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Children's Voice Article, January/February, 2004

When You're Not a Parent, But Your Client Is

by Jo Johnson

This article is for anyone who is working with parents but hasn't experienced parenthood. Although you don't have to be a parent to be effective with parents, there are many things parents would want you to know about how they feel, what they think, and what they need from you, whether you're a social worker, teacher, physician, child care provider, or counselor.

After more than 20 years in the field as a practicing social worker--as a parent and not--here's what I've learned about developing rapport with parents and supporting them through difficult times.

Trial and Error

When I first began working with children and families, I was not a parent. I made a lot of mistakes because I minimized how this difference would impact my effectiveness with parents and their children. I followed the usual course of many new professionals and developed specialized skills in working directly with children of all ages. I became an "expert" on kids, but I was still struggling with my ability to engage parents in change.

When parents asked me how to deal with their children's behavior, I didn't have any life experience to draw upon, except the parenting I had received as a child, which was less than ideal. I had learned about behavioral techniques from internships and parenting materials, so I suggested using these methods.

Desperate to see improvement, parents often welcomed these suggestions. Some complied because they wanted to please me and be "good parents." Others gave me a look that said, "She has no idea what it's like to take care of a child." Many of them were right. I didn't know how to translate my clinical skills and knowledge about children into effective parenting practices within families.

When parents didn't follow my recommendations, I labeled them "resistant" and increased my determination to change their behavior or decided they weren't really ready to change. I often thought, "How hard can this be? If this parent would just do this or that, it would solve the problem." Many of my supervisors were burned out after years of working with difficult parents and did little to help me understand how much I didn't know about childrearing.

Still, I wanted to do good work with children, and that meant I had to learn new ways to build relationships with the adults who were raising the children, as they influenced the child's life 24/7. Afraid to admit my ignorance, I tried many different approaches. Some worked, some didn't. The more effective I became at communicating directly with children, the more threatened and distant parents became. Too often, they stopped bringing their children in for help.

Then, two things happened: I began openly admitting to parents I was not a mother, and, some years later, I became a parent myself. Both improved my ability to engage parents in positive changes for themselves and their kids. My success in improving children's behaviors skyrocketed as I learned to build rap-port with parents and established myself, not as an expert, but as a consultant.

Engaging Parents

Over the next 20 years, I continued to learn everything I could about all kinds of children, parents, and families. Here are some ideas and approaches that helped me engage the support and cooperation of parents.

Talk about your parenting experience as you establish relationships with parents.

In establishing rapport with any new client, it's important to be honest in defining your role and areas of expertise. Be clear about what you know and what you don't know. Although defining one's professional role is a standard part of establishing helping relationships, some may view discussing one's parenting status as disclosing personal information inappropriately. A simple, brief sentence or two may be all that is necessary as you begin working with parents.

For those professionals who have parented, it's also important to talk about the similarities and differences you've experienced in raising children. It's doubtful your experience matches that of any other parent exactly, but an open discussion of parenting status can prevent the issue from going underground and covertly damaging your relationship with parents.

Most often, lack of clarity about this issue will affect a professional's ability to work with parents when the parents ask how to handle specific childrearing situations. If your recommendations don't work, for whatever reason, parents will begin to question your ability to help. If you haven't discussed your parenting experience, many parents will hesitate to bring it up. Some parents will give you a look that says, "Are you sure? Have you ever had a child who did this?" Others may challenge you more directly. Some will simply disappear by canceling appointments or creating reasons why they can't return to your center. Some may get angry and call your supervisor.

If you have disclosed your parenting experience, parents can talk about how this might be impeding positive change. Talking about what's not working and why allows the professional and the parents to consider the possible obstacles to change and generate solutions to work through them. Maybe your parenting experience has something to do with it, maybe not, but addressing this topic openly allows you to consider it as a possibility. Some parents find it easier to write off a professional as ineffective because he or she isn't a parent than to consider all the possibilities why the situation isn't improving.


Someone once said, "Really listening is an incredibly intimate thing." Many parents will be able to generate solutions for themselves after they run through the laundry list of what's wrong today. Some need little more than good eye contact, an empathic nod, and brief responses that acknowledge how difficult the situation must be. Others won't be ready to move toward solutions until they feel like they've been heard.

Active listening also involves asking about anything you don't understand. Even if you understand how it is for most people, it's important to ask how it is for each individual. Asking about what the person is saying says you're paying attention. Using the same words and phrases in the questions you ask creates an immediate connection between you.

Notice what the parent does well.

A strength-based approach when working with parents is highly effective. Although the family may have a long list of problems, taking note of parents' strengths is critical for establishing rapport and building their sense of competence.

Genuinely notice how the parent displays qualities like courage, persistence, love, patience, tenacity, insight, and understanding, or a willingness to change or try new things. Whatever ability or quality you comment on will grow.

As parents attempt to improve their parenting, noticing their steps toward change is important. Praise and recognition are powerful motivators. Recognize when parents make a change, when they attempt to do something differently, when they become aware of perceptions or automatic responses to situations, when they try something new and fail, and when they try something new and succeed.

