The other night, after coming home to the not-so-warm welcome of yet another bedtime battle between me and my three-year-old son, my husband tried to lighten the mood by asking: "What would Supernanny do?"
A less exhausted me might've laughed. But the worn-out, feeling-crazy-from-the-day me saw it as a direct affront on my mothering ability, and I reacted accordingly. I spouted something straight from third grade like, "I don't know. Why don't you call her? And then marry her while you're at it!" Then I kissed my son goodnight, brushed past my husband, who was taking over bedtime duties, and stomped downstairs to check my e-mail.
Supernanny. As if.
As I logged on to my computer, the sound of my husband and son giggling their way through a story eroded my irritation. And by the time I got through my e-mails, I was back in familiar territory—embarrassed about my over-reaction and realizing that no matter how much I love my kids, at the end of the day (literally), my mothering techniques are too often formed more by fatigue and frustration than by love and wisdom.
Not exactly the kind of mom I want to be.
Jennifer Mangan, a certified "parent coach" and former associate editor of this magazine, knows the feeling. Not only because she's a mother of four teenagers, but because in her practice every day she sees parents who aren't dealing with things the way they'd like to: from moms who just want to handle a recurring, frustrating situation better, to families poised on the edge of total collapse.
Turns out, I'm the type of mom she wishes would come to see her more often—one who's "in touch" with the kind of mom she wants to be, but just can't make it happen all the time. She wants to see us before things get out of hand.
But instead of booking an appointment with her, I lined up an interview. And over tacos and Diet Cokes, we discussed what this whole "parent coaching" thing is about.
Christian Parenting Today: Some days I feel I'm a great mom, but other days aren't so hot. At what point exactly should a mom like me consider some coaching?
Jennifer: Most parents come to me when they're feeling overwhelmed. We become beaten down by the culture, busyness, kids, our spouses, other parents, and trying to keep up with the Joneses. Any number of factors can cause us to stop living our values, to stop parenting from that place where we feel good about what we're doing. We start second-guessing ourselves, feel constantly contradicted, and cave in to our children's bad behavior because we're so tired, stressed, worn out, and overworked.
At that point, a lot of parents throw up their hands and say, "I don't care anymore, I can't deal with this." And they can't figure out why they feel so dissatisfied with their parenting.
Unfortunately it's human nature not to do anything until our backs are against the wall. So although I'm not involved in crisis intervention, per se, I do see a lot of parents in crisis. But I also see parents who are so in touch with who they want to be that when they realize they aren't reaching that goal, they come to me before it gets out of control.
CPT: Why wouldn't those people see a therapist?
Jennifer: Because traditionally psychologists, social workers, and those kinds of professionals will deal with issues, but they aren't specifically concerned with parenting. And there's really no one in place for what I call "healthy living skills." People are finally realizing that parenting is just about the most important thing that we do, so if we need help, why shouldn't we ask for it?
CPT: Is that why you decided to get into parent coaching? I mean, this is quite a career shift for you.
Jennifer: For a long time I'd prayed about where God wanted me to be, having been a writer for about ten years of my life. I knew I was being called to do something, but I didn't know what it was. So I remained very quiet, which is hard for me. Then one day, during my quiet time, I read a newspaper article about parent coaching, and it immediately resonated with me.
Jennifer: I see a clear need in our community for this, because before there was no place a parent could go for support and encouragement—unless they had mental health issues—outside of family members or close friends. And sometimes those are the hardest people with whom to be vulnerable. A parent coach gives moms and dads a shoulder-to-shoulder relationship where you feel supported, cared for, and have somebody to co-create and redefine where you are as a parent.
CPT: So you just decided to become one?
Jennifer: Well, first I enrolled in the Parent Coaching Institute at Seattle Pacific University. It's an intensive, 18-month-long graduate-level program. I chose that program intentionally because I wanted something to give me the credibility that I needed to feel confident about what I was doing. There are people out there who call themselves parent coaches just because they're parents, and I find that somewhat dangerous. I would caution any parent: If you're going to seek out this kind of service, make sure the coach has gone through a rigorous certification.
CPT: When someone comes in to your office, where do you start?
Jennifer: I work through a coaching framework called "appreciative inquiry." Major corporations actually use it. Instead of problem solving, they determine what's working. In the same way, we find out what's working for parents through a co-discovery process in which I ask things like, "What good things are happening? What's the best part of your day?" We find out what's really working, what's going well, areas where you see yourself, your spouse, and your children thrive.
And by determining all of these positives and working through what I call a "vocabulary of hope" versus a "vocabulary of deficit," we focus on those areas. Because what you focus on grows. If you focus on all the challenges in your home and what's wrong, those negative feelings will grow.
Instead, we take what's working and apply it to the challenges a particular family is experiencing. That way, we get the parents to make their own decisions from a positive, loving, energetic place.
CPT: So that's where your approach differs from Supernanny, where one size fits all. This is custom-made coaching!
Jennifer: Yes. It's as unique as every family, every personality. You and your husband are going to thrive in different situations—as will your kids. But once you determine those situations and amplify them, extraordinary things begin to happen in your family.
I used these techniques with my teenage son. After I finished this coaching program, Alex and I were at a point of, well, difficulty. His attitude was negative. He was behaving inappropriately. Truthfully, he was scaring us. He wasn't the boy that I'd wanted and dreamed he'd be.
This process made me realize I couldn't fix him, but I could help myself. I had to pray that God would give me the strength to change my attitude and start focusing on the positive things about my son and our relationship. And in turn, it's restored our bond and ultimately helped him with his behavior. We treat each other differently today, and we celebrate those changes.
CPT: So the next time I'm caught in that frustrated, overwhelmed, negative cycle of motherhood, what should I do?
Jennifer: Well, you need to be willing to change course. Otherwise you keep repeating the cycle and expecting things to be different, which is the definition of insanity. So you can be insane, or you can make a change. That might mean ramping up your self-care. Maybe look around for a support system, someone who can give you a "mommy break" one night a week.
Second, you have to start recognizing the positive things in your life. And that means thinking about them. Pick out two or three things a day that are positive or hopeful about the situation or the person that's causing your anxiety. After a few days, compile a list of sorts, and start verbalizing those positives. That makes it go from the head to the heart.
And, of course, you should pray. Meditating on Scripture has helped me so much with my family, particularly Proverbs 31:26: "She speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction is on her tongue."
I also love Philippians 4:8: "Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things." That basically sums up my approach: Focus on the good. It's a biblical truth.
Copyright © 2005 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian Parenting Today magazine. Click here for reprint information on Christian Parenting Today.
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