Kathy Boyd was rapt. In fact, the entire audience was engrossed, absorbed by therapist Susan Stiffelman’s speech. Stiffelman spoke about parents, about problems they face and about effective ways to handle those problems.
“I was just really taken by how she well could communicate,” Boyd says. “She was a very real person, very down to earth, and she could appeal to the audience and invite questions and answer them in a way that made so much sense. She provided fundamental basics on how to deal with the very real problems that we face.”
It’s been about year since Boyd, a therapist herself, employed at Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, attended Stiffelman’s presentation. Back then Boyd knew instantly that Stiffelman was someone other members in the community should hear. So Boyd asked her to come back. And come back she will.
Stiffelman, AOL’s parenting expert and author of “Parenting Without Power Struggles,” is scheduled to speak at 7 p.m. April 4 in the Eudora Middle School auditorium. Afterward Stiffelman will sign her book, which will be available at the event.
Stiffelman, who now lives in Malibu, Calif., has roots in Kansas. Having grown up in Kansas City, she is excited about her upcoming visit to the wheat state.
Stiffelman’s presentation is named after her book, “Parenting Without Power Struggles,” and a lot of the content will be the same.
“The book addresses how parents can avoid losing their cool,” she says.
Stiffelman stresses the importance of communication. Each word said to a child has weight, she says, and it’s important to never let a child catch whiff of desperation.
She advises parents to scrap needy language. Never say “I need you to brush your teeth” or “I need you to do your homework.” Phrases like that broadcast the fact that parents don’t have control of the situation, announcing to children that parents need help. Instead parents should say things like, “It’s time to brush your teeth” and “It’s time to do your homework,” ensconcing daily chores with a sense of ritual and predictability, so children know what is expected.
Another technique Stiffelman advocates is something she calls “Act One.” The strategy involves having a child say yes three times before offering him advice. For instance, a child refuses to do his homework, claiming the assignment is too hard. A parent’s natural urge might be to say something like, “You’re going to do it. It’s not optional.” Language like this automatically pushes children away, says Stiffelman, because their logical left brain is essentially flipped off when stressed. Instead of pushing children away, Stiffelman’s approach has parents come alongside them by asking questions that affirm a child’s thoughts. Questions like, “It sounds like the assignment is really tough tonight?” and “I get the feeling you really don’t want to do this?”
“What I do in act one is get the child to say yes at least three times,” Stiffelman says. “This softens them so they are then open to thoughts and suggestions. You have to soften a child so they are open to your help.”
Some common problems parents face, which Stiffelman will broach in her presentation, are simple and consistent: getting children to do homework, to brush teeth, to go to bed on time. And another complication that crops up in today’s modern age, she says, is how to influence children to turn off electronic toys — TV, Internet and video games — in order to participate in other healthy activities — homework, exercise, family time.
“There is a way to get them to do it without bribing them,” Stiffelman says. “Parenting is a hierarchal relationship. The parent is in charge; they’re on top. As a parent, you don't want to engage in negotiation with children.”
Amber Cook, a mother from Eudora with three daughters under 9, will attend Stiffelman’s session.
“I felt this was a would be a good resource for my family, especially for my older daughter,” Cook says. “She’s more of a challenge, and we want to find more effective ways to handle the backtalk and sass, which is pretty typical of that age.”
Cook is looking for approaches that yank the source of the problem out at the roots. She doesn’t want to punish her daughters into states of obedience; she wants them to act with grace and respect for others naturally. She hopes that Stiffelman’s presentation will help her achieve this goal.
A lot of Stiffelman’s philosophy is modeled on the notion that parents are the captains of the ship of their children's lives.
“If you see the captain leaping over the side of the ship, you’re going to get worried,” she says.
And plunging from the ship could be as fortuitous as saying the wrong thing. Gushing out something like “you’re driving me crazy,” even when true, can create a chaotic situation, making a conflict more melodramatic than it needs to be.
And according to Boyd, parents aren’t the only ones who could benefit from Stiffelman’s approach.
“These are skills that could serve you well with relationships in general,” Boyd says.