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The Parent Seems Uncomfortable…What Do You Do?

Maybe you’ve felt this before…you are on a visit and it’s the parent’s turn to practice using an intervention strategy. Perhaps you just modeled it, or you and the parent came up with an idea and want to give it a try. When you ask the parent if she’d like to try it, she averts her gaze and answers “I guess so,” with an uncomfortable look on her face. Perhaps when the parent tries to engage her child, you sense her discomfort then too. In turn, you feel uncomfortable and wonder…what do I do?

Early intervention is all about building a parent’s capacity to facilitate her child’s development. In the best case scenario, the parent is eager to learn, confident with engaging her child, and interested in trying new things. In the worst case scenario, the parent doesn’t even want you in the home. In reality, most parents are somewhere in between, on a looooong continuum of parent-child engagement, comfort level, interest and readiness.

5 Strategies for Responding to Discomfort

As an early interventionist, you work hard to build rapport and trust and get to know the family in a way that lays the foundation for how you’ll work together. Again, that’s easier sometimes than others. A key aspect of getting to know families really involves being responsive – responsive to their needs, interests, priorities, and feelings. Responsivity is a critical skill to use in the situation described above.

Here are 5 responsive strategies to help you manage discomfort:

Acknowledge what you sense – Ask the parent how she feels as soon as you sense discomfort. Be specific: “I’m wondering if you’re feeling a little uncomfortable?” or “How do you feel about using that strategy?” You could be wrong about what you sense, but you won’t know until you ask. Let her know that how she feels is okay and that she can decide whether or not to proceed – give her the choice.

Ask her how that felt – After trying the strategy, check in again. Be specific: “How comfortable are you with that strategy? How did that feel? What did you think about that?” Be responsive to her answer and make it safe for her to be honest. Don’t insist on using a strategy just because you think it’s a good one. If a parent feels uncomfortable, she’s less likely to use that strategy when you aren’t there.

Ask if she would like to do something differently – Invite the parent’s input and problem-solve together. Maybe she has an idea of how to tweak the strategy or situation to make it easier or more comfortable. Flexibility is a hallmark of good early intervention.

Try to build on what she and her child already do – Before even introducing a new strategy, find out what they already do or have already tried. Observe the parent and child first doing what they naturally do. Model the strategy first, if that helps the parent. Brainstorm how the strategy might be used during the activity, then coach the parent in how to use it during a familiar interaction. Seize the opportunities as they happen and be sure to provide feedback when the parent uses the strategy successfully. Remember your role as a facilitator of the parent’s learning too.

Step back, reassess, and consider options – Sometimes you and the parent have to try a strategy to figure out it’s not the right one. Use the conversation to help you reassess whether or not the strategy is appropriate for the child, parent, and situation. If it is and the parent is okay, then proceed. If not, step back and reassess. There is always another route to the outcome so be open to it.

How Much Discomfort is Okay?

Now, this raises the question of how much discomfort is acceptable? To me, the answer lies in your conversations with families. EI can push parents out of their comfort zone as they learn to use new strategies with their children. It can be uncomfortable to try something new with an unpredictable toddler in front of someone who is perceived as having expertise. The trick here is to have the courage to acknowledge the discomfort and talk about it so you and the parent can figure out what to do next. Options might include tweaking the strategy, modeling it again for the parent, trying it again a few times, letting the parent try it between visits on her own, or simply ditching the strategy all together…and all of these options are okay. Being responsive to what the parent is feeling will help you know what to do next.

What do you do when a parent seems uncomfortable? 

Share your experiences and strategies in the comments below!

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2 Comments to “The Parent Seems Uncomfortable…What Do You Do?”

  1. Dana,

    The topic is a critical one for discussion. We are relationship based in our approach however the relationship starts out unequal due to perceptions and assumptions. Interventionists do have specialized knowledge and can be perceived as the expert. An analogy that might be similar is with the medical community. In the past your physician was the one who was in charge of your health care. Now it is recognized that you the patient is an active partner in your own health care. My visits with my doctor are now more discussion and requests for my input and thoughts. He is far more interested in my concerns or worries about treatment procedures and works with in that.

    I think this is like the interventionists visit. Being able to sense discomfort with a parent and willing to ask about it is a respectful relationship. These interactions will build upon each other to further our ability to truly support families.

    • Great analogy, Allan! Our relationship with the parent and how we try to equalize it really does matter. Imagine if your physician asked you to demonstrate something that felt very personal and medical (aka unfamiliar) right there on the spot. We’d probably feel pretty uncomfortable too – but if we have a good relationship that’s built on respect and trust, then we’d know it is a safe space and we’d hopefully be more comfortable sharing. Thanks for your input here. Please let me know if your staff have any other insights as you dig into this topic for further discussion!

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