It seems like the field of psychiatry has been all over the map when it comes to viewing the importance of parenting with regard to child behavioral problems and disorders. For decades, we heard that parents, particularly mothers, were to blame for everything from childhood autism to excessive temper tantrums.1 Then, parenting somehow got somewhat pushed aside as the genetic and biological underpinnings of behavior became increasingly appreciated. For a while, parenting was nearly relegated to epiphenomenon status – that is, an almost irrelevant reaction to genetically driven child behavior.
More recently, it appears that some semblance of balance has been restored with parenting behavior being appreciated as critically important in the development of a child, but in the context of many other mutually interacting factors.2 There also is a far greater understanding that child behavior and parent behavior is very much a two-way street.
These more nuanced and neuroscience-backed perspectives, however, don’t make bringing up the subject of parenting any easier. In part because of how seriously most mothers, fathers, and other caretakers take their job as a parent, it can be easy to put parents on the defensive, especially when one of their children is struggling behaviorally. At the same time, taking the easy way out by giving boilerplate advice, or even avoiding the topic of parenting completely, is a huge missed opportunity to engage families who often are desperately seeking some guidance.
Emily is a healthy 6-year-old girl who comes in with her single mother and her two younger siblings for an annual exam. Her mother proudly reports that she is doing great at school, but seems reluctant to say much about her home life. The mother seems somewhat frazzled, and the interview is difficult because the three siblings are arguing with each other. After Emily and her sister fight over reading the same book, the mother suddenly and quite loudly says, “Can you just let me talk for 1 second!”
Pediatricians often have strong suspicions that parents are struggling with a child’s behavior but can have trouble knowing how exactly to bring up the subject of parenting. Some specific suggestions for having productive discussions on parenting include the following:
• Think about the statements embedded in your questions. A screening question about parenting such as, “Can you tell me about the areas of parenting that you are most proud of and the areas where you feel you need the most help?” helps a parent understand that you assume that no parent is perfect and that everyone has areas of strength and weakness.
• Compliment when you can. Related to the above, find those areas of positive parenting, even if it involves effort more than results, and communicate that you have noticed them. This can make talking about the weaknesses a little easier to hear for the parent.
• Frame the issue in terms of surpluses rather than deficits. Instead of coming from the perspective that a parent is deficient in their basic parenting skills, reframe the challenge as someone needing “superparent” skills to manage multiple or more challenging children. The often-heard statements that “kids don’t come with instruction books” or “you need to earn a license to drive a car but not raise a child” are almost cliché these days, but still convey to parents that you understand how difficult parenting can be. In some cases, it may be appropriate to disclose some parenting challenges you have experienced firsthand.
• Get details. Before launching into specific recommendations, ask yourself if you are able to really see the issue a parent is describing. Rather than reviewing a laundry list of sleep hygiene recommendations, for example, it can be very worthwhile to ask, “How exactly does bedtime work at your home?” Getting all the details can not only build empathy, but allow you to really see specific areas for improvement. If you can’t paint a picture of how a scene might really look at this patient’s home, there likely is more to learn.
Of course, one of the key challenges here is time. Really giving these parenting concerns the time they deserve usually means going beyond the precious few minutes pediatricians have for a well visit. In these instances, it may be worth scheduling a future appointment that is exclusively devoted to this issue. Alternatively, a referral can be made to a therapist, counselor, or parent “coach” to give a family greater opportunity to work 1:1 with a professional. When you do this, be clear that you are looking for a therapist to work with the whole family, ideally using many of the evidence-based techniques that have been shown to be effective. A list of manual-based treatments as well as some books that parents could read on their own to address oppositional-defiant behavior is available, including a guide for families from the American Academy from Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.3