Dial a Coach for Parenting Advice

Having trouble honing your parenting skills? Some parents in the same boat consult a parenting coach.

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on July 16, 2003
5 min read

Your child's steadfast rejection of any food except for pizza, refusal to clean his room or do homework, and fondness to throw temper tantrums in public make you want to pull your hair out or just throw your hands up in despair.

Sound familiar? Instead of giving up, many parents just aren't taking it anymore. They're logging onto their computers or picking up the phone to vent to their coaches -- their parent coaches.

We can hire coaches to help us with virtually anything including organizing our closets and teaching us how to flirt, so it makes sense that parent coaching is booming. These coaches counsel parents on everything from how to deal with a picky eater to how to encourage children to be more responsible. Fees typically range from $35 to $125 an hour. Many parent coaches even specialize according to type of parent such as working moms, single parents, and parents of children with learning disabilities.

Still, not everyone is convinced that parent coaching is such a great idea. Some experts suggest great care should be taken when seeking advice about a child's temperament or development.

Parent coaches like Seattle's Deborah Phillips, MS, generally do their business by email, instant message, phone, and occasionally in person.

A mother of two, Phillips has been a parent coach for more than four years. While she does most of her coaching over the phone, she also runs workshops around Seattle.

"Typically, parents come to me when there is a specific situation causing a problem -- a trouble-shooting request. [And] once I help them figure out how to solve that problem, we start looking at their parenting overall," she tells WebMD.

"Say it's a 3-year-old who is throwing tantrums and the parent has tried everything they can think of to no avail or a 10-year-old who is starting to be more independent and testing boundaries," she says. Basically, "anytime a parent feels stuck they come to me," she says.

For starters, she asks parents to determine what is most important in their parenting. "I want to know their bottom line/core value and teach them how to make sure that everything they do and say is consistent with that value."

Phillips' most popular service is a coach-parenting program, a five-week course that meets for one hour each week and gives parents the skills and tools to start being a better parent. In other words, she coaches parents to be their own coach. And instead of a whistle and a clipboard, she gives them problem-solving techniques that are in line with their core values. She doesn't write the plays the way a football coach would, but she teaches parents how to develop their own winning moves.

"I am not telling them what to do as parents, but I am giving them the tools that they need to figure it out for themselves," she says. Once they graduate, "parents get confidence in their ability to figure out what they are going to say and do," she says.

She coaches about 30 to 40 people a day -- and some aren't even parents yet. "A lot more people are starting to come when they are pregnant or even just planning to be a parent," she says. "Today people just want to be the best parents that they can be."

Kelly Ann Bonnell, MS, a parent coach and founder of "My Parent Coach" in Phoenix, has been coaching parents for three years; she was a professional parent educator and teacher trainer for a decade. She does much of her coaching via instant messaging on the computer and most of her clients are "generation Xers."

"They are a group of parents coming into parenthood from an era heavy in divorce, with lots of latch key children and not a lot of role models," she says.

"[Gen Xers] are wanting a new model, but not the ultra-strict model that their parents had, yet not as liberal as their parents, so that leaves them in the middle with no source of support," she tells WebMD.

"The first thing that we do is start with who they are as parents and help them discover what they will not compromise on," she says. "They pick three values that are uncompromising to them as parents."

Here's how it works in practice. Say it's a choice between Andrew, 8, cleaning his room or doing homework. "In our family mission statement, lifelong learning is uncompromisable so doing his homework is more important than cleaning his room. However, I have clients that say cleanliness and organization is the No. 1 issue," she says.

She concedes that parent coaching does have its limits and is not for every family. "I am not a counselor and, if in my intake, I find that a family needs a counselor, I will find out what community they reside in and refer them to a family counselor," she says.

"Coaching is an industry that is very new and I believe that you have to be an educated consumer," she says. "You can't just walk in because someone says they are coach and assume that they have the qualifications out there."

Some child psychologists, including Steven Richfield, PsyD, of Plymouth Meeting, Penn., are inclined to agree with that statement.

"If you pick up a phone or email a parent coach, that person has never met your child and doesn't know what your child is going through, so the advice could aggravate the problem," he says. "It is a slippery slope, both ethically and professionally."

While not all parent coaches are bad or unqualified, he says the trend can be dangerous. "It's one thing to provide generic advice and another thing to offer specific counsel on serious emotional problems," says Richfield.

It can be hard to communicate the degree of distress a child is in over the phone or through email, he says.

"As a child psychologist, I will only provide advice when I work with a child. I don't feel like it's appropriate to offer advice without meeting the child," he says.

Richfield, author of The Parent Coach: A New Approach To Parenting In Today's Society, takes a different approach when he coaches parents. He has developed a social and emotional coaching program that includes cards with different scenarios, which include one in which a child is being teased on the bus because she just got braces and one in which a child is overly frustrated by homework.

"Each one of these cards targets a typical, compelling encounter that gives a child information about what to do and not do when these things happen," he says.

So what should frustrated parents do?

"If you talk to a family member, you know more about their backgrounds so you have context to evaluate the advice, but you have no context when advice is given over the phone by a stranger with ambiguous credentials," he says.

"There are plenty of people to go to including pediatricians who run parenting groups or can make appropriate referrals to community-based professionals and services," he says.