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Parents calling in the coach

Barbara Byrne's South Florida clients are tired. They're tired of power struggles, whining, tantrums, biting, being ignored, being late out the door in the morning and -- this is a big one -- not getting enough sleep.

From her Kendall office, Byrne counsels moms and dads on how to be, well, moms and dads. She's a parent coach.

Parents seek her help when "because I said so'' doesn't work; when the household is in a constant state of chaos. Her biggest fans share homes with toddlers and teens.

"Once ‘free will' emerges, the parents are on the phone," Byrne says.

Kids still don't come with instructions, but moms today have another option: a private adviser.

Like personalized Dr. Spocks, parent coaches are available for one-hour office visits, lunch-time phone calls, even comforting e-mail exchanges. They offer practical tips on how to get through thumb sucking, sibling rivalry and other day-to-day trials. And they make parents feel better about themselves.

"We went there frustrated and came out comforted and feeling very empowered," says Andrea Lopez, a Miami mom who sought Byrne's help for handling her 4-year-old's violent temper tantrums. "You come to a point where you start to question yourself. You think, ‘I'm a professional, I should be able to handle this.' As a parent, it's embarrassing. But the reality is sometimes you need an outsider."

As the latest self-help approach for overextended moms and dads, parent coaching is catching on because it's relatively inexpensive -- one-on-one sessions range from $50 to $100, while teleseminars can be taken from home at night for as low as $25. And it can be quick, even over the phone.

Critics warn that in the zeal to be perfect parents, we're losing sight that parenting is an experience, not a profession. A pro for every parenting task -- home babyproofers, lactation consultants, sleep trainers, lice removal technicians, kiddie taxi drivers, birthday planners -- makes it easy to "outsource'' parenthood. With TV hits like Nanny 911 and Supernanny, some worry that moms are being conditioned to stifle their mother's intuition and go for the quick fix.

"Parent coaching has a real buzz now as parents' lives become more complicated and they're more consumed with jobs and extracurricular activities," says Sande Gruskin, director of The Family Center Parenting Place at Nova Southeastern University's Mailman Segal Institute for Early Childhood Studies in Davie.

"That one-hour fix is very appealing," Gruskin says. "But parenting is so much more complex than that. To understand where you came from, what you learned from your parents, what triggers you -- that doesn't happen overnight."

Other life-changing forces have pushed parent coaches to the forefront. With more women employed, there are fewer opportunities for moms to gather on playgrounds to exchange knowledge. With more families living far apart, the old standby of turning to mom or grandma has faded. Plus, many modern child-rearing issues -- Myspace.com, cellphones, text messaging -- are lost on older generations.

As author Pamela Paul points out in her new book Parenting Inc. (Times Books, $25), most parents today have had little prior contact with young children. They grew up in small families, never having to help raise younger brothers or sisters. They were trained to think about careers, not caretaking.

A 40-something, first-time mother may be able to run a company, but when it comes to putting her baby to sleep at night, she may not have a clue. There's plenty to feel insecure about, especially at a time when research on child development is exploding. Can a mom be blamed for wanting an expert to help sort it out?

"A corporate executive or elite athlete can have a coach and nobody questions it. A parent can't have a coach because parents are supposed to do it all alone," says Gloria De Gaetano, founder of the Parent Coaching Institute, a Bellevue, Wash., training program. "But today we have single mothers, two parents working and divorced couples. Stress is high on parents. Why not have a compassionate companion who can offer support and resources and ideas?"

In one year, Fort Lauderdale parent coach Beth Lefevre estimates she counsels 50 to 100 clients.

Delray Beach mom Jennifer Rose says she's met with Lefevre every few months for more than two years, ever since she attended a five-week course at Lefevre's Fort Lauderdale center, Educational Systems Today. Lefevre has visited Rose's home twice and even went to her 9-year-old son's school to observe him.

"Parents come to me when they don't want to yell anymore," says Maggie Macauley, another Fort Lauderdale parent coach. "They want to be close and connected to their children. They want to parent from a place of love, not fear. Many parents today see their children less, so they want it to be fun, not filled with fighting."

Tim and Meredith Birrittella, a Pinecrest gay couple with a daughter born to a surrogate mother, turned to Byrne when time-outs weren't working for Emma, now 3½.

Byrne suggested giving Emma choices: You can either get dressed or you can have your favorite snuggle rag taken away. You can stop throwing things on the floor or you can lose TV time.

"The first two or three days, she lost everything. She had nothing left," Tim Birrittella says. "Then she realized, ‘Hey, this isn't good.’ ’’

Since February, the dads have met with Byrne twice, paying $100 for each one-hour visit. Recently, Tim e-mailed the coach for advice after Emma had a meltdown at a birthday party.

"The problem is everyone who's ever had a child gives you advice from the time the baby is born, but every kid is different," he says. "Just because it worked for someone else's kid, doesn't mean it will work for yours. . . . Books are nice. But you can't question a book."

Byrne is a psychotherapist and licensed clinical social worker, but not all parent coaches come with credentials. There is no licensing and no organized oversight of the trade. With the exception of The Parent Coaching Institute, which offers graduate-level parent coach certification, and the International Network for Children and Families, which trains people to teach its "Redirecting Children's Behavior'' course, there are few certification programs.

In other words, anyone can call herself a parent coach.

"The frustrating part is that parents are getting a lot of cliches, things we know are wrong," says Alan Kazdin, director of the Yale University Parenting Center and Child Conduct Clinic in New Haven, Conn.

"They're told, ‘Talk to your child, he'll be less aggressive.' We know that's wrong," Kazdin says. "Or ‘improve your child's self-esteem, he'll be better.' Wrong. Or ‘give a lot of time outs.' Wrong."

Kazdin warns that much of the advice given by parent coaches isn't supported by research; that this phenomenon is merely a feel-good moment for parents.

"You'll feel better, but the problem isn't changing," says Kazdin, president of the American Psychological Association. "If parent coaching turns out to have great benefits, I'll be out leading the parade, hawking it from my front lawn. But there is no evidence to back it up."

WHERE TO FIND THEM

Educational Systems Today: The Fort Lauderdale center offers parent coaching (as well as professional and personal coaching); provides training for parent coaches; also offers a

five-week course called "Redirecting Children's Behavior." Prices: $100-$150 an hour for one-on-one counseling to $595 for the five-week course. Call 954-570-3332 or visit www.grcbocaraton.com.

Solutions for Parents: Offers counseling in Kendall office and over the phone; hosts workshops at schools and companies. Prices: $50 for half-hour sessions, $100 an hour. Call 305-505-0689 or send email to solutionsforparents@gmail.com.

Whole Hearted Parenting: A Fort Lauderdale parent coach offers one-on-one sessions; 1½-hour, evening teleseminars that can be taken from home on such topics as "Talk So Children Listen;'' a five-week "Redirecting Children's Behavior'' course, weekend courses and a parent summer camp. Prices: $25 for teleseminars to $595 for weekend and five-week courses. Call 954-483-8021 or visit www.wholeheartedparenting.com.

The Family Center Parenting Place: Parenting classes include a 14-week free session for parents of newborns, two-hour workshops on issues such as toilet training and bedtime challenges ($30), and a six-week positive discipline class ($150); part of Nova Southeastern University. Call 954-262-6900 or visit www.nova.edu/msi/pplace.

Best You Can Be Foundation: The South Florida nonprofit offers a six-week online program for parents called "Stop Fighting, Start Connecting," as well as teleseminars on such topics as "Helping You and Your Children Safely Release Anger." Prices: $29 for audio playback to $49 for three CDs. Call 954-817-7595 or visit www.bestyoucanbe.org.

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