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Posted: Jul 6, 2007 10:04


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Five Critical Skills for Coaching Parents Of Struggling Teens and Young Adults
Bill Valentine PsyD, CC

This six-part series is directed at those individuals, practices and programs currently working with, or wishing to work with, parents of struggling teens and young adults. The series reviews the differences between coaching, consulting and therapy and identifies five specific skills that the experienced coach must bring to the relationship.

Part V
Skill #4: Identifying Areas for Primary Focus

Once the orienteer (or client) has determined were she is on the map, it's time to decide where she wants to go. The ultimate aim of any coaching relationship is for the clients to reach identified goals through their own efforts. The coach acts as the catalyst for change while the client performs as the agent of change.

Before setting off into the wilderness of change, the client and coach must identify the areas for primary focus. Especially during highly charged, emotional times, parents may have difficulty in focusing on what are really the most important areas needing their attention and concern. Squeaky wheels can disguise a faltering engine. Therefore, it is important that the coach and client identify the areas that in the long run will yield the highest return for the considerable investment of time, energy, perseverance and courage that the parent will be called upon to make.

These primary focus areas will provide the overarching agenda for the coaching sessions. They may change slightly over time, but only as they are addressed and reconciled.

Additional purposes for identifying areas for primary focus:

  1. Areas of primary focus make clear what is the teen/young adult's work and what is the parent's - Whether at home or in a program, the teen or young adult has ultimate control over their growth process. To the degree that the coach can keep the client clear and focused on those things over which he has control (almost never do these include the teen/YA's choices or actions) the coaching process can move forward toward establishing client goals.

  2. Helps to prioritize the topics for discussion - Early in the relationship it is helpful for the coach to draw up a rank-ordered list of what the client sees as the most important issues needing attention. As the discussions proceed, the coach can use this 'check list' as a way of directing individual sessions.

  3. Keeps the client and coach focused on what is most important - In the normal course of coaching parents with a difficult child, there will be minor crises, blowups and setbacks. It is easy for coach and client to be caught up in the drama and lose sight of the bigger picture. Reiterating primary areas can bring the focus back to the main agenda.

  4. Accelerates the process - Sometimes it just seems like you are plowing the same field over and over again. When the coach senses that the process has bogged down, it is time to get back to the basics -the primary areas of focus. Check your rank-ordered list and move the process on!

  5. Maximizes the leverage of any given call - The coaching session is usually very short. To get the most out of the time allotted, both coach and client need to focus on what is most important.

Identifying focus areas may be as easy as asking the client what she would like to accomplish during your time together. However, most parents, at least initially, will want to talk about the child and what can be done about him or her. And to be sure, if the child is still at home and acting out, the focus should be on getting the child back in some kind of control. Until then, it is a waste of time to talk about modifying old habits and dynamics.

Once there is some kind of break in the action, however, - the child is sent away or accepts some behavioral grounding - the time has come to talk about longer-term solutions and actions. Go back to the fundamentals of hearing we covered in Skill #2 ("Clean, Clear, Concise Communication"). Really hearing what the client is feeling and wanting is the most important skill in the any coach's kit.

Certain words may indicate the parent's values. At some point, the coach wants to have a discussion regarding what kinds of values the parent has for the home and for his child. By noting value words (actually writing them down) in early conversations and listening for them to be repeated, the coach can begin to get a feeling for the values of the client. Words such as: 'safe,' 'happiness,' 'family values,' 'respect,' 'non-violence,' etc. may denote powerful values that the client holds. Value words call out to the professional coach for further exploration.

An important distinction to get clear with parents in crisis is the difference between their needs and their wants. Especially early in the relationship, sufficient time should be spent in discussing these two key areas. Needs will almost always be paramount for the client while their child is still engaged in high-risk behaviors. Not so clear are the underlying wants or expectations of the parent. These powerful parental desires have usually been around since the child was a toddler. That's when the dreams of law school or the National Merit Scholarship (or the National Football League) first began to crystallize. As Junior began his precipitous downward slide, these dreams gave way to the more elemental needs of the parent for 'just' his safety, health and happiness. However, it is almost a sure thing that as soon as Junior is in a program or acting minimally compliant parents will revert to old dreams, and the attendant pressures will be exerted to see that he is back on track. Programs, especially, may be caught unaware and unprepared for the new demands that will come from the parent who is now substituting wants for needs.

Four questions to determine areas of primary focus:

  1. What do you want to keep and enhance? - intention and attention = manifestation

  2. What do you want to let go of? - control, expectations and dreams are very hard to let go of for parents. This list of things to let go may grow as you lead the client further into the process of seeing "what is".

  3. What do you want to avoid? - learn from what is not working. The devil you know is providing a false sense of safety.

  4. What do you want to change? - If you want something you've never had before, do something you've never done before.

Goal setting is a primary tool for coaches and clients. Goals are important to the change process because they provide a measure of success. Concentrating on defined goals slows the moving target of reactive behaviors. Goals will focus the coaching process on those areas needing primary on-going attention.

Often the client will find it harder to identify what needs work than what needs to happen. The client has, for a number of reasons, become blind to contributing factors to the dysfunctional system. Therefore, when we ask them to identify what needs to change, they may be stumped. However, when the coach asks the client what they would like to see and have as an outcome of coaching, they are often able to articulate their hopes for end results. These hopes then need to be turned into powerful goals.

Characteristics of powerful goals:

  • Measurable

  • Values reflective

  • Obtainable

  • Time sensitive

  • Energizing

  • Dependent on my actions, not another's

One approach to goal setting uses a stair-step approach. The coach and client agree on one or two goals that address the most immediate concerns, to be addressed within the next 30 to 90 days. Under each goal there are listed two or more action items. Underneath each action item are first step initiatives.

Identifying, defining and setting goals can be hard, yet rewarding, work. It is important work. However, the real work comes after the goals are set. During the next weeks the coach must serve as mirror, supporter and accountability agent. Change is difficult and discouragement is easy. 'Keeping the eyes on the prize' is an important task for the coach.

Urgent matters may distract the client. A call from the school that Rachel has taken a backward step, or the breaking of an agreement in a Home Contract, may be used to 'show' the coach that this plan is not working. (When, in fact, the goals are not about Rachel's choices, or Kevin's misstep, but the client's actions). Urgent matters need attention, but important goals must be revisited when the crises pass.

Finally, as early goals are met it is critical that new objectives are identified and new goals set. Momentum is a powerful motivator. Just as true is the fact that there is an inevitable let down after the hard work of obtaining a goal is complete unless the goal is replaced with another. The personal growth that began in crisis can become a way of life for those who commit to the process of continual learning. The coach can play an instrumental role in assisting that process.

About the Authors:
Bill and Penelope Valentine are the co-founders of Next Step for Success, a parent and family coaching service headquartered in Redmond, OR. 541-504-5224.

Coaching Defined

Recognizing the Human Condition in Every Client

Clean, Clear, Concise Communication

Revealing the Barriers to What Is

Celebrating the Process

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