Mother's (and father's) little helper


Coaches extend helping hand to harried parents By Monica Ginsburg


illustrations by Lisa Jordan  

David King of Glen Ellyn describes his 2½ year-old son Trevor as "high energy" and "spirited." But after Trevor bit a child in his preschool class and began hitting children with blocks in the babysitting area of their local gym, King acknowledged things were out of hand.

He and his wife, Heidi, consulted several parenting books. They tried time-outs and other types of discipline but nothing seemed to work. Exasperated, they turned to a non-traditional source for support: a parent coach. Maybe you have heard of life coaches and career coaches but parent coaches are a new breed of advisers who help parents navigate the often-muddled waters of child-rearing, tackling issues ranging from tantrums to toilet training, homework to hairstyles.

There are no licensing requirements to call yourself a parent coach nor is there a universally accepted course of study. The exact number of parent coaches is unknown since there is no formal national or state accreditation process and no certification to wear a coach's cap. Some parent coaches are trained as therapists, social workers or teachers, but just as many hang out a coaching shingle based solely on the experience gained from raising their own children.

When his wife suggested they see a coach, King was skeptical. "At first it sounded a little absurd," says the aircraft technician at Northwest Airlines who also has a 1-year-old son. "I feel like I'm a good parent. Why would I need to go to a parent coach?"

After two months of weekly in-person sessions with coach Jennifer Mangan of Wheaton, King had a new attitude. On the advice of their coach, the Kings limited Trevor to a maximum of one hour of television a day, down from two to three hours. Instead of serving Trevor breakfast in front of the TV, King began taking his son with him on morning walks with the family dog. They built a play set in the backyard for Trevor to work off some of his energy. The improvements, says King, were almost immediate. "He's like a different kid."

Beyond that, the Kings learned to work as a team. "We talk about what the problems are and how to address them," he says. "We form a plan and we stick together. We help each other out in times of weakness. We're working together better because of these meetings. It's been a positive experience."

Issues such as potty training Trevor, creating time as a couple without the children, and finding alone-time to run errands or pursue a hobby will keep them on the coach's couch for at least a year, he says. "We have enough things to talk about that we can use an hour of advice a week."

Just a fad? If you're tempted to chalk up coaching to the latest parenting fad, be warned: a good coach will encourage you to look beyond the dirty diapers to get to the bigger picture. "I tell my clients it's like putting a jigsaw puzzle together," says Derek Randel, a Wilmette-based parent coach and former middle and high school teacher. "You can't talk about sibling rivalry without discussing chores. You can't talk about chores without discussing communication. It's never just one simple problem. I think most parents know it's not, it's whether or not you're going to be honest with yourself."

Mangan insists that coaching is not a "fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants" idea. Some companies offer coaching certification programs including Coach U, an international training company in Steamboat Springs, Colo., and the Parent Coaching Institute, where Mangan has completed a distance learning curriculum offered in partnership with Seattle Pacific University. She is the on-staff parent coach at Legacy Clinical Consultants, a mental health agency with offices in the western suburbs and has been assigned cases by the DuPage County Court.

"I'm not an advice giver," Mangan says. "I help parents get good information and make good choices for themselves and their children."

While those such as Mangan who have received a certificate naturally tout their expanded credentials, and while any training would seem welcome, not everyone is convinced about the value of certification.

"There are so many different programs, I'm not sure if being certified is any indicator of a coach's worth," says Randel, who, along with his wife, is a certified facilitator for two established parenting and self-esteem programs. "A lot of times it's how we communicate, too. Parents need to ask questions to see if you have similar philosophies. Learn to trust your intuition."

Just as experience varies, so do fees, which range from $50 to $150 a session.

Initial meetings typically are in person, with follow-up consults by phone or e-mail several times a month. Most coaches don't see the children they are offering advice about and, surprisingly, may even provide long-distance services via phone or e-mail to clients they never meet.

