Longwood Care. The organization is dedicated to enriching the lives of children by educating parents with a toolset of applied therapeutic techniques that support the formation and preservation of strong families.