Distinguish between parents' intentions and their behavior.

Focus on the parent's intention, especially if you disagree with his or her approach. By talking about what the parent is trying to accomplish, you can build a level of agreement between the two of you. Then you can talk about how a particular approach may not be helping or how it may be causing more problems in other ways. From there, you can talk about what else the parent can do to achieve his goals for the family while affirming his intentions.

For example, a parent who wants to reduce her child's fears at bedtime may lie down next to her daughter until the child falls asleep. If the parent moves to her own bed, the child will probably wake during the night, disturbing everyone's sleep. The parent's intention is commendable, but the solution isn't working well for anyone. How can the parent help to ease her child's fears at bedtime?

Notice positive things about the children.

Regardless of how often self-help magazines tell parents their children are not a reflection of their ability or competence as human beings, parents still feel a sense of pride when others note good things about their children.

By commenting on developmental milestones or age-appropriate behavior, the professional can affirm the normalcy of a child's behavior while educating the parent about child development. By talking about a child's behavior, you can engage parents in understanding how children communicate their thoughts, feelings, and needs through their behavior, and you can "reframe" behavior to help parents see their child's actions from a different perspective.

Offer your support as a consultant.

Although you may not be a parent, you can be extremely helpful by defining yourself as a consultant, someone who can support the parents as you work to improve situations together. Ask, "What would help you work through this problem right now? How can I help you with this?"

>From this perspective, professionals can engage parents in defining the problems and designing the solutions. As a consultant, you can ask about how the parent is doing and extend emotional support. Although I have parented two children and have 26 years of clinical experience with families, defining the parent as the expert empowers mothers and fathers to know what they know, make choices to try new things, and fill the boots of parenthood.

In this capacity as a consultant, you can honor your own knowledge by teaching parents special skills you know yourself, such as communication, problem-solving, or play therapy skills. In sharing this knowledge, encourage parents to tailor your suggestions to fit their own personal styles and strengths, their own children and families, and the situations they face every day.

Establish a timeline for change, and review progress.

Parents who seek help want relief. They want things to improve. They and their children often face serious consequences if things don't improve. With a timeframe in place, you and your client can talk about the professional helping relationship.

Select a timeframe that makes sense for the setting in which you are working. Explain at the outset that if the situation doesn't improve in a certain amount of time, you will reexamine what is happening. Few problems will be solved in two or three sessions, but you should begin seeing positive changes by three months.

If a situation is not improving, there are many things to consider. Talk with the parent to see if important information has been withheld or overlooked; whether further information, consultation, or testing is needed; or if an important person has been left out of the change process. You might have to consider if you are the best person to work with this family or whether they need to work with a different professional for some reason.

By being open to a range of reasons for a lack of progress, I communicate that my first concern is with the family. If my attempts to help the parents aren't working, I look for something that will help them achieve their goals.

Share insights and ideas you gather from other parents who have grappled with similar issues.

Working with parents over time, you will hear how they have solved a variety of problems with their children. Many of the ideas are creative and highly effective. Collect these solutions and share them with other parents facing similar situations.

I will never forget two mothers' original approaches for getting an adolescent child out of bed in the morning. One took her infant, dirty diaper and all, into her teen's room; the smell was a powerful motivator. The other mom went into the youth's room, sat down next to the bed, and began talking about their relationship and their individual feelings about certain situations and issues; getting up and ready for school suddenly was more attractive to this adolescent than lying in bed and discussing feelings with mom.

When I share these solutions with other parents, they relate to these two mothers stepping back from a situation to try something different. It gives them permission to be creative and allows them to feel more in control.

Read! Read! Read!

Search parenting on, and you'll get more than 24,000 books recommendations. A list of my favorite books and authors appears on page 27. Many are distillations of research-based practices in childrearing; all are written in parent-friendly formats.

Spend time with children.

If you ever have to take care of two children by yourself for a weekend, only to have both of them develop ear infections with high fevers and vomiting, you will have a new appreciation for the effects of stress, worry, and lack of sleep on parents. My nephews helped me learn this lesson. I look at their parents, and all parents, with deep respect and empathy.

Even if your time together is problem-free, spending several days with youth will give you an idea of what it's like to have another human being need your attention almost constantly. Imagine parenting a child for a lifetime. It's as difficult as it is wonderful.

Be aware of intense personal responses you may have toward a parent or family.

Intensely positive or negative feelings toward a parent, child, or family may indicate a personal issue that needs to be resolved. Many professionals are aware of this process, but it's often difficult to see when it's happening to you. Having a supervisor who can help you understand strong thoughts and opinions about a client can help a professional sort out personal issues from those of the client. Working with parents frequently stirs up conscious and unconscious aspects of one's childhood.

Disclose that you are a mandated reporter of child abuse, neglect, and dangerous situations like homicide and suicide.

Repeatedly, I talk with professionals who are in awkward situations. They have not disclosed that they are mandated reporters of child abuse and neglect, and the parent shares information that requires them to call child protective services.

Most states have laws to protect the identity of the caller, but, in many situations, parents can figure out who reported them by the type of information in the report. By informing parents you are legally required to report certain information to the authorities, you give the parent the option of disclosing that information knowing the possible consequences ahead of time.

