8 Ways to Build a Great Parent-Therapist Relationship

Some relationships in life we get to choose, but others are chosen for us.  When parents discover that their child has a hearing loss and select a communication outcome for their family, they are plunged into a web of new relationships that they almost certainly would not have chosen for themselves.

   (As one parent told me, “When my daughter was diagnosed, the technician told me, “Welcome to the [Clinic Name] Family.”  Well, what if I don’t want to be part of your Family!?!”)  Some families have the luxury of interviewing different providers and shopping around the find the best fit.  Others are simply assigned to whomever is available at their local hospital, school, or clinic.  Even if families can choose their listening and spoken language specialist, they’re still often randomly assigned to workers from their state’s early intervention program.  Therapists are people, too, and each brings to the table his or her own personality, professional background, and therapy style.  How does this interface with each family’s unique situation?  Sometimes it’s a perfect match, sometimes it’s a disaster, and often… it’s somewhere in between.  How can parents and therapists work together to create a strong, mutually-beneficial relationship so that the child and family can excel?

  1. Do your homework.  At the start of the therapy process, it’s tempting to jump right in and get down to the speech, listening, and language work.  I think we delude ourselves that this is most effective.  Sometimes, by jumping the gun and going straight to the therapy, we miss out on crucial background information and relationship building that forms the foundation for later success.  Proefssionals:  Get to know the child’s world.  Who is in the family?  What does the child call them?  Are there any cultural, linguistic, or religious issues that could impact how the family views treatment?  What is the family’s background, the child’s hearing loss history?  What do the parents know about hearing loss?  What are their goals for their child?  Parents:  Get to know your therapist and his/her methods.  What is her philosophy of therapy?  How often will you meet?  What is his track record?  How does she continue to improve her skills and engage in the latest professional development?

  2. State your goals.  If we don’t know where we’re going, how on earth are we going to get there?  Professionals: Let families know the philosophy and guiding principles of your therapy approach.  Share the results of assessments in a clear, straightforward manner and include the parents in developing long-term objectives.  State the goals of each activity before you begin and help the parents to see the child’s progress at the end of each session.  Parents:  What do you want for your child?  Let your therapist know what goals would be most meaningful to you, which goals are giving your child the most difficulty, and which goals he has already achieved.

  3. Cultivate an environment of openness and honesty.  In a strong parent-professional relationship, there is no room for beating around the bush, deception, or side-stepping difficult issues.  Professionals:  Give truthful, clear information.  Make your policies and expectations known and enforce them fairly.  Don’t be afraid to have the “hard talks” with families whose children are struggling or parents who are not committing fully to an auditory-verbal program.  Parents:  Be upfront with your therapist.  If you didn’t work as hard on the goals this week as you should have — say so!  (We’ll be able to tell anyway, no sense in bluffing).  If you don’t understand something — speak up! (We try our best to be clear, but we’re not mind-readers).  If you’re struggling with keeping the CI processors on, doubting your ability to really get there with a listening and spoken language approach, or dealing with really strong emotions about your child’s hearing loss — tell us!  We’re here to help!

  4. Communicate.  It seems silly to say, as listening and spoken language is all about communication, but parents and professionals have to focus on their own communication, too, not just that of the children.  Professionals:  Speak in parent-friendly language and give parents lots of information on their child’s progress, therapy techniques, hearing loss terms, educational rights, etc.  Make the goals clear and apparent in ways that parents can understand, regardless of their education level.  Parents:  Keep therapists up to date on your child’s progress.  Figure out a way to record your child’s weekly activities, either on your phone, in a notebook, or by sending a mid-week email to your therapist.  We love to hear your updates!

  5. Show you value each other by showing respect.  A strong relationship is built on a foundation of politeness.  Professionals:  Show respect for parents’ experience, opinions, and preferences.  Remember that they are always their child’s first and best teacher.  Respect the family’s time by beginning and ending appointments as scheduled.  Make your clinic a welcoming place for all different types of families and family cultures.  Parents:  Show up on time for appointments, or let your therapist know when you are reining late or need to cancel.  Keep up with other related appointments (ENT, audiology, etc.) and your child’s educational program.  Have confidence in your therapist’s knowledge and experience (though don’t be afraid to ask questions!)  Respect the appointment by being fully present and participatory during therapy — put away that cell phone!

  6. Loosen up!  Being a working professional can be stressful.  Raising children can be stressful.  Hearing loss can be stressful.  We need some fun!  Remember that everyone has good days and bad days, days when we feel on top of the world and days when we’re a little under the weather.  Sometimes children cooperate, and other times they’re bouncing off the walls.  It’s all okay!  Professionals:  Parents and children do not come to you to be lectured, harangued, or flashcarded to death.  Have a sense of playfulness in your therapy — it will make your work more fun, too.  Realize that children don’t run on your schedule, and even the best behaved children sometimes have a meltdown.  Parents:  Don’t be afraid to relax and enjoy the therapy process.  Yes, it’s vitally important to your child’s future in the big picture, but in the day-to-day picture, it’s important to laugh, play, and be a little silly.  Realize that therapists are people, too, with a life and worries and tasks outside of the therapy room.  We’re not always 100% on the ball perfect each week.

  7. Celebrate successes.  Parents and therapists travel many miles with each other.  Week in and week out, we work together as a team to bring a child from a world of silence to a world of sound.  Take time — even just a minute at the end of each session — to reflect on how the child has grown and changed.  Maybe it’s not even speech and language-related, maybe it’s just celebrating those first steps, or a first lost tooth, or a kindergarten graduation.  We’re a great team, let’s celebrate that together!

  8. Say thank you.  We all want to know that our good work is noticed.  Professionals work long hours and have caseloads full of children, but work hard to make each child, each family, feel special.  From the day you walk through our doors, our goal is to one day send you on your way happy, successful, and ready to take on the work without our help.  We know that some of you may forget us after that, but we love to know that we’ve made a difference in the life of your family.  While many families remember their therapist with a treat during the holiday season, how many remember to say thank you each month or each week?  It doesn’t have to be a grand gesture.  Even a small comment, note, or sentence-long email saying “My child can do X now because of you!” or “We couldn’t have made it to this point without your help” or even “My child really loved that activity last week, thanks for making him smile!” means the world to a therapist.  And parents deserve a thank you, too — for their hard work, for keeping appointments faithfully, for what they have taught the therapist.  No one ever got in trouble for saying “thank you” too much.  Have you thanked your the parents on your caseload today?  Have you thanked your therapist?

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