Some professional therapists, however, are concerned that self-styled experts lack formal training and crucial experience working with children. This can lead to missed diagnoses. Also worrisome is the often-limited face-time with clients. And, since coaching is an unregulated industry, there is no recourse if a coach offers advice that is harmful to the child or family.

"I would say buyer beware," says Mary Halpin, a Deerfield-based clinical psychologist specializing in treating children, adolescents and families. "I'd encourage people to ask really specific questions about a coach's experience and training and to talk to some of the clients they've worked with. You need to make sure they have the experience they say they have."

Better "first-stop" resources, she says, include your pediatrician, school social worker or local parenting classes.

"Then, if you've done the non-mental-health route, if you've talked to your mom, your pediatrician and the neighbor lady with five kids, and those methods haven't lead to success, why wouldn't you take it to a professional with a license?" Halpin asks.

Getting past a stigma With all the parenting books, magazines, childcare experts and online gurus, is there room on the advice-giving bench for a coach?

"Go to a bookstore and there are 7,000 parenting books and you can choose any one," says Randel, who wrote two parenting books with his wife, Gail. "Some work for some families and not for others. We are another alternative."

Linda Lucatorto, a personal coach specializing in women going through divorce, compares coaches to personal trainers. "We work with people who are healthy emotionally, who have a situation and want to move forward to achieve some goal," she says. "While therapy works on problems in the past and offers a diagnosis, coaching works on life improvement, with an emphasis on goal setting and achievement."

Lucatorto, who also co-founded The Oasis Experience, a Westmont-based group that offers seminars and other support for divorcing women, says a good coach refers clients to a professional therapist if they feel it is needed.

"Unfortunately, there is still a social stigma associated with seeing a mental health professional," says Halpin. "To some people, seeing a coach vs. a psychologist may mean the problem is not as serious. If it's in the spectrum of a non-therapist, than it must be normal behavior."

"Many parents come to me experiencing parent burnout," says Jennifer Mangan of Wheaton, who coached the Kings. "They're overstressed by the challenges of raising children, and may be feeling pressure from their jobs. Other parents wear us down too, to the point where we stop believing in our parenting abilities. Each one of us is innately given the gift to parent well. My goal is to get parents to the point where they trust themselves again." (Mangan's name may be familiar to Chicago Parent readers. She wrote the magazine's video column from December 2002 until last January.)

She acknowledges coaching is not therapy. "When you feel you need an individual relationship, we're the place you would go right before a mental heath professional," she says.

In the midst of a lengthy divorce, Dr. Gerald Holtz, a radiologist at Central DuPage Hospital in Wheaton, was awarded temporary custody of his 8-year-old son Jerry. After years of working six, sometimes seven, days a week, Holtz found he lacked some basic parenting know-how, such as arranging play dates for his son and setting an appropriate bed time.

"Because of the divorce, some situations can become a popularity contest," he says. "It's easy to err too much on the side of buddy/friend instead of disciplinarian/parent. I don't want to fall into that trap."

Most of Holtz's coaching sessions are conducted by phone or e-mail after his son is asleep.

"I'm not sure every mom and dad out there would need a parent coach if they had a network of other parents, friends and family members," he says. "I do know from personal experience that in a divorce situation people tend to get isolated. It's very good to have someone there to make sure I'm heading in the right direction. You don't have a chance to do the 7's or the 8's over again."

Randel says he's disappointed when people are more concerned with upholding a certain image rather than seeking help from someone who may be able to provide support.

"There are lots of things I can offer but sometimes parents are not ready to accept it," he says. "Some people prefer to paint a picture as if their family is perfect. Unfortunately, we're not perfect. We don't want people to think we're having a hard time and that's a shame.

"The bottom line to raising kids is your relationship is more important than any of the issues you're fighting about."


Resources • Lindo Lucatorto (630) 887-0374

• Jennifer Mangan (630) 748-4007

• Derek Randel (847) 853-4308

Monica Ginsburg, who lives in Chicago, is a frequent contributor to Chicago Parent and the mother of two children.



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