Continue learning.

Regardless of your personal or professional experience, continue learning about children and families. New knowledge is continually evolving in areas from brain development to resilience to cultural diversity.

These thoughts and suggestions for engaging parents come from my 26 years of clinical work with all ages of children and all kinds of parents. Many of them have been my best teachers. For those brave souls who talked with me about my mistakes and gave me great ideas to improve my practice, thank you.

Jo Johnson is CWLA's Parenting Program Director and Coordinator of the League's Creating Parenting-Rich Communities Initiative.

Recommended Reading


Respectful Parenting: From Birth Through the Terrific Twos. By Joanne Baum. Child & Family Press, 2001. $16.95, Stock No. 7645.

Simple Secrets of Parenting: Easy as ABC. By John Q. Baucom, Illustrated by Cathy Abramson. Child & Family Press, 1997. $9.95, Stock No. 6380.

Teaching Parents of Young Children: A Curriculum in 12 Sessions. By Laura L. Wetzel. CWLA Press, 1996. $12.95, Stock No. 5707.

5 Easy Ways to Order!
Mail:  CWLA
           PO Box 932831
           Atlanta GA 31193-2831

Call:  800/407-6273 (toll free)

Fax:  770/280-4160


Other Reading Resources
This is not an exhaustive list. These books are ones parents and professionals borrow from my desk and never return!

Child Development
Look for titles by the American Academy of Pediatrics, T. Berry Brazelton, and Penelope Leach, as well as Louise Bates Ames' series for each year of life (Your One Year Old, Your 2 Year Old, etc.).

Behavior Management
Win the Whining War and Other Skirmishes: A Family Peace Plan. By Cynthia Whitham, Illustrated by Barry Wetmore. (Perspective, 1991).

Parenting with Love and Logic: Teaching Children Responsibility. By Foster W. Cline and Jim Fay. (Navpress, 1990).

Communication Skills
How to Talk So Your Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk: 20th Anniversary Edition. By Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. (Avon, 1999).

Growing Up Again: Parenting Ourselves, Parenting Our Children. By Connie Dawson and Jean Illsley Clark. (Hazelden, 1998).

Sibling Rivalry
Siblings Without Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Live Too. By Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlisch. (Avon, 1988).

Sleep Problems
Solve Your Children's Sleep Problems. By Richard Ferber. (Fireside, 1986).

What Parents Say About Parenting

Several new national surveys provide insights into parents' needs and strengths.
  • Building Strong Families. An In-Depth Report on a Preliminary Survey on What Parents Need to Succeed. By Eugene C. Roehlkepartain, Peter C. Scales, Jolene Roehlkepartain, and Stacey P. Rude. From YMCA of the USA and Search Institute, 2002. Available online at

  • Family Strengths: Often Overlooked, But Real. By Kristin Moore, Rosemary Chalk, Juliet Scarpa, and Sharon Vandivere. From Child Trends, August 2002. Available online at

  • A Lot Easier Said Than Done: Parents Talk About Raising Children in Today's America. By Steve Farkas, Jean Johnson, and Ann Duffett. >From Public Agenda, 2002. Available online at

Creating Parenting-Rich Communities

Recent surveys of thousands of parents underscore the need for support for all parents. Whether you read these reports or simply talk with parents in your community, you will hear stories that define the great joys and the sometimes intense struggles of raising a child well.

If you ask parents what they need to help their children thrive, most can give you a list of things that can be done to begin building a parenting-rich community, where parents are equipped with the resources necessary to support children's development at every stage of life.

A growing number of success stories describe the efforts of communities nationwide to make these resources available to parents. Through its Creating Parenting-Rich Communities Initiative, CWLA is building on the energy and ideas of parents and communities, sharing these success stories so that other communities can replicate successful programs and support more parents and more children.

The Creating Parenting-Rich Communities Initiative is
  • collecting information on model programs and campaigns and on the research behind best practices, and constructing a comprehensive definition of a parenting-rich community;

  • developing a national model of a parenting-rich community, working with communities in Jacksonville, Florida; Minne-apolis, Minnesota; and Newark, New Jersey; and

  • creating a national public awareness campaign and sharing information about what works to allow successful programs to be replicated in other communities nationwide.
The initiative is involving birth, adoptive, and foster parents; relatives raising family members' children; other caring adults who fill the role of mothers or fathers for children; professionals and volunteers who support families every day; community leaders and decisionmakers; national organizations that share a commitment to the best development of all children; and the media.

You can help build this national model for parenting-rich communities by letting CWLA know about local efforts to support parents, sharing information about programs that will allow other communities to replicate effective interventions, and sending CWLA descriptions of family traditions and cultural practices that support parents and parenting.

Parents are powerful people. There are countless examples of how parents have improved the lives of children when they organize for the needs of their own children. With the right resources, parents can do more. CWLA wants to help communities support parents as powerful people whose fierce commitment to children makes all the difference in the world.

For more information, contact the Creating Parenting-Rich Communities Initiative at 202/639-4930 or, or go online at

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