Helping Parents Who Haven’t Asked

Helping Parents Who Haven’t Asked

“If you want to be part of this family, then you’d better…”

Imagine you saw your neighbor using harsh criticism, public scoldings and coercive statements like that with her 9 YO adopted daughter to “make her behave.” If you knew a better way to work with children and even had a book that could tell her not only how to create willing cooperation but how to do it in a way that would improve her relationship with her child, what would you do?

You would be right to think, “I can’t just go up and hand her the book,” especially if what you really wanted to say was, “Stop! You’re doing it wrong!”

But there is a way to offer help to someone who hasn’t asked that feels like help, not criticism.

It starts with what they want.

Discovering what a person wants is not that hard if you remember to look for the motivation behind the behavior. What they are trying to accomplish guides you straight to their highest intentions.

A person’s highest intentions are hidden STRENGTHs.

Pointing out STRENGTHs reduces resistance and defensiveness because it meets the person’s need for power, puts them in touch with their best self, and builds trust and connection with you all at the same time. Even when you do not condone the behavior you are seeing, it puts you on their side because at the level of highest intentions, you will actually agree.

Not sure about that? Consider how many of these intentions you agree with: I want my child to be understood, loved, accepted, respected, successful, safe, connected, powerful, capable, trusted, responsible… The list is endless. Those are your highest intentions for your child and the motivation behind everything you do concerning them, even the things you do that you don’t like.

At the level of highest intentions, this parent will be no different. And when you look for it in what the mom said, “If you want to be part of this family, then you’d better…”, you will find that she already gave you a clue to what matters most to her—being part of the family, or in the greater sense, belonging.

Understanding that her highest intention is to make sure her adopted daughter fits in and belongs can help you see why her child’s behavior is so important to her. You know it’s important because what you are seeing is a parent who is willing to do whatever it takes, even things she doesn’t really like such as criticize, scold and coerce, to make sure the child changes her behavior so she can succeed at belonging!1

Doing things you don’t like in order to make sure a child succeeds is actually pretty common in parenting, especially when you believe the child is challenging or rebellious by nature.

When that’s the case, many people turn to “tough love” believing it’s something they HAVE TO do in order to “straighten the child out” so the child has a chance to succeed in the family and in life, even if they and the child hate it and it costs them their relationship! For someone to give up a parent-child relationship for the sake of “belonging” might sound crazy, but in a backhanded way it demonstrates a strong commitment to making a difference for the child, which again is common ground for opening a conversation with a parent who feels backed into the “tough love” corner.

So the steps for helping an adult who hasn’t asked are the same as our three-step coaching approach for working with children. You just start with an extra STRENGTH:

+  STRENGTH — Acknowledge the parent’s highest intention

1. SAY WHAT YOU SEE (SWYS) — State the parent’s challenge, as they might see it

2. CAN DO — Clarify what the parent wants and how you can help

3. STRENGTH — Point out additional strengths that will help the parent succeed

Opening a conversation with the mom at a time when she is calm could sound like this:

STRENGTH: “I just want to tell you I noticed how much you care about your daughter. You are always right there trying to help her do her best. I can tell that it’s really important to you that she feels like part of the family and the community, and that she really knows the feeling of belonging.”


SWYS: “Yesterday after school, that looked like a really hard moment for you and her.”


Mom: “You saw that? Well, that wasn’t one of our best moments. She just wouldn’t behave, and I didn’t know what else to do!”


CAN DO: “Sounds like you’d welcome something else if it worked. I know something that might. Could I tell you about it? (If the mom says yes, continue.) It’s a great little book that tells you what to do to help kids behave and feel like they belong in a way that feels right to you. If you are interested, I could lend you my copy or, if you prefer, send you a link* to it.”


Mom: “OK, Sure. Do you think it will really help? I don’t have much time to read, but if it will help, I’ll do it. Behaving and belonging are really important to me, especially since she’s adopted.”


STRENGTH: “Of course. And there it is again—your strong commitment to her belonging. That’s why you will always do whatever it takes to help her feel loved, accepted and at home. Seems like that’s just who you are.”


*If you want to recommend my SAY WHAT YOU SEE® Handbook to the person you are helping, you can tell them they can buy it or read it free online right here on my website.

In addition to opening the kind of conversation that could actually make a difference for a struggling mom and child like this, following these steps will model what you hope she will do with her child and could help the mom feel understood like she belongs, too.

If you encounter a case that is even harder than this one, please let me know. I’d be happy to explore it with you in the comments below.


1. Coaching Note: “Good” behavior does not actually create belonging, but that would be a point of personal growth for the mom and probably why she is having a repeat struggle over it with the child.



  1. Sandra Busta |

    Sandy, Thank you once again for all of your great ideas and insights! I am a trainer and coach for teachers of children birth to 5, and your blogs are invaluable to me for ideas to work with and share with staff!

    If you would share, I am curious what and where you received formal education? Or is your knowledge from informal sources?

    Thank you!

  2. Sandra, I appreciate you letting me know my ideas and insights are helpful to you. Your comments and emails always give me a boost.

    The answer to your question is “informal and experiential.” My formal education is in a seemingly unrelated field. I have a master’s degree in art conservation & painting restoration and was a collection preservation consultant for museums for many years.

    However, as I explain in my bio in my SAY WHAT YOU SEE® book, I feel like the formal training I received in objective scientific observation and problem-solving translated directly into non-judgmental observation of children and parent-child interactions. Once Dr. Garry Landreth taught me the principles and practices of Play Therapy in the early 1990’s, my path was set.

    I call Dr. Landreth my mentor having spent over ten years in close contact with him, reading all of his books, attending his public lectures, helping him with some of his video projects (my husband is a videographer), and ultimately co-authoring Child Parent Relationship Therapy (CPRT) Treatment Manual with him and two other Play Therapists.

    I wanted to get his work into the hands of parents like myself in the form of parent education for prevention purposes, and of course he was focused on therapy. When I asked if I could take it into the parenting world, he gave me his blessing.

    That’s when I began to simplify what I had learned, expanded it to include strengths, and developed it into the transformational coaching model I teach today–three steps integrated around non-judgmental guidance, supported by four premises.

    The more I look for proof of the greatness in children and adults in everything we do, the more I find it. That’s the transformational nature of my work and the source of the insights I share. Over the years although I’ve been ahead of the curve in parenting, I have received constant affirmations that my approach is on track from credentialed trainers like yourself and researchers in related fields like Positive Psychology and Brain Science. It’s also why I say anyone can do what I do and see what I see when they step into this perspective, and am now training Language of Listening® coaches to do just that.

    So thank you for your continued comments and for sharing my work. Support from professionals like you means a lot to me.–Sandy

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