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Parenting coaches? Frazzled families pay for advice

November 10, 2018

Megan and Michael Flynn used to dread bedtime. Every night, the Edina couple spent two stressful hours putting their preschooler and toddler to bed. With help, they cut that time in half.

They did it by hiring a parent coach, who listened to them describe an average night and concluded they needed structure. Instead of caving into requests for book after book, they set a routine — and stuck to it.

“Nighttime routines are such a struggle for so many people,” said Megan Flynn, “and it was just nice to have somebody give us strategies for it.”

When it comes to bedtime, homework or managing meltdowns, a growing number of families like the Flynns aren’t relying on their peers or parents: They’re turning to parenting coaches for one-on-one instruction.

The coaches — who charge from about $125 to $350 a session — meet with parents only (in person, over the phone or via Skype) to set goals and develop a plan to reach them.

The profession, virtually nonexistent 20 years ago, is one of the latest entries in the $1.08 billion personal coaching industry in the United States. It’s part of the broader American trend of hiring expert advisers to improve nearly every facet of life. You can hire a sleep coach, a financial coach, a life coach, even a coach to help you transition to eating only raw food.

Minnesotans have taken to the concept. There are dozens of parent coaches in the state, as well as a training program at St. Paul’s Center for the Challenging Child, which has certified more than 500 parent coaches. Nationally, there are books, downloads and apps, and parent coaches dominate scores of parenting podcasts. Meghan Leahy, arguably the country’s highest-profile parent coach, has a regular column in the Washington Post, where she deals with everything from toddlers’ potty training to teens’ self-esteem issues.

Most parent coaches get some kind of certification before hanging their shingle, and many have a background in school psychology, education or mental health. But the profession isn’t regulated, which leaves some parenting experts concerned about the advice offered. Others wonder why parents would shell out hundreds of dollars for suggestions they might easily get elsewhere.

“Most of the parent coaching out there has never, ever been studied,” said Alan Kazdin, a professor of child psychiatry at Yale University. “Go to someone, talk, enjoy yourself, get advice — it might even help. But don’t substitute that for something that’s known to make a difference.”

Instead of parent coaches, Kazdin recommends scientifically proven parenting methods, such as positive reinforcement, as well as educated professionals, such as child psychologists or psychiatrists.

For their part, parent coaches say they are simply helping parents put proven methods into place.

Shoreview parenting coach Toni Schutta, who worked with the Flynns, is a licensed psychologist. But she would be the first to admit that she doesn’t use coaching to deal with deep-seated problems. Her role is to listen to parents, suggest tools to address a specific issue and keep them accountable for a set number of weeks. The reason most clients seek her out? Their kids don’t listen.

Moms and dads who have hired a parent coach say they felt comfortable asking a coach for help with day-to-day struggles, instead of a counselor, specialist, therapist — or even a member of their own family. Hiring a coach, they say, is more akin to using a resource than seeking a diagnosis. Plus, coaching is often easier to fit in around busy schedules, since it can be done over the phone.

In Minnesota, parents have more resources than most. The state is known for its sliding-scale Early Childhood Family Education program, run through the public school districts and taught by licensed parent educators. Local parenting coaches agree ECFE is a great option, but say they offer individualized, one-on-one help.

When Annette Hruby became a stepmom, she found loving the two kids who came with her marriage easy. Parenting them was a different story.

The youngest, then 5, launched into tearful tantrums at bedtime. And when Hruby, a St. Paul business developer, rearranged the kitchen, stocking the shelves with new dishes, both kids were upset and told her they wanted their old plates back.

Hruby and her husband sought help from St. Paul parenting coach Tina Feigal.

Feigal helped Hruby understand that from the kids’ perspective, even small changes felt big. She urged Hruby not to take their reaction personally and guided her and her husband, Peter, to present a united front.

“Every tip and tool she gave us, it worked,” said Hruby.“One of the things I will always remember is, ‘Never go to their sandbox.’ When the kid is having their tantrum, you just can’t go there.”

Hruby’s husband was later diagnosed with cancer and died this year. Through it all, Feigal was a resource, said Hruby, helping them figure out how to maintain family routines and talk with the kids about what was happening. She recommends that all parents hire a coach, if they’re able.

“A lot of the time, it’s nice to not have to think so hard, and just go, ‘OK. What do you recommend?’ ” she said.

When Feigal, a former school psychologist, started as a parenting coach back in 2000, she couldn’t find anyone else doing the job. Since then, she’s trained and certified hundreds of other coaches at St. Paul’s Center for the Challenging Child. She also coaches foster parents and those reunifying with kids through her work with a treatment foster care agency.

Feigal describes her role as a doula who provides support for parents long after childbirth.

“Who is there for these parents?” she asked. “Parenting is the hardest job in the world, but there’s not training for it in advance.”

Erica Pearson • 612-673-4726

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