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with Natalia van Rikxoort, MSW, ACC

Improve Communication with Your Child Using a “Coach Approach”

As parents, when we see our child struggling, we feel compelled to just jump right in and fix what we think the problem is. Forgetting your homework assignments? Use a planner! Having a hard time getting started on that project? Just buckle down and get it out of the way! Always running late? Leave earlier! Done, problem solved. Right? RIGHT?! No? Okay, let’s try nagging and pestering and reminding and cajoling and bribing and demanding and yelling. Exhausting, isn’t it? Luckily, there’s a better way.

One of the things I love most about coaching is its collaborative approach. When I’m working with someone, whether they be an adult, a child, a college student, or an entire family, it’s not about me telling them what to do and fixing the problem for them. Instead, we problem-solve together. I ask open-ended questions to help them identify their strengths and potential solutions: What makes doing this difficult for you? Is there ever a time when doing this is easier and if so, what do you think contributes to your success? Is there anything that might get in the way of your success that we need to plan for?

When you take a coach approach to communication and problem-solving, you are inviting your child to share their feedback and insights as well as take ownership in the solution which greatly increases the chance that they will be willing to follow through.

Step 1: Set the stage

Before attempting to discuss a problem with your child, make sure you set the stage for success so that they’ll be more likely to be receptive to what you have to say.

First and foremost, DO NOT attempt to have a discussion in the middle of a meltdown! It won’t go well. Approach them when they are calm and try to be as direct as possible by telling them that you’d like to sit down and have a chat.

Stick to the issue at hand and avoid bringing up past mistakes or using negative statements like “You’re really bad at remembering to turn in your homework”.

Instead, start off with a statement like, “Your teacher let me know that you have quite a few homework assignments that haven’t been turned in and I wanted to talk with you about it to see if we can come up with a solution”.

Step 2: Use open-ended questions

Open-ended questions use the words why, what, where, when, how, and who. Framing a question this way encourages open discussion, unlike closed-ended questions which can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no” answer.

Here are some examples of open-ended questions:

“How do you feel you’re doing in math class?”
“Why do you feel it’s hard to get your homework turned in on time?”
“What’s difficult about making new friends?”
“I’ve noticed you sometimes have a hard time with ______.”
“How can I help you remember to turn in your assignments on time?”

Step 3: Be a reflective listener and express empathy

Reflective listening involves taking in what the speaker is saying and reflecting it back to them, without judgment or opinion, to confirm that you understood what they said.

Try saying something like “It sounds like you’re feeling really overwhelmed at school” or “I’m hearing you say that it’s been tough to make new friends”.

You’ll want to confirm with your child that you accurately captured their thoughts and feelings; ask additional questions for clarification if you need it.

It’s also important to express empathy: “I get it”; “That must be really hard”; “I’d feel sad too.”

Additionally, take the opportunity to acknowledge your child’s strengths and what they are doing right: “I’m really proud of you for sitting down to talk with me about what’s been bothering you lately”.

If your child feels that they are being listened to, validated, and understood, they will be much more likely to be open to sharing in the future and hearing what you have to say,

Step 4: Brainstorm solutions and problem-solve

Now that you and your child have both had the opportunity to express your concerns, you’ll want to work together to brainstorm possible solutions. When you involve your child in the problem-solving process, they feel a sense of ownership rather than being made to do something.

Your child may offer up suggestions that aren’t very helpful but regardless, do your best to focus on the positive aspects of their ideas. Talk to your child about how addressing this particular problem could lead to more fun and success in the future.

Here are some questions to help with the brainstorming process…

“What gets in the way of doing ______?”
“Do you think there might be a way for you to get better at ______?”
“What are your options?”
When was the last time you felt successful at ______? Do you remember what helped you feel that way?”

Step 5: Getting your child’s buy-in

Once you’ve brainstormed and identified possible solutions, you can begin to introduce the idea of working together to help them reach their goals. You can say something like…

“What if we could work together to help you with ______?”
“I have an idea about how to work on ______?”
“Sometimes we need to practice in order to get better (give an example of something that you’re working on improving in your life).

You can also work with your child on identifying a possible incentive or reward for reaching their goal to make things more fun. Most kids will probably have a slew of ideas where rewards are concerned. And while we would like to have our children realize and appreciate the inherent value of working hard and doing well, children generally lack the maturity to see the “bigger picture”. Rewards or incentives can help make the effort and end result more relevant.

Source: Maguire/ADD Coach Academy, 2016

Image: Pixabay/3D_Maennchen

Improve Communication with Your Child Using a “Coach Approach”

Natalia van Rikxoort, MSW, ACC

Natalia van Rikxoort, MSW, ACC is a social worker, ADHD consultant, and certified life coach. Her practice, Lotus Life Coaching Services, provides coaching services for adults, youth, and families impacted by ADD/ADHD and executive function challenges.

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APA Reference
van Rikxoort, N. (2019). Improve Communication with Your Child Using a “Coach Approach”. Psych Central. Retrieved on January 21, 2020, from


Last updated: 13 Oct 2019
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