Childhood, especially during the fraught tween and teen years, is a time of dramatic change and growth when kids juggle conflicting messages and feelings while trying to connect to one another — and themselves — emotionally, creatively and socially.
While today’s kids are more scheduled and pressured than ever, they are also coming of age in a world where setting aside time to teach and foster healthy human connections, creativity and self-knowledge is low on the priority list at many schools. School counselors often work part-time or way too many hours, so their talents are spread thinner than they would like or their students deserve. Similarly, my children’s teachers work their hearts out and are responsive and caring, but they also have academic standards to meet and sometimes more than 35 kids in a class.
Given these constraints, particularly when combined with shorter recess times in the name of academic rigor, it’s beginning to seem like our children’s social skills and emotional lives may now be categorized as “extracurricular.”
Enter life coaching for kids.
“Coaching on how to be a kid?” you might ask. “Really?”
Really. As a parent in a blended family of three very different boys, ages 10, 13 and 25, my first thought when I heard about this trend was, Wow. That would have been hugely helpful for our family 10 years ago. My second thought was, Wow — that could be really helpful right now.
Life coaching for kids doesn’t come cheap: Services range from $60 to $180 an hour or more, and though some practitioners use a sliding scale, they typically aren’t covered by insurance.
So what does coaching look like, and why would you choose to invest in a coach for your teen or even a younger child?
The answer varies as much as the coaches themselves. At Wally’s Club in Seattle, for example, children in preschool through eighth grade practice how to initiate and maintain friendships through playgroups and experiential activities while counselors and teachers coach them. Founder Terri Hollinsworth reports that “coaching in” to children in playgroups, practicing strategies in groups and working one on one when social issues arise all help kids build applicable skills in the moment. If the waiting list at Wally’s Club is any indication, parents agree.
While approaches and coaching styles vary, many coaches cite unifying or common ideals that ground their practices. The themes I heard most often were the importance of self-knowledge and having a plan. Coaching may center on helping kids through a particularly rough emotional patch, fostering their social skills or encouraging them to focus on identifying passions and goals.
Taking action, moving forward
Etymologically, the word coach can be traced to the Hungarian word for carriage. This makes sense to me, given the transformative and active language many coaches use to describe their practice.
As a parent educator and consultant, I see in my adult clients the desire to move forward: to practice a skill today and try it tomorrow, to find more information and come up with a plan. Speaking with teen coaches around the country, I learned that teens respond to calls for action as well, most likely because their worlds are anchored in immediacy — they want to feel better connected now.
Kerry Loy works at Centerstone in Nashville, Tenn., the nation’s largest nonprofit provider of community-based behavioral health care. “In coaching, we approach all people knowing that we are whole, resourceful and creative,” rather than employing a diagnostic model in which the problem is the focus, she says. Loy is a licensed social worker who now uses the coaching title and model. She says that the progress she makes with her teen clients — or, rather, that they make with themselves — happens because “they see, right from the minute they walk in the door, that the agenda is theirs, not mine. We work on what is working right now, what is not working right now, and [we] create strategies for moving forward.”
“When a teen has buy-in, the results can be just as powerful as they are when I work with adults. But teens need to know their true story and learn how to bring that passion forward,” Cameron Powell, founder of Web-based Feroce Coaching, says.
Sheri Gazitt, a child and teen coach at Teen Wise in Redmond, Wash., believes that coaching teens helps fill a widening gap she first noticed while working in schools and at GoGirlGo!, an award-winning physical education program for girls.
“Many of the girls who come to my workshops need to experience what it can feel like to be in a healthy friendship or practice making good choices as teens,” Gazitt says. “I see the lights go on most when they are working together, practicing the skills.”
Gazitt, who holds a master’s degree in counseling, uses coaching as her main model. Her workshops for teen girls address planning skills, decision making related to drugs and sex, and the high levels of pressure that teens experience. By role-playing real-life scenarios, Gazitt gives her teen clients the chance to plan ahead for some of the most important decisions they’ll face.
Not all children are born understanding how to approach a group of other kids or handle sharing with a friend during a game. Some need to practice. Why wouldn’t we give our children the chance to learn these connecting skills if we know it will support their resilience and sense of self-worth? To protect and support our kids, we willingly spend money on tools related to academic success and athletic coaching. I would argue that understanding how to navigate the social and practical challenges of everyday life is equally important.
On the other hand, getting professional help to manage the rapidly changing and often physically disconnected world of childhood or adolescence may feel like a cop-out to some parents. “Should we really be outsourcing this work with our children?” one curious mother asked.
“Of course, good parenting is central and key to a child feeling connected and safe. Coaching is not meant to be an alternative to parenting,” Loy says. “However, teens are developmentally wired to pull away from their parents. And it is healthy for them to do so. Where, then, can they go to learn strategies that work for them if they are not talking to their parents, and the school counselor is not someone with whom they feel a connection?”
As they become teenagers, our kids may find themselves with work, relationships and activities to juggle without a real understanding of how to self-regulate, plan or problem-solve. Coaching provides an opportunity to rebuild this resilience — or grow it from scratch if needed.
“Coaching is a great model because it works, but also because of the images the word evokes for the child: Someone is rooting for you, guiding you and cheering you on,” Gazitt says.
And who among us couldn’t benefit from a little of that?
Alison Bower is a certified parent educator and consultant living in Seattle. She operates from the guiding belief that when parents have proper support, their children and relationships are better able to thrive. She teaches parenting classes for schools and businesses and works privately with clients. You can learn more at her website, ParentsInMind.com, or follow her on Facebook.